A few weeks ago, my daughter Lilly played guitar in her school’s talent show. She’s only 9. I never performed in any talent show and it wasn’t until long after high school that I ever got the gumption to perform on any stage by myself.
I Tweeted, “My daughter is performing solo in a school talent show today, which makes her one of the bravest people I’ve ever met.”
Soon after, I posted a slightly blurry photo of the performance on Facebook, and when I had time, I uploaded a very short video clip of her playing the haunting Slavic folk song she learned in her guitar classes.
Friends and family members who hadn’t seen her in a while responded positively and it was nice to be able to share a proud dad moment (and a shining daughter moment) with all the people I connect with online. I didn’t see any harm in it. But truth be told, it’s something I’ve been doing a lot less often with each passing year.
Some of it is the age of my kids. As they’ve gotten older and more self-aware, I’m keenly aware that they won’t always be thrilled to know that their dad posted photo and details of their growing up — the tantrums along with the triumphs. I figure the less I embarrass them online as children, the better they’ll treat me when I’m too old to care for myself.
But it’s also something else I’ve had a hard time putting my finger on or articulating for a while; perhaps it’s some kind of social media existential crisis.
I’ve begun to seriously question why I’m posting all this stuff, who it’s for, and whether I’m posting things because they are worth documenting and sharing, or out of a sense of obligation. Sometimes, it can feel like an unpaid job. Very often, heavy social media users discover -- just before hitting a patch of extreme burnout -- that what you are putting out there of yourself is not always worth the engagement and human connection that you want to get back.
Some of it could also be that I am unavoidably turning into an Old Crank.
I see things on social media that bother me and it makes me wonder if people are viewing my stuff in a similar, unsparing way. The parents who can’t post a photo of their kids without inserting themselves into the photo, turning each childhood milestone into a selfie-plus-one. The individuals who post about their favorite brands and products, carefully hashtagging companies and locations in a bald-faced bid to get free stuff, customer perks or to ride the wave of someone else’s larger social-media presence. The posters who cut and paste jokes, memes or intense political rants without bothering to mention that they didn’t originate them.
It’s often clear what someone who posts often like that wants: attention, validation, admiration and maybe some free cases of Topo Chico.
In the case of the talent show posts, I sincerely wanted friends and family to know that Lilly is doing great; she’s come a long way from the tiny, shy, worried kindergartener. But was I also seeking validation for my parenting? An abundance of Facebook likes to make me feel good about my choice to post about it? Am I sharing and documenting an important part of my life for posterity, or was I just seeking a short-term dopamine hit of warm fuzzies in the form of retweets?
I don’t regard everything on social media with such suspicion and ambivalence. The people I follow online genuinely make me laugh, keep me informed and up to speed about news and viewpoints I might otherwise miss, and give me lots to feel and think about. I place a high value on having a window, however curated and dressed-up, into the lives of more-distant family members and friends with whom I would have otherwise lost touch.
But I also see so many people struggling to contribute in a meaningful way and to feel rewarded, or even heard, for opening up in such a way. As a reporter, social media is part of my job, as it is for many other people. I have friends who work in television who are required to Tweet and post on Facebook a certain number of times per day. They hate that, but they do it because it’s part of the job.
I have wondered lately how many of the people I watch post every day have made social media a seven-day-a-week job for themselves. To whom do they owe all these social media posts? I wonder how much of it is a desperation for connection. Is contributing regularly, no matter how little you have to say, the price of being part of a community that might forget you’re there if you stop making noise?
I’ve been experimenting with that idea, sometimes disappearing from Twitter for a weekend or going semi-radio-silent when I’m on vacation and away from computer screens all day. I’m learning, at this late date, how to take a photo at a concert or gathering of friends without immediately rushing to Instagram or Snapchat to post about it. I’m trying to shoot video at my kids’ dance recitals as a way to capture the moment for my family, not to get the best online-friendly video strangers and friends alike will want to watch and (heart). Not posting feels like a juicy secret sometimes, a little adventure I had that I didn’t show the world. Sometimes, a memorable moment can just belong to me and not Facebook or Twitter or Instagram or LinkedIn, Pinterest, Snapchat or any other place that always needs to be fed with new content.
People who have avoided social media altogether will think this is completely dumb. Just don’t do it, they might say. Who’s making you? The thing is, for many of us social media has replaced photo albums, town halls, home movies, correspondence and much more. It’s not going away, and many of us feel it’s worth all the trade-offs of privacy and time.
However, I’m trying hard to learn how to stop allowing social media to feel like an involuntary reflex, or something I’m doing for other people (even imaginary, judgey people), rather than for myself. It’s good to keep a few secrets, to skip a few obligations, and to try to figure out when feeding the social-media beast is much less important that enjoying life offline.