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Social media and identity: how losing all of my socials almost made me lose myself (Entry 3)

Updated: Aug 12, 2023

Perhaps it's archaic at this point to note that we live in an age of digitized currency, commodity, and culture. Just as soon as a new technology is introduced today, tomorrow's invention renders it obsolete. iPhone users can attest to the Pandora's box that is purchasing a new iPhone only for it to become outdated and inconsequential the next year. I often ponder on the legacy of social media usage as it continues to intertwine with the human experience. In Professor Donna J. Haraway's existential piece, "A Cyborg Manifesto," she describes the human condition and the machine as indistinguishable in a growing technological age. The cyborg, a being comprised of both mechanical and organic parts, is representative of the blurred lines between the technological and the human.

The growth of social media is evidence that the social experience is a technological one. Internet lingo, social camaraderie over a viral video, TikTok dances, popular hashtags, online advertising, influencer culture, and online political-social movements are all cultural resets in and of themselves. The extent to which we depend and interact with social media has and will continue to affect our language, dress, relationships, career choices, habits, and more. The reliance on constant stimulus and instant gratification creates faster burnout among consumers, as well as pressure on algorithms to adjust to an overwhelming hunger for new content. Users scroll through more than a billion videos per day collectively, and attention spans are short. The near-panicked frenzy to post everyday, sometimes multiple times a day, at specific times of the day, in order to be favored by the social media gods, is a modern-day equivalent to the the frantic "strike it rich" momentum of the California gold rush. In all fairness, now is the time of unprecedented, rapid growth for the everyday consumer, and online communities are as relevant as they are addicting.

Take TikTok for example. According to the most recent surveys, TikTok users across the globe spend an average of 52 hours per week on the app. Part of this particular platform's appeal is its unhinged quality. It can be chaotic and homely, which contributes to its fast-paced environment. Anybody's video can go viral. Users can lip sync to a popular audio and gain thousands of followers overnight. Just last year, my mutual Bridget McFadden, posted a video of her attempting to refill a small vile of hot sauce on TikTok. The comment section was flooded with suggestions, and soon enough, hot sauce companies were giving their two cents. Several months later, she is now the official influencer for Frank's hot sauce. One video may not change your life, but the possibility that it might, drives us to keep making content. Of course, this engagement is often a double-edged sword.

For example, Instagram's influence on social spheres is an oxymoron. On one hand, Instagram is a highlight real of photo-ready personas and carefully-curated marketing that entice people not only to a brand, but to a person as a brand themselves. On the other hand, Instagram is also a flourishing community of ideas, visual art, conversation, and social change. Social media platforms are still businesses at the end of the day, and their business models are so deeply ingrained in everyday life, we don't consciously think about the why behind the pressure to create content. So why do we post?

On social media, your "likability" becomes quantifiable. Logically, we know that one's quality as a person verses how they present themselves online are separate entities, but the subconscious mind is quick to curate insecurities based on every comparison, every trolling comment, every bout of minimal engagement, and every video flop. Even no reaction is a bad reaction in the world of social media. When everything we share online becomes a personal assessment of your likability, we begin to write stories about ourselves and our worth based on the responses we receive, or don't. It's harder still to separate when popularity on social media can equate to monetary worth. For some, social media is an incredibly lucrative form of income. The decimation of someone’s accounts often means the upheaval of their business, community, and brand. As much as we'd like to believe our time and efforts equate to some sense of security, social media platforms are still businesses, and can eradicate platforms at any point.

I developed my Instagram 6 years ago when I first got out of residential treatment after a horrendous battle with an eating disorder. I created the account as a recovery journal for myself. I wanted to stay accountable in my recovery journey, and imbed myself deeply in a positive assortment of content creators who helped me heal my relationship with self and body. Over time, my personal venture turned into a platform of transformation and discovery. I enjoyed taking beautiful photos and putting together elaborate outfits I could share. I was vulnerable with my following and rewarded with their validation. It was a carefully-balanced, seemingly-symbiotic relationship.

Having grown up in Los Angeles, I can personal attest to the dysphoria of seeing people you grew up with become verified influencers and local celebrities. As young adults, there is a constant sense that we’re all falling behind, wading in the water, trying to unfurl our own flag, but struggling against the current of our own insecurity. For the casual consumer, the idea that maybe if I had been born prettier, healthier, funnier, richer, more outgoing, more palatable-I could have been more successful here-is a crushing social distortion.

I hadn’t realized how much of my self worth had been tied to the interaction and validation of the observant world until it was forcefully halted.

On November 9th, 2021, someone attempted to hack into my Facebook account over 10 times, and my account was disabled. Since my log-in information was connected to my Instagram, both my business page @bodyloveandbeyond, as well as my personal Disney page, @mickey_williams18, were both disabled as well. I sent appeals, forms, emails, I.D. verifications, I took to social media, I sent messages everyday to Facebook security-to absolutely no avail. Instagram simply put my accounts under the category of community guidelines violation and didn't give me the option to appeal. Everyday, I sent the same email, begging for my accounts back. I had spent years building logging my progress and building my community. On my Facebook, I stored all of my memories dating back from 2010. Middle school, high school, college, graduation, family trips, and my late dog Charlie all existed in pictures on those accounts. Over a decade of my life in pictures, as well as my partnerships and connections I had made on my social accounts, eradicated at the hands of a digital superpower.

At first, there was shock. Then, an overwhelming anger and righteous fury. Finally, there was a quiet realization that everything I had built, everything I had invested in, planned, loved, and created from scratch was leveled, and no one was listening. I would thrift a new outfit and excitedly think about making a post for it, only to remember there was no one to see it. I put on my sweatshirt I designed thinking I could advertise that way, but there was no where to do so. Most of all, I grieved the loss of the version of me that only existed in pictures. The prospect of simply restarting something that had taken me countless years of time, investment, love, and sacrifice (both monetary and mental) was so overwhelming, I didn't want to do anything at all. It's too much. I'm too far behind now. I'll never catch up. I'll never make back what I lost. If I did try, it would only be a pale, rushed imitation of what I'm trying to recreate. I could try to find the straggler accounts I remembered by name, but my community might not be able to find me again either. There was no warning, and no closure. What I had built had been erased.

I'm left chasing after an image of self curated with all the right formulas, all the right hashtags, all the right presets. The feeling of being left behind. The feeling of shock that comes from knowing you can spend all that time, investment, heart, and energy into something that never actually existed. The likes, the followers, the accolades, the branding-rendered meaningless. Inevitably, some of yourself will manifest into your work. What you produce and create is a reflection of your personal tastes and self-expression. It's not unusual for there to be devastation where investment and honest labor took place. However, the way in which I felt completely hollowed, like the erasure of my social media accounts had erased everything meaningful I had ever accomplished, let me know loud and clear that my identity correlation with social recognition had gone further than I'd realized.

To find worth outside of the social experience means to be comfortable with who you are when no one's in the room. The monumental reassurance that you are seen can only reach so far when the spotlight goes off and the four walls echo with silence. There is no audience for your truest self but you. If I am too focused on the way I am perceived to get to know my strengths and weaknesses intimately, then I have only accepted a superficial version of myself. I must be confident of my worth not when everyone else can see it, but when no one can.

I was devastated. And I think that's valid. I still writhe with residual anger when I think about the time that was wasted repeating school, waiting for doors to open, and the people that abused me. I think about my own mistakes and chastise past versions of myself for taking certain turns. This habit of rumination keeps me locked in place at times. I think about all the work I did and how easily it was leveled, and I want to lie down in defeat and never get back up again.

I suppose I've confused living a life quietly with living a life free of the need for acknowledgement. I've associated a quiet life with a boring, forgettable one. A life without an audience is not a memorable one, right?

This experience has taught me that a life is just as valuable if millions see it then if no one sees it. Peering eyes are not a guarantee of a life well-lived, and the same is true of a life without spectators. Nothing about me has changed as a person as a result of losing my social media accounts. Nothing is lost but how I am perceived by the outside world. True, I invested and built this perception, and I believed it to be an honest one, but now is a time for me to invest in that which makes me feel whole and well, without the validation of others. Now is the time for me to continue to live a life I feel proud of, even if no one is watching. Post that picture. Experiment. Ground yourself in a firmer foundation. Rediscovering worth again outside of the masses of like and frustrations over followings takes shadow work and deconstruction. Worth without reassurance. Self love without validation. Expression, artistry, creation, and momentum without the guarantee of acknowledgement. I rebuilt my foundation on the principle that I had worth, have worth, and will have worth beyond a digital footprint or a social legacy. I am whole as I am, even without the appendages and accolades I believed defined me before.

My worth is not measured by how many people are impressed by me, but rather by what I think of myself.

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