Written by Heather Grant
It’s there to entertain and inspire us, not control us
I spent the last few years doing an English degree which, inevitably, meant I spent the last few years doing a lot of reading and collecting a lot of stories. And in all the stories I’ve read, I’ve come to realise the ones I’m most passionate about are stories that resist neat narratives.
I don’t want to hear about triumphs, successes, and overcoming adversity just to follow the norm. I want to hear stories that are complex and messy; that are both happy and sad, good and bad, all at the same time. The stories I find most interesting, are the ones that make no attempt at reducing or simplifying life.
But whilst my work became more and more focused on the importance of listening to complex experiences, I failed to realise that I was squeezing the complexity of my own life to fit exactly the kind of narratives I was writing against. And the narrative I was trying to fit? the one that social media has created.
The social media narrative
French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard talked about the collapse of ‘grand narratives’, where the theories and philosophies of the past are no longer adequate to contain and represent all of us. We are all living a unique story, with a unique perspective, full of differences and diversity.
However, at the same time, social media is expanding to become more than something contained behind a screen: it’s becoming the grand narrative of our generation, the story more and more people are trying to live by.
Take Instagram for example. We’re fitting our lives to a comic book-like form where good memories match a colour coordinated grid, their value based on likes and comments. Where sad memories match inspirational quotes, awaiting love heart emojis that promise to heal all wounds. The one where construct yourself as a character; your style, your aesthetic, your vibe, and your friends. The one where difficult years can be contained in a caption, overwritten when it’s time for a ‘new year, new me’.
And the result? A neat story of your life for all to see.
Life is complex
But life isn’t neat. And life isn’t lived on a screen. And it’s easy to fall into the all too common trap of letting real life and social media life get confused.
Over the past few years, I have faced some really tough things and, despite my scrolling, there’s no insta quote that can do them justice. I squished and squeezed to fit the grid. I scrolled and scrolled in an attempt to find someone’s life that looked like mine. I poured my heart out in a caption and deleted it moments later. I needed a template, a blueprint, a narrative to make sense of it all. But it just didn’t fit.
The last few years have also contained some of my happiest times, which, equally, don’t fit the narrative. The happy and the sad are so intertwined, they exceed the summary and the direction social media demands. Things go well, then they don’t, then they do again. Sometimes sad things override happy memories, and, alternatively, sometimes the happiest memories are the ones that take place during the saddest times. I couldn’t make the good days aesthetic, they wouldn’t have made sense in a pretty picture, and I couldn’t summarise them in a caption if I tried.
I guess what it all comes down to is that thing you hear preached time and time again: social media is not real life. While some people’s life may match the pictures they post, most people won’t.
Social media is a fiction story
This isn’t to say that social media is inherently bad – I’d be a hypocrite for saying that, I use it all the time. It’s fun, creative, entertaining; a place to connect, to escape, and so many other things. When we control it, rather than let it control us, it contains a world of positive possibilities.
I like to think of it as a fiction story, and like a best-selling fantasy or coming-of-age, it’s there for entertainment. Observe, embrace, and be inspired by it, but don’t live by it.
Like a book, you get to pick what you read. Be selective, fill your feed with things that add to your life, rather than control it. Let it inspire you, help you, entertain you. Clear out any accounts that are hindering you or making you feel bad – close that book, it’s not for you.
Equally, be selective with who gets to read your story. Post things that make you feel good, and comment on others posts to make them feel good. Use it to celebrate yourself, and celebrate your friends. You’re in control.
And finally, don’t reduce the complexity of your own life to try and match an aesthetic that’s been carefully crafted. Be weird and wonderful. Embrace life’s complexities. Do what suits you, not your feed.