I worry about our obsession with vanity. Not Hollywood stardom or photo-shopped hips—although those too are troubling. I’m concerned about our pedestrian vanity. You, me, that woman we walk by on our way to the coffee shop. We care less about who we are than who we want the world to believe we are.
We are, in a very real way, the Mad Men Generation—we are all our personal ad executives and our product is “Me.” Our ability to transform the ordinary, a mural on a nice day, a coffee on a dreary one, into the extraordinary would be uncanny if it wasn’t, apparently, innate. We are all prodigies. Our medium is social, and our means is the lens.
As a friend once said to me in an off-handed sort of way as we sat on the border in some far away country, “You could crop this perfectly and we would look exotic to everyone else, but that doesn’t change the fact that we’re sitting at a fucking gas station.”
Stage; crop; filter; upload. Repeat.
This might sound cranky, crotchety, and plain cantankerous—Andy Rooney another friend said. Yet I claim no superiority over you or that woman on the street; I am guilty of these things too. But let’s all call ourselves on our own bullshit: our ubiquitous, ever-evolving campaigns of “Me.”
We see them everywhere. They are our Snapchat stories, a reel of selfies, set ups, and sandy beaches on a lazy Sunday. They are our Facebook feeds, full of fancy brunches, weekend hikes, and nights out on the town. All of which mix together into a spread of “Me” according to me, sanitized of the doldrums, embossed by gilded reflections of only the good moments.
We, the Mad Men Generation, have perfected all these things. Brands aren’t only for products now, they are for “Me.” But more than anything, we have perfected the brand of “Me,” the traveller. Here’s “Me” with these monkeys, “Me” at Big Ben, “Me” in Patagonia. “Me”: privileged, exotic, playful, cultured, carefree. Recognize my brand, we command through a never ending slideshow of the foreign.
Sure we could dismiss this self-idolatry as just a contemporary evolutionary quirk of the human condition. But our self-promotion is not personal, it is exhibitionist, and it is everyone’s problem. We are after all selling ourselves to the audience. Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat. Likes, favorites, and hearts. We demand others’ participation; we demand consumers of “Me.”
We don’t do it for money though. (Some do of course. We call them influencers now.) We do it for the intangible approval, for recognition: “They like me.” Which sounds laughable until we learn that “likes” and “retweets” stimulate the same neural hardware that sex does. We crave push notifications alerting us that our posts, and by extension we, are loved—if only at an arm’s length by strangers labeled our “friends.” We long for the “dopamine tickle.”
And there you have it: We’re having meaningless, digital, “semi-consensual sadomasochistic” sex with strangers. No one gets off in the end, so let’s just stop.
We’re leaving all of our “friends” decidedly unsatisfied. We know that those on the receiving end of those faraway travel uploads feel worse after viewing them. It is as if the audience transfers a little piece of their happiness to “Me” with every click of that oddly taunting thumbs up. As envy creeps in, we find ourselves in the strange position of measuring our own self-worth according to the amount of other’s jealousy.
Not only are we selfish about it, we’re deceptive about it. We went to the Eiffel Tower and sprawled out at Versailles. We found our way to Istanbul and wandered that beautiful mosque. Those things happened, true enough. But we did not see that sunset across that French lawn alone, and we did not climb that minaret alone. According to “Me,” though, we did. We set ourselves against those backdrops skillfully leaving unexposed the inconvenient foreground, full of others trying to do the same thing, and we palm “Me” off as exotic to our domestic, and depressed audience.
We shouldn’t just stop out of altruistic reasons though, we should stop for our own sake. We too are members of the audience. We’re on the receiving end. We feel envious, taken advantage of, when we see other’s fantastical lives cast a long shadow over our real, normal ones. It doesn’t matter that we know they are advertisements, because our brain tells us they are real and they are better than we are.
Even worse, when we get lost in the orgy of engineering “Me,” maybe to steal some happiness back from our seat in the audience, we don’t experience what’s in front of our faces. The concert sounds better on this side of our phones. That ferry feels better when we notice the spray off the water. The mountain air tastes sweeter. Forget the filter, forget the ironically and allegedly brave #nofilter, just feel it.
So what now? Let’s stop fucking each other.
Let’s rollback Campaign “Me.” We don’t have to stop altogether; of course, we won’t stop so let’s not tease ourselves with impossible goals. But maybe we shoot for something a few rungs below Mr. Draper.
Maybe one thousand selfies is just too much?
How about one upload per trip? That’s doable. One picture taken per concert? Sure, why not? No uploads during the week? Okay, fine.
Travel because you want to see things not because you want to be seen. Experience things because you want to try new things not because you want to appear novel. Enjoy a mural or a coffee because, well, you like art and caffeine. And remember, always, that some things, most things, just aren’t worth sharing.
Image courtesy of happykiddo. Some rights reserved.