Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Insta-Gratification

To say that I am fond of the Internet would be an understatement. I remember the first time I ever got online the way some people remember their first love. My freshman honors English class spent a day in our high school library computer lab on the World Wide Web looking at ancient pottery to expand on our reading of Keat's Ode to a Grecian Urn.  I was so excited, it felt like the world was opening up to me for the first time and the possibilities were endless. Not surprisingly, I had set my expectations too high and my first time fell short of anything enjoyable. I was befuddled by Netscape. Our access was restricted to only images of pots. My lab partner came upon a naked male form on one of the pots and spent the rest of our time zooming in and closely studying the naughty bits. It was all grossly uncomfortable.

Still, when my parents popped a free America Online CD into our fancy new computer's supermodern CD-ROM drive, I was undeterred. Soon, I was hooked and there was no question as to whether we were keeping our membership after the free trial period. I became obsessed with Snopes, an urban legend reference site, and I spent ungodly amounts of time in chatrooms, just chatting. I loved to learn how people lived in other places. I was curious about the way they wore their pants and how they used slang and OMG, IS THERE A WHITE CASTLE WHERE YOU LIVE? I'VE ALWAYS WANTED TO TRY ONE OF THOSE SLIDERS.

It was fun and innocent and people hadn't figured out how to be terrible Internet predators quite yet. We were just connecting, as humans, who wanted to know about other humans.  It was the kind of glory days that I think my generation will look back on and bore their grandchildren endless tales of A/S/L.

I was addicted. As someone who's just never felt quite right in the world, the Internet was a haven. It was amazing to realize that maybe I wasn't some freak, I just hadn't seen enough of the world to see how I actually fit in as much as anyone else possibly could.

Then, my sophomore year saw emergence of another one of my favorite hobbies: photography. I was lucky in that my school had a pretty decent photography lab and I was thrilled to spend my afternoons developing grainy black and white pictures that I'd taken on my mom's clunky 70's era Pentax SLR. I want all you hipster kids to know that in the late nineties I was already into "retro" before most of you were even born. I wasn't very good and I always smelled like formaldehyde, but I really really enjoyed it. For a kid who was constantly running from her social anxiety issues, the cool, calm, dark isolation of the darkroom was a sanctuary.

That these two events happened roughly in the same time span is not insignificant. My school was soon gifted with several high tech digital cameras and nobody was interested in film photography any more. The Internet exploded. Then imploded. Then started calling itself "Web 2.0" and we were all ushered into the Wild Wild West of social media. By the time I really started to figure out photography, my phone had camera that could take relatively decent pictures which I could instantly upload to anyone who might like to see them.

I realize that phone cameras are not ideal and that they're no match for something "real." To that extent, I have a very nice, very expensive Nikon DSLR, which never ever ever gets used. I also have two children under the age of five. And I will legit lose it if somebody touches my lenses. And my kids cannot "not touch" the lenses. Its better for all involved if that thing just stays in the bag.

Until the era of sticky fingers has come to pass, I'm happy to hone my skills on Steve Job's greatest(?) contribution to mankind. For that reason, I really enjoy photo sharing via social media, particularly via Instgram, the popular photo sharing network.

I guess I like sharing pictures for the same reason I like writing: I really enjoy telling stories. If I have one true gift, it's likely my words. Photographs, the opposite of words, really, force you to tell a story without without them,  althought I do believe a picture is still mandated at being, at the very least, worth 1,000 words. I find the challenge absolutely thrilling. One tiny square with such an enormous task, and a lot of times it doesn't even work out. But when it does, when some tiny part of the world is perfectly illuminated so that others can appreciate its significance, there is nothing more profound.

Some people,  I realize, don't appreciate this as much as I do, and there is a noted backlash against people like me who engage in "too much" social media. In particular, there are multiple hot button studies that, interestingly enough are constantly shared over social media, linking depression and social media use.

Well, yeah. Of course. I've been relatively frank in my struggle with depression before, what I will add is that it is an ongoing fight that never really just disappears, but there are lots of ways to work through it. For me, sharing my thoughts and ideas with the world makes me feel relevant and less isolated.  I chose to share beautiful things because I feel that for the most part the world is a dreary place, but if I capture a moment of bliss I think it doesn't hurt to share it, if only to remind myself that there is still good to be gleaned from the world.

If I take a picture of something particularly delicious I've cooked, it's because I've failed, and failed, and failed at cooking before and when I get it right, I want to celebrate. I'm prone to taking pictures of sunsets and landscapes because they often sneak up on me. I'll be lost in some daydream and look out the window and find myself shocked by some huge, glorious display of majesty that I just came incredibly close to overlooking. I'll share it to remind myself how quickly things come to pass.  I'll share pictures of my kids because I'm still in awe of the fact that I've been charged with taking care of these precious, magnificent creatures. I'll share pictures of things that they destroyed because I'm looking for somebody to laugh with me so I don't have a total breakdown. I'll post pictures of them sleeping because it's the only time they are still enough to achieve a nice focus.

I think it's really idiotic to assume what somebody posts on social media is somehow supposed to be a reflection of their day-to-day life. Absolutely, it's filtered and edited so that we only show the best of the best, what else would you expect from something with the term "media" in it's name? By definition alone, there is some expectation that the information has been previously processed.

I don't post pictures of everything I cook because I realize that nobody wants to see endless pots of fluorescent mac and cheese and microwaved chicken nuggets. I don't post pictures of every landscape I drive by because most of the time power lines are way. I didn't post when my son bit all the way through his lip and looked like a scene from a horror movie. I didn't post when my daughter took her poo out of the potty and painted the wall. I don't post these things, although indicative of my current state of affairs, because quite frankly, nobody wants to see that shit.

I think there are two major problems with these studies linking mental illness and social media use: first, it seems everyone is quick to confuse correlation with causation, and I find this incredibly problematic. Does social media make people depressed? Some people, likely. Do depressed people like to use social media? Sure. It's it all just a bit more complicated than all of that? Absolutely. For people like me who use it as not only a means of personal expression but also a coping mechanism, I'm hesitant to cite social media as anything other than an outlet for a preexisting condition.

My other problem with these studies is in the way that they are shared via social media itself. It's often done in such a way to shame 'oversharers' into silence by essentially saying, "Only depressed people share this much and you don't want people to think you're depressed so stop sharing." Implying that not only is depression something that should be easily cured by something as simple as cancelling your facebook account, but that also one should expect no support on their journey to healing, because, god, all those annoying pictures are clogging up the endless stream of content babble that we can no longer live without. It speaks volumes about the stigma of mental health care and why so many people refuse to seek it even thought they desperately need help.

I don't think the focus should be so much on shaming those who are desperately trying to engage in some kind of dialog because, for what it's worth, at least we're still truckin', right? We should be worried about those who have become so hopeless that they've withdrawn all together. We should focus on being friendly to those who need a friend instead of laughing at them for being friendless. We should keep sharing beauty because there will always be darkness, but at least now we have a way to know that the light has not been completely extinguished.















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