Reality = Online: Youth May Rely on Social Media, But it Earns Many their Freedom

Illustration by Chanté-Marie Young

How many times do you rely on social media every day to make you feel good about who you are? If the answer is ‘uncountable’, or ‘infinite’, then, honestly…same.

Like the majority for 20-somethings in the Western World, I have spent my formative years online. Fantasy forums and role-play games were a way to make like-minded friends, and an immersive means of escape from the teen bullies and parental expectations of academic success. A healthy way to deal with teenage and young-adulthood frustration. I feel like I blinked my eyes and suddenly my safe space in which to scream anything was a platform upon which to stand and spout endless positive affirmations, leaving anything better left unsaid offstage. The elephant in every room is now the algorithm – and boy, is that a hard beast to please. Still, when you do find its sweet spot, the rush of serotonin that ‘like’ or ‘share’ can give is a bliss I actually rarely experience in real life. Especially in 2020, when so much bad is happening to so many. While growing an audience feels like a contest nobody can ever really win, and social media feels like a carbon copy of the comparison based society we live in (but on steroids), the internet does give space to now live a truth which I cannot fully embody in an offline world just yet.

I’m 26, and queer. I’m undiagnosed neurodiverse, and tired. My queerness has always manifested as something performative and vibrant…something I really wish I could fully share within my lived reality (and if it weren’t for the fact I have to hide it in order to keep myself safe in my current living circumstance, I would!). The internet has also been responsible for helping me understand my queerness, and my neurodiversity, through the interaction with others like me in lieu of being able to do so as often as I would like to in my lived reality.

Still, before covid-19, there were moments when I was afforded opportunities to live my truth offline. There is an element of disparagingly dangerous identity questioning going on for me and I’m sure many others during this horrific time of uncertainty and the lockdown of life. The production of the ‘me’ content for online, showcasing my truths, my struggles, what brings me joy…it all feels disjointed and fake without the moments of relief in which I was able to go and make these truths my lived reality. The times when I was far enough away from my small town that I was able to face the real world as my full, unfiltered self. Of course, I can wait for my parents to go shopping so that I can use my time still on Furlough to put a cosplay or queer outfit on in my bedroom, and do a mini photo shoot with myself, and maybe make a few tiktoks…let loose. Let myself be free for a couple of hours.

However, without the ability to enjoy real life queer kinships - whether that be in the alternative fashion community, cosplay conventions or drag shows - the act of expressing myself in the tiny windows of Instagram, a 15 second video clip on tiktok, or by whatever other means on the cyber world feels, admittedly, stagnant. It’s such a strange circumstance. Am I certain that I’m not just trying too hard to be something that I’m not? Absolutely! I know who I am. Am I my own applause? Completely! Totally! Wholeheartedly! Yet here I am again…checking Instagram, Tiktok, Twitter. Looking for those ‘likes’, like it’s the drip that is keeping the ‘real’ me alive.

Then again, if we step back and consider the alternative, aren’t we lucky…like, really, REALLY fortunate? We have this incredible tool that other generations before us did not have. Those of us who have grown up in places without the smorgasbord knowledge of diversity afforded to those brought up in more metropolitan area have truly benefited from the advent of the internet. The development of online armies of so-called ‘keyboard warriors’ seems only a small price to pay for the masses of free social education at our fingertips. Literally anybody with the internet can interact with each other in an infinite number of new ways that simply weren’t available 30 years ago, as well as the ability to constantly educate ourselves about intersectional social justice issues. The world we live in thus becomes three-dimensional…a spectrum. A spectacle. There are more piece to the jigsaw of life than there seemed to be before. In many ways, this is paradise.

But in others respects, it is hellishly confusing. A friend of mine said something that struck me the other day: the internet has been very different for each different generation that encounters it. This friend of mine is over 30, and I am 26. As the oldies of the social media world: we were online when it was less Instagram, Tiktok and influencers and more olden-times niche YouTube, 4chan, Tumblr, DeviantArt and The funniest meme on the internet was Nyan-cat and Potter Puppet Pals. My friend joked that he feels glad he’s been a millennial/gen-y on the internet rather than a gen z-er online: he admits he feels more adjusted even though he grew up on, seeing photographs of someone who melted in a bathtub of acid than someone who spent their formative years involved in the discourse-war culture of Tumblr. I, too, am quite glad that social media was still in its infancy while I was a teenager, for this same reason. The time taken to reflect and be introspective can be interrupted by continuing contesting discourses that pervade these days online. These can overtake and eclipse one’s entire sense of reality until the self gets lost. Binaries collide: Reality vs fiction, ideas which are new vs ideas which are outdated, fact vs opinion. Nothing is easy or straightforward.

But isn’t that just life? Messy. Confusing. Frustrating. Complex. It isn’t straightforward. Nor should it be. Perhaps the internet forces us to think critically about things we otherwise would never have thought of. Maybe it expands our expectation or idea of what life really is all about. A new self is thus born, in the age of the internet and social media discourse. A self that is open to changing their perspectives. A self that is charged, ready and willing to challenge others to question what they have been taught by the generations who came before them. A self within a generation inspired by the difference between themselves and those they encounter, rather than afraid of those differences like generations before.

Article by Lu Mae