Why is it that while we’re more than happy to stand up for strangers on the bus, donate money to charity and weep over illiterate, orphaned donkeys, when it comes to our behaviour online - particularly among girls and young women - so many of us suddenly behave as though we’re marching in to battle?
I have a bad habit of comparing things to sample sales. Once, a friend of mine deep in the throes of a traumatic break-up stared incredulously at me as I tried to draw links between her rubbish ex-boyfriend and the JW Anderson sample sale I’d just been to. I’m not proud. While I know that glaring at somebody trying on the only black mohair jumper you want isn’t particularly interesting to most people (or relevant, or appropriate to bring up to your dear, sobbing friend) I can’t help but see immediate ties between sample sales and a dark, horrible side of humanity. There’s something fascinating about finding yourself, hot and uncomfortable in a dusty studio where people leave their bags and manners in the cloakroom and pile in, nails sharpened, all in the hope of getting stuff.
A few weeks ago I was at the back of a queue snaking out from the front door of a tiny studio. I stood alone, with nothing else to do but look at my phone and the other people. There are fashion students bitching about bloggers bitching about having to queue up; there are bloggers taking pictures of the fashion students’ friends while being glared at by stylists. It smells, it’s uncomfortable and nobody wants to make eye contact. Even the nicest person in the world would struggle not to feel challenged when 95% of the people around you are sniggering at your shoes.
It reminds me (not of your ex-boyfriend, don’t worry) of another place were we go to interact with people in an unusual, unrestricted way. Why is it that while we’re more than happy to stand up for strangers on the bus, donate money to charity and weep over illiterate, orphaned donkeys, when it comes to our behaviour online (particularly among girls and young women) so many of us suddenly behave as though we’re marching in to battle? Seriously serious-face selfies to the left of us, barely-veiled digs to the right of us, and up ahead? We’re surrounded by an ever-loading stream of content that we’re in total control of and yet entirely belittled by. I’m not simply talking about trolling, I think this runs deeper than provocateurs and the mentally ill; social media has provided us with the tools and the compulsion to judge and dismiss people from all over the world, and it seems we’re all fairly happy to get stuck in. Maybe it’s something to do with being in an environment with no specific end goal other than scoring a bunch of likes. It makes us feel desperate, and it makes us play nasty.
Even if you’ve never actually posted a mean comment online in your life (you better not have!) certain aspects of social media foster an atmosphere in which you feel pressure to constantly judge other people. While it might not mean actually leaving a series of gun emojis under a picture of somebody’s dinner, it can be an almost daily routine to seek out people you might feel threatened or insecure about, and try to reassure yourself by being snide and dismissive of how they choose to present themselves online. Imagine how damaging that must be to our self-confidence. A new, uncharted digital landscape is developing upon which many of us feel compelled to leave a mark for fear of missing out on some ephemeral “thing”, but that process of carving a space out can render us volatile and incredibly vulnerable.
It’s a strange dichotomy of power, intensified or perhaps entirely propagated by a fixation on the creation of our own self-image online. Regardless of whether you do it to other people, how many times have you clicked onto your own Facebook or instagram profile and scrolled through the pictures? A journalist for Psych Central recently wrote about the “high rates of depression seen in social media-friendly people” due to an “inconsistency they observe between their ideal cyber self and their self-image.” Evidently our readiness to judge people online is 100 times harsher when we turn it on ourselves. On top of that, there are certain restrictions and rules online which users are forced to take for granted; nipples are entirely sexualised, pubic hair is explicit. How are you ever supposed to love your body if it’s split between the physical reality and an unfamiliar, highly stylised “acceptable” equivalent?
We still aren’t really aware of how damaging our online habits and behaviour can be, though recent research points to a growing number of young people addicted to it. The Guardian ran a story about Facebook in 2012 that cited a study claiming to have found a “direct link between the number of friends you have on Facebook and the degree to which you are a socially disruptive narcissist”. If that was happening in 2012 on Facebook, well before the existence of the “like” button, imagine the extent to which people are being affected by newer, more pervasive forms of social media. The internet has created a series of social platforms on which we’re forced to constantly pitch ourselves against our peers. We don’t only interact with friends, but scroll endlessly through lists of filtered pictures of beaches and country houses and tanned skin as though it were some kind of 21st century task we were set in our sleep.
So when social media encourages you to post that selfie because who knows it might end up getting you a “k” next to your number of instagram followers, you’re not a million miles away from being compelled to show up early because who knows you might get that black leather embroidered Christopher Kane jacket for under £50. It’s highly unlikely either way, but each relies on the promise of a blissful beyond, they require a faith that what you’re doing serves a higher purpose, whether it’s silently taking pictures of yourself in a bus mirror or slyly stepping in front of somebody in a queue.
You don’t have to check instagram before you brush your teeth in the morning, and it’s not all that difficult to flash a smile instead of an eye roll as somebody barges past you to the cash-only till. Sometimes you need to remember there’s always a bigger picture. One where a pair of shoes in your size doesn’t bring you close to tears, and where you really do look beautiful when you wake up – regardless of the camera angle.