As a Communication professor, I often give my students an assignment that they have dubbed the “cyber stalking” assignment. I ask them to choose a friend and find out as much as they can about that individual online. I tell them to use a critical eye, as if they were a future employer. What do they see? What are the implications of every photo, every comment, every update? All of it communicates something about the individual.
After this assignment, my students are invariably shocked at the picture that has emerged and I then urge them to scrub their own digital presence (no more photos holding red plastic cups!). I explain that the internet has become a log of our lives, an addendum to every cover letter and resume we send out, an attachment to every performance review at work. I stress the importance of curating your online presence.
But lately I have begun to see the downside of a curated life. All those students and friends who have taken to heart such warnings now present themselves well online. They post beautifully constructed facades of vacations, achievements, happy accomplished children and the results are, well, isolating.
For many of us with friends scattered around the country and the world, social networking sites (and even the holiday newsletter) are the primary way that we learn about each other’s lives. But what we learn from the curated life is only half the story.
The child who starred in the dance recital or won MVP in little league or came in first at the spelling bee, also has meltdowns over homework, suffers from anxiety attacks, talks back and slams doors, is bullied or is a bully. The friend with the great promotion works 80 hour weeks and hasn’t seen her friends or spouse for dinner in 6 months. The college friend who always looks so cheerful in her photos is deeply depressed over losing her job, but is too ashamed to post it. But to read the updates you would never know.
The result of this is that it makes it harder for everyone to talk honestly about the meltdowns, anxiety attacks, conflicts, bullying, the challenges of working, living, and parenting. The result is that we are all left alone to cope. Coping is especially hard when we believe we are the only ones.
The curated life turns each of us into our own PR agents. We may look great on the screen, but the process leaves us little room to be real.
The answer may not be to stop curating, but to pick up the phone, or better yet, meet in person. Call a friend and tell them what’s really going on. When you are with others, be real about what is going on in your home. More often than not, the other person will feel relieved and open up about their challenges as well.