Millennials do not have time for one another. We scroll on past each other. Silently, we have grown up praising and loathing the image of our peers in a space that no other generation has known so well as the Communication Generation: the elusive space of social media.
With this vast network of humanity at our disposal, we cannot help but be distracted sometimes, or really all the time. We have pressing things to do academically, but one more snap story or one more scroll through our news feed is fine. What we’re looking at, however, is not real.
Social media inherently involves curation. Every choice we make is a curatorial decision in the identity we want to present online, even seemingly simple choices like whether or not to use our names of birth. Because of these inherently curatorial choices, the identities we present on social media are a version of our ideal selves.
Our social media use is driving a wedge between our ideal identities and our present personalities. This leaves us in a paradoxical place when it comes to self-expression, which has become inseparable from social media use with most millennials. On the one hand, the most visible venue in which we can express ourselves is social media. On the other hand, our online activity now intersects with how we’re perceived in real life. All of us have heard things like, “Did you see that twitter fight?” or, “Have you seen that photo on Facebook?” that then cloud how we perceive each other in person. We should not, however, compromise our self-expression within social networks, at least not yet, but we cannot substitute online self-expression for in-person self-expression, which used to be known simply as self-expression.
Coming to college, we have an opportunity to reinvent ourselves in a way that we will not have the chance to do at any other point in our lives. This should be an in-person re-invention first and foremost, whether in the classroom or outside of the academic realm on campus.
The Communication Generation finds itself in purgatory. In our great compartmentalization between multiple social media accounts and therefore multiple selves, we are becoming desensitized to our own collective existence. With multiple screens open at once, we claim to be skilled multi-taskers.
While we are in class, we think we can simultaneously keep our minds in cyberspace and follow along with what is physically happening in front of us, whether it’s a lecture, class discussion, or any other forum of learning. Walking past each other around campus, we often pretend to look at our phones instead of acknowledging each other with a simple wave or hello. While on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, we share parts of our lives that we would be too fearful to share in person. Yet in those same venues, we withhold things that we otherwise wouldn’t in person because of the highly public nature of social media.
Identity is a process that we all undergo while at college, and throughout the rest of our lives. When we express ourselves online, with our names attached to images, political views, and humor, we risk the impersonal disapproval of, often anonymous, online others. For those who know us back home, they may wonder what happened to us while at college. What we share with people outside of our present social networks may create a disconnect between how we are received in person, and how we are received online.
In college, we may find that we can become whomever we would like to be. Today, we even have the power to reinvent ourselves online. On Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr, and whatever other domain names we may explore ourselves in, there is a chance to project ourselves anew in the public sphere. However, in our interactions on campus, we quickly come to realize that we all-too-often fall short of our gregarious online projections.
Experimentation in the social media sphere should lead to an improved self, but it’s so immaterial that, when taken to the extreme, it leads to a confusion that is hard to reconcile. It is all too common for people to rely upon fixed identities that they think (and hope) others can easily understand. That is why New Year’s resolutions are mocked, because anyone can easily pick up on inconsistencies in someone’s identity, such as someone who never exercises suddenly vowing to go to the gym every day. It is why we think we know who is keeping it real, and who is fake. Even though lots of changes in identity are for our benefit, many people will not tolerate them. Most people shouldn’t be the concern of one’s self expression, however. There are larger and more significant things to consider, such as the legacy you will leave online and in-person.
Our history is being recorded through social media. It may live on long after we are gone. Although this may seem terrifying, we should take this chance to produce content that reflects not just our ideal selves, but that reflects our complete selves to the best of our abilities.
Before you compose your next tweet, daily Facebook status update, or pose for an ephemeral snap, think about who you want to be online, who you want to be in-person, and who you really are. If these selves are in conflict, that’s okay. In fact, that’s normal. Whether you choose to synthesize these selves or not, remember that people may forget what you were like in person, they may even forget the old adage of how you made them feel, but who you are online will live on in a server forever, so choose wisely.
Lahut is a member of the class of 2017.