A Filtered Life: Selfies and the Self

Tuesday, March 29, 2016 - 3:30pm

“Set fire to your old self. It’s not needed here. It’s too busy shopping, gossiping about others, and watching days go by and asking why you haven’t gotten as far as you’d like. This old self will die and be forgotten by all but family, and replaced by someone who makes a difference.

Your new self is not like that. Your new self is the Great Chicago Fire—overwhelming, overpowering, and destroying everything that isn’t necessary.”

Julien Smith, The Flinch

I tried to be good at Instagram. Really.

Over Spring Break, I met a group of girls who were all good at Instagram. Like, tens of thousands of followers good. When we hung out, we would stop every now and then to take pictures, which were swiftly edited and posted at the best times for optimal likes. One of them told me that her life is awesome, and her Instagram would be too if she just took quality pictures of her terrific life.

This is a good perspective, I thought. Crafting some sort of Instagram presence in which I take excellent photos of me adventuring or wearing cute outfits for some reason stood out to me as a necessary action. As I began to realize, it’s important to craft one’s image and present to the world what you want your aesthetic to be. It’s good to show that you’re confident, pleased with your appearance and proud of your life.

I took this to heart, dreaming of a polished exterior that others might aspire to. New Rachel! Confident Rachel! The majority of my presence is some sort of cobbled-together, self-deprecating spaz whose shirt might have guacamole stains. Maybe Instagram Rachel could be cool, sleek—contoured, with frizz-free hair.

So I tried to ‘gram. The problem is, you have to take pictures to have an Instagram. Then you have to come up with some sort of caption that indicates that you didn’t try that hard at any of it, even though you’re about to spend the next 90 minutes frantically refreshing your notifications for likes and the other part of your day strategically liking other people’s pictures on your feed in hopes that they’ll like your stuff back.

When I returned from Spring Break, my friend and I talked about our vacations over a $3 bottle of wine. Unlike my Instagram revelation, she was frustrated that her friends spent the majority of break trying to position themselves perfectly for ideal photos to post. More than that, they would stare at their phones at dinner and at the beach, checking Snapchat stories and ensuring they were getting enough likes.

They cared more about how their life appeared than their actual life.

I brushed off my friend’s comments, and decided she sounded like Mother Skeptical about my frequent Snapchat usage. Millennial communication is innovative! Selfies are important! Online identity is crucial! We are positioning ourselves to the world, seeking to explain ourselves to others and to ourselves! I took this nuanced, subversive perspective to heart.

The weeks wore on after my ‘gram revelation. I posted pictures. Nothing seemed fun or cool enough. I took shots in the Ann Arbor streets, but who the hell wants to see Ann Arbor?  We all know what it looks like. And who wants to see me and my friends drunk at Rick’s? It’s really only entertaining to us. And who cares about the Eggs Benedict that I ate? I do like my life. But I don't know how to portray it on this fundamentally shallow website. How am I supposed to Instagram a funny moment with my friends? Or a book that’s fascinating? Do I demand my friends take pictures of me when I look good, because someone who is good at Instagram told me selfies are not “Instagram-worthy”?

I've noticed most captions of photos are self-referencing to Instagram itself, explaining with a smirk how they asked someone to take the picture or the photo credit or why they're posting it. All of the humor is the same tongue-in-cheek shit that I saw on Tumblr in 2011 that I guess people in Greek life have just recently adopted.

Unless I travel or suddenly develop a visually artistic side, my 'gram can really only be contrived pictures of me and my friends. It’s a little bit too much effort. There must be some reason everyone I know loves this social medium, but I can’t quite figure it out.

Today, I’m not destined for good selfies. My self is in flux, constantly being created and remade, though that won’t be shown through Instagram anytime soon. Maybe it will change tomorrow. That’s the beauty of social media and the Internet — I can always delete everything from the past and start anew.