A few days ago, I unfollowed my favorite influencer (the fact that I even have a favorite influencer is the kind of admission that makes me realize how much I am a part of Gen Z, despite my attempts to claim otherwise). With so much free time on my hands and the social distancing mandates of our new coronavirus era making it perfectly acceptable to spend hours on my phone, I found that the social media breaks I was taking between doing homework or tuning into my virtual classes were growing alarmingly long. I also found that I knew way too much about this influencer who, besides responding to one of my DMs or liking maybe one of my comments, was a complete stranger.
Through inferences made from social media and various web articles, I knew many details of her life, from where she grew up, to how she met her partner, to her morning routine. During a period a few months back when I took an Instagram break altogether, I would check in on her page just to see if she posted something new.
At first, it was innocent. She reminded me of myself and made me feel, through her presence, that things were possible for me. (Who remembers Laverne Cox’s cute rebranding of “role model” to “possibility model”? It was like that.) From observing her routines and the products she endorses, I learned how to integrate new things into my life that would make me happier. But it soon turned sinister. I’d compare my life to hers, from her relationships to her sense of fashion.
Yet, I couldn’t allow myself to unfollow her, like I would so easily unfollow a company that was tempting me with a few too many posts advertising products that I simply couldn’t afford.
Why? Because I felt like I knew her, even though I didn’t. Unfollowing her would feel like abruptly stopping an exciting new show in the middle of a season, or losing the phone number of a really good friend. I had to keep up.
Part of my interest in following her had to do with a desire to craft the kind of life I’d imagined and was imagining for myself. Myself, but older, more grounded and successful, able to afford the $100 dollar face oils or custom-made hair products that so many influencers tout on their profiles. But the problem is the life I was seeing wasn’t a whole one. They were highlights, carefully curated, and one can’t base a life off of a selection, just like you can’t fully appreciate an artist by just looking at a few of their paintings. You’ve got to watch the tell-all documentary that comes out a few years after they die, where you find out about their secret alcoholism or their shitty parents.
Okay, it’s not always that dramatic, but you do get a chance to see that this person isn’t all walks in the park, homemade sourdough or perfect pictures of coffee, captured just as the milk is swirling into the coffee. You get the whole picture.
I unfollowed the influencer. But in thinking about the timeline of my obsession (all eight months of it) I couldn’t help but think about 10 years ago, when our relationships to the internet and online community—and its expectations of us—were far different.
In middle school, I was deeply wedded to my online life. It was insular and intensely private. An avid fan of the “Warrior Cats” book series, I would join role-play websites, eventually launching one of my own. (Hilariously, one of the ones I frequented most is still up.) I wrote fanfiction on fanfiction.net.
The internet was where I, a kid who didn’t necessarily fit in at school, found a community of affirmation and validation. I’d receive kind reviews on my fanfiction and watch ad-free Harry Potter fan art videos on YouTube set to Avril Lavigne’s “Keep Holding On.”
At age 13, I made a Tumblr account. I would go on to have this account for seven years, accumulating thousands of posts and hundreds of followers and giving voice to my teenage angst. In the mid-2010s, I learned about social justice in ways that my school never taught. Sadly, I deleted it during my junior year of college, so I can’t sift through my posts and reanalyze them here with newfound perspective, like The Cut so brilliantly did once with emails in a podcast episode.
The point is, my engagement with the internet was a wholesome, affirming experience, where I sought out communities that made me feel seen and didn’t walk away from my socials feeling fatigued and worse about myself than when I’d opened them. One of the first blogs I fell in love with on Tumblr was a gorgeous one called stophatingyourbody, featuring selfies of people around the world declaring self-love. What happened to that?
But finally, toward the end of high school, as I started to morph into a real person and shed my adolescent formlessness, I began to stop needing my online community of nerdiness and affirmation. I spent more time and outside and with real people. I started college and my in-person life became the rich, vibrant community I’d so long sought after online.
Yet here we are, driven back inside by the coronavirus, and the internet does not seem so safe and nurturing a place anymore. In this case, it seems, one cannot always return home. When did social media stop being a place for community and start becoming a social and capitalist competition, a dangerous and terrifying marriage between the professional and the personal? And what does that mean for the scary time we are living in?
I’m not the first to express distaste over how everything has become prepackaged and monetized in our current digital age. You would think social distancing would encourage a return to online community, but companies have simply changed their tune, marketing products to make you feel like you need them even though you’re inside all day, encouraging you to spend money when 6.6 million Americans no longer have any spending money to speak of. I miss when the internet was a safe space. But I also recognize that it can’t just be the internet that’s changed—I used to admire the women I saw on Tumblr and other socials, not envy them until I have to unfollow them. Clearly, the way we use the internet has changed, too.