Danielle Bowler on perception and the value we attach to the numbers on our social pages
I was once at an event where someone snickered at a person's 'low' Instagram following, saying: 'He only has like 1000 followers'. Their friends laughed too. Someone's entire worth was perceived as wrapped up in a world of digits. I was shaken by what I was hearing. I found myself thinking 'how did we get here, where value is so fundamentally attached to these numbers?'
We have yet to fully appreciate and understand the extent to which our existence been altered by social media, as we live in the moment and slickly adapt to new platforms and constant updates with remarkable finesse. As part of a digital generation, we dually exist on streets and screens, with that perceived duality failing to capture how our online and offline realties inform each other. There is no beginning and no end. There is only this: the (new) way of us.
The effects of new digital technologies are vast, sprawling out in multiple directions. With remarkable breadth, sites and apps have changed how we make friends, share ideas, communicate, create language, and work. Our lives are constantly shaped within and around technology, bonded with our bones. Phones in hand, we are part-cyborgs.
After over-hearing that conversation about following and its connection to self-worth and success, I have been paying more attention to our engagements with and through social media; considering how, with our active involvement, it has shaped our world and our selves.
As we interact with social media daily and our avatars become extensions of who we are, there are social codes of conduct woven into the lines of the code we engage with daily. We are co-making and configuring these codes through how we choose to participate and engage as avatars.
I watch how I engage with social media, in the delicate dance with visibility and curation that sometimes threatens to move far from the way I would want to represent myself and my work. We can all get caught up in performing idealised version of ourselves, just the way we do offline, as we get caught up in new modes of engagement, the influence they bring (or demand) and way we measure and perceive success.
The Dapper Fashion Director of Esquire, Nick Sullivan, recently declared:
These words hit like a freight train. Kenny Morifi-Winslow wrote a stellar piece about the influence of digital technology on personal style, writing 'I blame Instagram. I think with globalisation and the homogenisation of popular culture, to a large degree, we all started consuming the same things and then replicating them.'. It is also affecting our professions in profound ways.
Digital technologies have not just changed the landscape of our industries and way we work, but also affected the kind of work that we create (particularly when keeping clicks, reach and influence in mind) and the way that we perceive its impact. We can all get caught up in 'doing it for the 'gram', particularly as reach and digital impressions become a critical part of creative professions.
The reality that Sullivan points out echoes across industries, as we deal with new metrics of success and the trickiness of how we create and share our work online and seek social recognition (and the followers and shares that appear to prove it).
There is a philosophical thought experiment that asks. "If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound"? When I think about our digital world and perceptions of success I wonder 'if you did something and don't put it on social media, did you do it at all?' The answer is less simple than it appears.
In an age where many opportunities stem from social media, it has come to function like an online business card and portfolio of work, where following taken as proof of concept, skills, impact, reach, and influence. It is not all there is, nor does it have principle status, but has a powerful effect and in some instances appearances can be perceived as (almost) everything. Many of our professions require social media, to publicise our work, engage and network. As an online presence becomes central to getting jobs in creative industries, it feels inescapable.
In this web of numbers, our personal perception of our value can become attached to the numbers on our social pages. Follow, post, share (repeat). There have always been metrics, audiences/consumers and demands on our work, however new platforms and digital have brought their own changes and shifts that we need to be conscious of - particularly when as Sullivan points out, they affect our ideas of success and influence us so profoundly as individuals.
Many of us use the sound alike 'influenza' to refer to influencers and influence, as a generational in-joke. Beyond its phonetic character, it's a meaningful analogy for the contagious nature of social media and its ways of being. We are all trying to figure this out and can get caught in the snares of social success. Digital technology, which can appear to have little in-built character, does not live outside of systems of power, including capitalism and ways of getting shmoney. We have to be (a little) wary and awake.
It is not solely negative. Digital technologies have brought community, access recognition, new forms of humour (I mean is there anything better than a fire meme) and gorgeous content into our lives. There are multiple sides to their effect - each offering different questions, suggestions, threats and gifts to us.
When I think about our interactions in our dual universe, I realise we all want to be seen. This need forms a foundational part of the architecture of our humanity. Considering social media and this matrix of visibility, power, influence, success and self-worth, Frank Ocean important words come to mind. I often use this quote, it sits in my spine and waits for release when considering the nature of our humanity. In words meant to become liner notes for Channel Orange, he wrote: '
As natural human desires are transferred into this world of code and screens, we can become lost in the thrill of it all. When I find myself caught in this unease that can accompany app anxieties, I've found it useful to step away from my phone and think 'is this really want you want to do, be and create in the world'. Often the answer is no. But it's sometimes more complicated than that. As we try to navigate new ways of being, we are all figuring it out: online, offline, in the in-between, in real-time.