The Laying Down of Digital Designer Masks – An Essay by Joyce Chung

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“Just let it break.” It was the layer of frost separating the veneer that I had subsumed and what I was feeling inside—the dreams and fears and secrets that I was harboring in my heart. She wanted it to break, crack and crumble, allowing the things within me to be out in the open.

“I want to know what is at the core of you.” I let it break.

This moment of intimacy between two friends had me weeping by the end. That type of face-to-face authenticity and vulnerability had become a foreign encounter to me. I couldn’t hide behind an Instagram filter, an emoji-filled text or a politically correct hashtag.

It got me thinking: why was I so afraid to show my authentic self, to reveal my struggles and victories, joys and pains without reserve? Why was I so afraid? Especially at a time when the individual is supposedly celebrated, in a society where the selfie—you at the center of attention—is a  commonality, where #iwokeuplikethis and the associated picture of what you looked like when you woke up are tweeted, instagrammed, regrammed and retweeted to excess.

In some ways, the very channels that have connected individuals virtually have driven us apart emotionally. Technology and social media have constructed a generation wrapped up in and obsessed with surface, illusory connection.

Andrew Reiner, a professor at Towson, conducted two social experiments with his students to drive this point home. In the first, Reiner had his students send a candid text to a friend that had done or said something that upset them, stating their true feelings. He wanted them to “[step] into the muck and mire of emotional candor and sincerity.” His students displayed visible anxiety and struggled with this simple experiment. One student revealed, “Showing that I have a different opinion than her made me worry that she would dislike me.”

Reiner posits that this fear of having a “different opinion” comes into tension with “social perfection,” and the pursuit of this “social perfection” is propelled by the need to garner as much approval in real life as is received online. While being liked and accepted are not new human needs, the ways to measure our “likability” and quantify social acceptance are more visible now due to technology. Facebook, Instagram, etc. have further perpetuated and strengthened the culture of conforming to what is perceived to be perfection. In both mediums, you can curate a flawless “lookbook” of your life, selecting and snipping out the highlights of your life reel. Take that one beautiful moment of your day and apply an Amaro filter, increase the Brightness, dial back the level of Shadows and enhance with a layer of Warmth. That one beautiful sliver of your day just became golden, magic-perfection. And received 100 likes on Instagram.

Such careful curation of self-exhibition removes vulnerability, spontaneity and reality because the deeper part of the self is usually not shown. The constant exchange of pictures, texts, tweets, etc. may give the appearance of connection and intimacy in friendship. Yet what’s created through this high volume of communication is oftentimes just an expression of intimacy, a “presence-in-absence,” not genuine intimacy itself. Stephen Marche, in “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?” echoes this sentiment. He argues that our all-pervading new technologies “lure us toward increasingly superficial connections at exactly the same moment that they make avoiding the mess of human interaction easy.”

The second experiment conducted by Reiner seeped even deeper. The premise was this: eat in a crowded university dining room without the company of school work, laptops, smartphones or friends. Upon completing her meal, one student gathered her things and “bolted out the door” and was glad that she could “feel like [she belonged] somewhere again.” What she hated the most about this experiment was “being alone” and feeling “judged for it.” Another student reflected on how self-conscious she felt through the entire meal. She shared, “If I don’t feel connected with others, I automatically feel alone, unpopular, less confident.”

I took this experiment to the streets of New York City. Specifically to a bar in the LES. I sipped on a cocktail, put my phone away and sat there, disconnected from my personal world but attuned to the reality around me. Twentysomethings, artsy people, PR girls, some bankers… A lot of people on their phones—texting, browsing, seemingly “connected.” I felt similar emotions as felt by Reiner’s students. Self-consciousness. Loneliness. Countercultural, uncool. Rays of pity from a few people (who was this #lonelygirlwithnophone?). Yet overall, most people didn’t notice my alone-status and weren’t judging me. My detachment from technology made me more open to engaging in conversations with the very people around me, and some honest friendships were forged that night.

This isn’t to say that all commentators view technology as harmful to forming genuine friendships. Kyle Chayka defends online intimacy in his piece, “Let’s Really Be Friends.” He argues that relationships that “travel from the Internet to the nondigital world, or navigate a space somewhere in between” are no “more or less authentic in either space.” Intimacy, he states, develops in both digital and physical spheres, and the value of virtual friendships is equal to their “In Real Life” analogues. It is true that the virtual world opens up the scope of possibilities for connection and extends the continuum of relationships. But the depth of that connection, and where the relationship falls on the continuum are important.  Jenna Wortham, a New York Times Magazine writer, comments, “I have lots of online-, Gchat-only friendships and I love them. I’m very comfortable with the fact that I don’t know [these people] in real life and I don’t have any plans to.” Wortham’s broad network of “friends” mirrors that of Yvette Vickers, a former Playboy playmate and B-movie star. Prior to her death, she looked for companionship not in her circle of family and friends, but amongst distant fans through fan conventions and Internet sites. Her “web of connections had grown broader but shallower.” Vickers’s death was tragic, particularly because it was almost a year before a real person discovered her dead. It seems that for all of her online connections, she did not have roots-running-deep friendships.

Sherry Turkle, a professor at MIT, writes in Alone Together, “…we look to technology for ways to be in relationships and protect ourselves from them at the same time…the ties we form through the Internet are not, in the end, the ties that bind.” Instead, they are the ties that preoccupy, allowing us to “constantly intrude on each other, but not in ‘real time.’” The continuing draw of–the actual allure of–social media is that it allows us to be in touch with each other while shielding us from the sometimes awkward moments of social connection: the gravity of unintentional pauses between words in conversation, the accidental drunken confessions, the blubbering, stuttering and ugly crying faces, the complexities of confrontation, the personal nuances and annoyances…We get to stalk one another and intrude on each other from a distance and carefully sidestep any messiness in interaction. Yet, from my personal experience, it is exactly these embarrassing and uncomfortable realities that further deepen the human bond, giving it weight, anchor and permanency.

Turkle phrases it beautifully, almost poetically, in “The Flight from Conversation.” “We are tempted to think that our little ‘sips’ of online connection add up to a big gulp of real conversation…Connecting in sips may work for gathering discrete bits of information or for saying, ‘I am thinking about you.’ Or even for saying, ‘I love you.’ But connecting in sips doesn’t work as well when it comes to understanding and knowing one another…”

The purpose is not to vilify technology and social media. They are in fact effective tools for making and maintaining connections with strangers, lovers and friends. I have long-distance friends and family, and social media is an effectual and efficient way to share life’s contents and strengthen those bonds. The problem occurs when we allow these technologies to lead to more isolation than integration, when we become consumed with taking the “right” pictures of the moments that we have and obsessing over which we should catapult into cyberspace than being present in the moments themselves, when we use them as platforms to display embellished acts of self-presentation rather than as looking glasses and portals that provide insights into the inner you.

It seems that, even though we are becoming more and more connected and accessible virtually, there is less and less actual conversation and community. I fear that we know increasingly more about the facades of us than what is beyond the glossy exterior. To deeply connect, to experience true intimacy in friendship, to know someone and for him or her to really know you–all of your quirks, strengths, weaknesses and inner turmoil—requires, in the words of Margie Warrell, the “laying down of digital designer masks.” This may mean dialing back the number of filters that you apply to an Instagram photo or winding down the number and speed of online connections. It may simply mean turning off your devices and being intentionally present to the people around you, welcoming the possibility of discomfort or not clicking with one another.

However it manifests itself, let it. The result will be a rich bond, the formation and deepening of a flawed but honest relationship that is fully encapsulated by the human element, not removed from it.

Just lay it down and let it break.

 

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Chayka, Kyle. “Let’s Really Be Friends.” New Republic. 2 Mar. 2015. Web. 10 Mar. 2015.   <http://www.newrepublic.com/article/121183/your-internet-friends-are-real-defense-online-intimacy>.

Marche, Stephen. “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 2 Apr. 2012. Web.  22 Feb. 2015. <http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/05/is-facebook-making-us-lonely/308930/>.

Reiner, Andrew. “Looking for Intimacy in the Age of Facebook.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 2 Nov. 2013. Web. 10 Feb. 2015. <http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/03/education/edlife/looking-for-intimacy-in-the-age-of-facebook.html>.

Turkle, Sherry. “The Flight From Conversation.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 21 Apr. 2012. Web. 20 Mar. 2015. <http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/22/opinion/sunday/the-flight-from-conversation.html>.

Turkle, Sherry. Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. New York: Basic Books, 2012. Print.

Warrell, Margie. “Seduced by Social Media: Is Facebook Making You Lonely?” The Huffington Post. 8 Nov. 2013. Web. 1 Mar. 2015. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/margiewarrell/social-media-lonely_b_4034744.html>.

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