From the glances and subtle shoves, from the headphones in when I’m speaking to the tone in their voice, I knew I wasn’t welcome. It may have been my hair, my height, how I dress, and how I talk, but what I do know for sure is, parts of my grooves and edges do not fit into the aesthetic jigsaw they so diligently craft for the Snapchat stories, for the Instagram posts, for the two minute increments of a daily BeReal. And so I distance myself.
As a first-year who recently arrived at Wellesley College, the last time I attempted to make new friends seems to be a distant memory, a hazy, ambiguous feeling I cannot quite grasp. There is no formula for the start of a friendship, of course; some march into one’s life by a good laugh, others through intense bonding experiences, and some are even borne from forgiveness after conflicts or fluorescent rage. But as the world shifted ever so slightly since the onset of COVID-19, political change, and becoming a somewhat-adult, the opportunities of raw, genuine interactions blossoming into friendship dissipate. I’ve come to realize that I departed from the innocence and spontaneity of childhood friendships, and have entered into a world where human connections are, more often than not, goal-oriented, unauthentic and distant.
In September 2021, the Wall Street Journal published an exposé titled “Facebook Knows Instagram Is Toxic for Teen Girls, Company Documents Show.” The article demonstrated that Facebook had identified disturbing information about the consequences of Instagram on youth. It cited a leaked company presentation to the paper that concluded: “Teens blame Instagram for increases in the rate of anxiety and depression. This reaction was unprompted and consistent across all groups.” Gen Z members have been socialized in the art of suppressing real emotions and identities to engage in strategic self-presentation from as far back as we can remember. Since the pandemic, researchers have noted an uptick in “social media fatigue,” referring to high levels of information overload experienced from extensive usage of social media. Despite the plaguing feelings of being overwhelmed, even the tech-weariest among us find it hard to disregard the mandate to put forward our best selves online. Indeed, growing up in the age of blossoming social media and technology, the concepts of selectivity, status and popularity have become infused into the ways we approach socialization.
Mutual growth and support are not the only purpose behind friendship anymore, but rather to create a perfectly curated group of companions. Some people are not loyal to you. They are loyal to their need of you, of you to be in their frame of the 0.5 camera, of your ability to provide content for those colorful instagram stories. These stories seem to say: people love me, I am not alone, I have something you do not. Forming these communities that are seemingly inclusive online but exclusive offline are, in my view, the goal of many modern friendships. This is our way of surviving the social scene; we do not want to be excluded, so we exclude. We do not want to be lonely, so we create loneliness for others. We help people around us, but only when it’s convenient for us. So really, we’re just helping ourselves.
BeReal — the French photo-sharing app launched in 2020 — has been heralded as the antidote to combat such a trend. While BeReal has been lauded for its novel spontaneity, informality and provision of “unvarnished glimpses into everyday life,” it represents the latest iteration in the cycle of social media sites that spring from the push-and-pull tension of authenticity and performance. However, the “authenticity” ideal that media companies are increasingly flaunting is no more than a social construct. We don’t want authenticity, we want neutral makeup. We are curated enough that we don’t hate the way we see ourselves, but not so curated that it looks staged or artificial to everyone else. It’s a farce we’re all playing with one another for a society that wants to be understood but not seen. This means that pinning down our most “authentic” self is always, already, elusive.
How do we combat this climate of social life that our generation must dwell in? Are genuine connections impossible to pursue? Can we go back to making dependable, faithful friends?
In the 1950s, social psychologist Rebecca G. Adams discovered, in her research findings, that there are three components to a long lasting friendship: physical proximity, repeated, unplanned interactions and settings that allow people to let their guard down. Circumstances where these conditions are met are increasingly rare to encounter as we all refine our myriad social facades. Friendship, what it means, and how to navigate it is a tough problem with very few one-size-fits-all solutions. But maybe as we carry on with our day to day lives from this point forward, devoting a bit more of our time to someone else’s well being rather than the style of our social media profile, to whole-heartedly listen, to hold safe spaces for those around us, to put down judgment, to welcome vulnerability, we can replenish the desolate seeds of modern friendship.