Virtually Satisfied

Andy Frakes

    Why do we try so hard to impress with sardonic 140-character statements and pictures of our lattes? I’ve started to think it’s because we’re missing something fundamental, and replacing it with mobile notifications.

My girlfriend raised the issue awhile back in a conversation about my Instagram profile, and it was the first time I was really asked to confront it. It’s silly, she said, to post this stuff for the sake of recognition and validation. We mutually agreed then to delete our Instagram accounts. However, I started a new profile over the summer because I felt like I was missing out.

   I’m active on social media so that I can show other people how “cool” I am, of course, which I figure is why most people do it. Another reason is perhaps naive: to keep track of myself in an organized manner. I enjoy scrolling back through old posts to see what I was doing months and years ago.

    I like the idea of our generation having their own version of the Polaroids our parents took and kept in actual albums. But I suspect the less idealistic motive is what really drives us; we start with the idea of chronicling, and end up comparing and judging.

   When I was in high school I was very conflicted about this sort of thing; I wanted to be strong, to not need anyone’s help or approval. Ayn Rand, controversial author of “The Fountainhead” and
“Atlas Shrugged” among other works, presents characters who are self-reliant and never ask for help. I looked up to these fictional people, hoping that one day I could be as independent as them.

   At the same time I was reading Kurt Vonnegut, whose novel Slaughterhouse Five is often taught in high school English classes. A recurring theme in his books is that extended families and friend groups were part of the picture of sanity. Vonnegut has even gone so far as to say that the breakdown of the extended family was contributing to the mental health problem in America, as more and more people attempt Rand’s suggested loner-cowboy lifestyle.
   The characteristic that causes us to stick together, that yearns for family and community and cliques and core groups, is likewise responsible for the validation-seeking behavior we exhibit when we don’t have such strong family ties or groups of friends.

   The fact of the matter is that if we were as friendly and open with each other as people were even 20 years ago, we wouldn’t feel such a need to garner acclaim for our posted content on Facebook and so on.

   I’m guilty of this. We all are. We don’t call our parents back, we ignore invitations from friends, instead holing up with Netflix and BuzzFeed. It’s easier.

And so with such a dearth of human contact, each retweet or like on our “self-portraits” (I refuse to use the word “selfie”) is like a high-five we never got.

  But man, we need those high-fives. We need the verbal acknowledgements, the spoken greetings, sending messages with more than our thumbs. We need that stuff. And we turn to social media  because they’re missing from the physical world we live in.

   We can keep substituting Instagram hearts for the real thing, or we can start giving and receiving from each other like a real community should. I know I’d be better off if I just took Vonnegut’s advice and called my mom back.