‘we are a culture that conflates happiness and success’
A new craft has emerged in the digital age: to capture, polish and publish a perfect life. We crop, recolour and hashtag our posts to embellish them, and to direct the impressions our readers take from them.
Chompoo Baritone recently created a clever set of posts. It pokes fun at Instagram users and the application of this craft to make their lives seem more glamorous or exciting. It removes the dull, useless detail that means nothing or little, or detracts from the focus we set. We cut out what we don’t want others to see. Photographers have been doing this for years. Here is a link to the work ‘‘How people lie about their lives in Instagram’.
The concept of the double life, the one we lead and the one we aspire to, is not new. Adam Phillips in Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life, beautifully summarised by Brainpickings in this post, spells it out.
‘We may need to think of ourselves as always living a double life, the one that we wish for and the one that we practice; the one that never happens and the one that keeps happening… We make our lives pleasurable, and therefore bearable, by picturing them as they might be; it is less obvious, though, what these compelling fantasy lives — lives of, as it were, a more complete satisfaction — are a self-cure for.’
Our utopias tell us more about our lived lives, and their privations, than about our wished-for lives. In our unlived lives we are always more satisfied, far less frustrated versions of ourselves…’ – Phillips
Brands create and feed us images and experiences of that perfect, unlived life. It’s the not having that frustrates, and creates desire. We’ve coined the term FOMO to label that cognitive over-saturation of perfection in what we see of others – it stands for fear of missing out.
Is there anything wrong with a bit of digital li(f)e craft, at an individual level? Is it motivating, self-reinforcing or depleting? Does social media allow us to amplify a serial self-perfection-promotion that’s more mask than is good for us? Is there a shadow rising, born from this intoxication?
Carl Jung investigated how we live our lives through the persona. The persona is the mask we use to present ourselves to the world. What Jung called individuation, or healthy adult personal development and adaptation to the world, is a process of tearing away the mask that conceals our true selves and only presents what the world most wants to see from us or expects of us. It is the ‘Instagram’ self, the one we want others to believe, love, admire, envy.
The mask becomes a shadow if it is only a manifestation of the unlived life, and nothing more.
Establishing your own interface with the world, not only what others want to see, is realistic, more flexible and easier to manage. It helps to navigate adult society without colliding or hiding from the true self. To present what is not perfect or conflated or shaped by ‘likes’ is risky but rewarding over time – in place of momentary happiness there may be a semblance of longer lasting fulfilment. It is the bedrock for resilience, psychological congruence (or a lack of dissonance) and meaningful engagement. It also opens up the space for connection, development and feedback that relates to you, not your fantasy life. I think brands are starting to reach that tipping point. The perfection they once poured out is gradually being replaced with something more authentic, something with real people in it. The ever-happy, giggly personalities issuing the odd “awe” are not accessible, nor are their relentless selfie-pouts and animated hand gestures. People need to from relationships with people who deliver to needs over time. The rest is just a short-lived theatrical tease, closing on the curtain call.
Too much digital li(f)e craft, over-fascination with and broadcasting of perfection, a mask, through aesthetics or ‘happiness’, leaves the narrative we build about our lives wanting. So the risk is that the narrative is inauthentic. The mask covers rather than connects.
We live in an age where we are exposed to multiple sources of information and perspectives, we can collect, digest, influence and be influenced. You no longer have to be the big company, a politician on the news, or simply be rich to have influence and audience. You can build a following through what you believe, say and do. We are empowered because we are connected, to information, to others. We have a myriad of tools at our disposal for articulating and engaging the authentic self, through the medium of our choice, at the exposure that matches our personal comfort levels.
Continued self-promotion and craft without meaningful engagement is bound to have a shelf life. Just like it has for brands. Opening up an authentic face for your brand, for you, is powerful. We can craft and drive our influence and presence in the world without bombarding our ‘fans’ with perfection. We can offer more.
In a world that’s flying into new horizons and perspectives, with more access and connection than ever before, old rules (broadcast / push / bombardment) promoting ‘self’ or the unlived life are running out. They have increasingly less attraction. This age offers, paradoxically, a real opportunity to be authentic.
The digital divide once scared me. I was afraid of who could access the real me, and what they could do with that. And then I remembered Jung and all he had to teach. I was reminded that the narrative of your life is built through exposure, exploration and authentic engagement. That’s risky as you must reveal some of your true self, not the utopia of the unlived life. But other options for me lacked depth and sustainable fulfillment. They seemed to shelter and limit growth. Growth is something we need in this digital age, learning, growth, renewal, curiosity, connection, collaboration.
Life has shades beyond Instagram fixes. If you enjoy your digital craft, that could be harmless enough. We all do it to some extent. But never lose sight of navigating your own exposure to the world, at the comfort and through the mediums of your choice. Take a few risks on your authentic self. There’s more out there than our special (imaginary) unlived life.