It all started with institutionalized education. Well, really, it began with an entrepreneurial Harvard student trying to connect the world. Mark Zuckerberg and his social media successors aside, my initiation into a world of Facebook-obsessed adolescents was highly unpleasant. Despite the fact that making friends with real, live people was taxing enough for my timid freshman self, the true struggle existed on the Internet. I often think about how glad I am that I escaped.
I’m not writing this to preach an anti-social media doctrine. I’m writing this because social media is a defining characteristic of modern life, and that scares me more than I dare to say. I used to spend hours cultivating meaningless and superficial friendships with people on Facebook who wouldn’t wave to me in the hallways. “Why should they wave?” I would ask myself. We don’t really know each other, anyway. I said this as a way to convince myself of something that I still can’t identify. At the time, I barely believed it, but in retrospect, it was an accurate statement. I recently learned that what I thought was an acquaintance’s last name was not her surname at all. Little (although that seems kind of large to me) nuances like that made me realize just how phony it all is. And since most people’s lives exist primarily on their computers and phones, I really do mean all of it.
A month or so ago, I attended a fashion conference in New York City. One of the first panels was about the immense power of social media: Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest, Tumblr and so on. The panelists raved for half an hour about how tweeting is therapeutic and how they can’t live without their iPhones. They ceaselessly touted the advantageous effects of being immersed in online culture. They assured us that a brand’s Twitter interactions are nearly as important as their products themselves. As I typed out notes on what these people told me, I couldn’t help but feel like I was writing down lies. I refused to believe that my future relies on how well I can condense my thoughts into 140 characters. When it was time for questions, I raised my hand and asked, “If I am a fashion blogger and I don’t want to get involved in social media, but I attend fashion shows and events, can I still be successful in the industry?” Everyone in the room — and those watching the event being live-streamed on their computers — stared at me. There was a slight pause as hundreds of eyes looked at me in disbelief. Joe Zee, the creative director of Elle Magazine, drew the microphone up to his lips and said something along the lines of, “I guess my question to you is, why don’t you want to get involved? This is your ticket.” I feebly attempted to explain my standpoint on the issue, but with editors and bloggers and the like surrounding me at all angles, I couldn’t bring myself to tell them how fake it all seems without seriously offending every single person there. I believe that that was the moment at which the conflict become clear to me: To participate, or to not?
I deleted my Facebook account in the middle of this past summer. I had been on vacation with my family in California, and we had left the day after my state-regulated exams were over. I was hanging out in Hollywood, and all I could think about was what was going on back home, and what was so-and-so doing, and gosh, they look like they’re having fun, I haven’t spoken to my friends in days. It was torturous. I mentioned one day to my mother and sister that I was considering deactivating my account, and both of their immediate reactions were “no.” They asked me, why in the world would I do that? This was my mother telling me this. That kind of threw me off. Aren’t moms supposed to want their children off of Facebook? I guess that only applies to the mothers that don’t have accounts themselves. I tried to tell them that it was depressing me, that I got nothing positive out of obsessively watching over other peoples’ lives, that I had already wasted so much precious time doing absolutely nothing, the latter of which is easily one of my biggest fears. I had driven myself mad and become instantly miserable because such-and-such person hadn’t responded to my wall post, or hadn’t liked my comment. Just take a moment to think about how ridiculous this all sounds. Mere decades ago, if someone didn’t pick up the phone, it was most likely because they weren’t home, not because they hated you and were trying to ignore you. Now, if somebody doesn’t “like” someone’s “wall post,” they go berserk. Whatever all of this was, I wanted out, and I needed to extricate myself immediately. As soon as I got back from my trip, I sent a private message out to the friends I wanted to stay in touch with (the list consisted of 10 or 12 people at the most) telling them that I was deleting my Facebook and if they needed or wanted to reach me, here was my email address. I clicked the “deactivate” button, and it was all over. I was free.
I spent the rest of the summer nearly completely out of touch with the outside world, save for those people that I had called or sent text messages to and the people that were in a room with me. Since blogging is often (at least for me) a one-sided conversation, I don’t count it as a social media platform; therefore, I was basically isolated from everything social for two months. If deleting my account taught me anything, it was how to weed out my real friends from the fake ones. People that I thought were close companions didn’t remember my birthday because Facebook didn’t remind them when it was. Nobody but my aunt called me to wish me a happy birthday that day. To be fair, most of my friends were at camp and weren’t allowed to have phones with them, but all of those insincere wall posts I had gotten in past years from people I sort of knew were no longer a part of the picture. At the time, I was convinced that I had simply dropped off the face of the earth. To everybody else, I was gone, and they hadn’t ever cared enough to notice now. I was even slightly content with going on living like that, maybe forever, only spending time with people I wanted to, or sometimes seeing nobody at all. It was a tranquil lifestyle, except for those frequent moments when I would wonder what my friends were doing and if they remembered that I existed. Sometimes I cared, but most often I didn’t. I was done trying so hard to make everyone notice me. Fading into the background was so much easier.
When I returned to school in the fall, I didn’t dread the actual start of school and what the academic year would bring: I dreaded seeing everyone that I knew once again. I knew that I would have to combat against everyone’s question: “Why did you delete your Facebook?”, even though I knew I could never tell them the truth. There was no way I was going to inform them that it was their fault, in a way. That would seem far too condescending. I still feel uncomfortable telling people that I don’t have a Facebook account despite the fact that I’m extremely proud of it. I broke out of the mold, and I am happier because of it. The sick, twisted part of our society is that I feel bad when telling people that, essentially, I am different from them. This pressure to be like everybody else, in spite of how much everyone propagates the concept of individuality, is so overwhelming that separating oneself from others in any way is absurdly isolating.
Recall the anecdote I told at the beginning of this article about the fashion conference. When a famous magazine editor challenged my views on social media in front of hundreds of people, there was no way I was going to argue with him about it. It wasn’t because he was the ever-fabulous Joe Zee. It was because I was literally the only person in the entire room that had that perspective on the topic, and pursuing a conversation about something that is much more personal than it seems on the surface in front of a crowd of strangers did not seem appealing. It still doesn’t. What scared me was that they didn’t get it, not one bit. No one there could wrap their minds around the prospect of doing away with hashtags and Twitter handles, with reblogging and Pinning, with “likes” and wall posts.
Call me old-fashioned, because maybe I am. But it frightens and disappoints me that my laptop accepts Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr as words, while it does not recognize an Old English word (certes). My intention with this article was not, as I mentioned previously, to berate you all for having Facebook or Twitter accounts. It was to make people aware of the toll this new culture has on us as humans. Perhaps it is because I am a strong believer in the power of language, physical interaction, and out-dated methods of communication, but I worry every day that we are ruining ourselves. The world has become so open and lawless that there’s nowhere to hide anymore. Life is becoming exceedingly more like “Project Runway:” one day you’re in, and the next day, you’re out. I’ve made the conscious decision to live on the “outside,” but what does that mean for my career as a member of the fashion industry, or any industry, for that matter? My hunch is that it does not portend good things.
The real struggle is whether to participate or not. If we choose to get involved, we run the risk of becoming dependent on our online interactions, a thought that I can barely comprehend. If we choose to stay away from social media, we run the equally terrifying risk of becoming outcasts. Both of these possibilities’ likelihood and intensity increases daily, so the time to decide is now. Are you in, or are you out?
Odelia Kaly, Age 15, Grade 10, Fiorello H Laguardia High School of Music, Gold Key