A Post Is Worth A Thousand Words

What Our Social Media Presence Really Says About Us

Duke Unfiltered | Pamela Petrick | February 25, 2016

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“Pics or it didn’t happen.”

While struggling to come up with a new vague yet clever, witty caption to embody my spirit in my Instagram bio, I considered this phrase. Although I went with an alternative (“Dedicated to the baes” just seemed to resonate with me more), I thought that there really was some truth to this first mantra. We may joke about it, how if you didn’t take a picture, were you even there? Are we even friends if we don’t have thirty photos of together “candidly” laughing? But these seemingly absurd questions have a shocking amount of validity in our lives at Duke.

If you think this seems ridiculous, I completely agree with you. But if you think that these outward expressions of ourselves don’t reflect and, at least to some degree, subtly impact our relationships with people beyond the iPhone or computer screen, I beg to differ.

So far, in my sophomore year alone, I have posted 733 photos on Facebook and, to be quite honest, I’m not sure how I feel about it. I never think twice before sharing pictures on Instagram or Facebook. Yet when I think about how many pictures I’ve taken, how many moments I’ve shared with underlying inside jokes that only five other friends appreciate, I start to ask myself the deep, introspective questions we’re all wondering at 2AM while stalking our own profiles:

What’s the point? Why does it matter? Why did I think it was a good idea to post an album of solo “modeling” photos when I looked like Honey Boo Boo at age 14?

To the last question, I blame America’s Next Top Model for unfortunately-timed inspiration – but I digress.

We’re the most documented generation in human history. It’s probably hard to imagine that there was a time when people didn’t capture photos of every moment we experience individually, or with our friends. But we can’t help it – it feels so necessary, so natural to share pictures which will inevitably be bumped down the news feed, unlikely to resurface for anyone but a dedicated stalker with 45 minutes on their hands.

Whether we think about it or not, we naturally infer a lot about a person’s life by observing their posts and actions on social media. A “like” is so much more than just a like. Every “like” is like a fix of gratification. Ever feel uncomfortable or dejected when your picture is struggling to get that 11th like? Ever resort to deleting the post out of shame? Why is it that we feel embarrassed if their pictures don’t a “socially acceptable” amount of likes fast enough? For some, these are real, visceral emotions elicited from a virtual yet very real stamp of approval. We’re vigorously dedicated to staying relevant, competing to hold each other’s fleeting attention. The effort we put into choosing an image in which we look “fun,” “happy,” or “confident” is only half the battle – if no one on the other side is showing their appreciation for it, we subconsciously, though irrationally, take it as a personal form of awkward “unpopularity.”

The way people react to and interact with what we post can have a significant impact on our confidence. It’s a two-way street – you can affect someone else more than you think with your actions on social media.

If you’re in a fight with someone, you can passive aggressively not like their picture, just to make them suffer. Sure, they might not even notice, but in my mind it still counts as a dig.

Nothing hurts like seeing the person you dated/are interested in/just hooked up with get tagged in a picture with someone else more attractive than you, looking happy – or worse, your friends in a picture with your ex, or a mortal enemy. Not cool.

If someone hasn’t been tagged in a picture in 3 months? Do they have friends? Should we be worried?

Just because these actions do not take place in the “real” world, does not make them any less real.

What does this say about our college experience that every single moment has to be documented? These photos we post on social media impact the way people perceive us. Don’t like the way you look? You can edit that. Had a bad night out? If you take good pictures, no one will know – people might even envy the “fun” time you had. Sometimes, it’s hard not to feel like you’re the only one not having the time of your life. Not to say we’re all frauds living double lives, but we’ve put ourselves in an impossibly difficult spot with our expectations of happiness in college. The reality is that, not every picture is capturing reality.

I don’t think we’re simply vain, narcissistic attention seekers. I don’t think our intentions are really just to show off and make people jealous of how seemingly “perfect” our lives are with a filter (or five). I think that many of the people who see and interact with us on social media do so because they actually want to be part of our lives in this safe, distant, indirect way. Out of the struggle to connect and just be seen by others, we use these platforms to throw out a virtual reminder to everyone that “I am here.”

But if you don’t post? Will you be forgotten by your friends? Will it stop you from enjoying whatever moment you’re in? I’m reminding you, as I’m trying to remind myself, that your experiences aren’t invalidated, nor are they any less authentic if you just put the phone down and observe with your eyes rather than a camera lense.