A Social Media Rookie Tries Oversharing

by Zak Meghrouni-Brown | 4/16/15 6:24pm

Zak Meghrouni-Brown, The Dartmouth Staff

In the fall 2008, under the strong urging of my middle school pals, I made a Facebook page. For seven years, it remained my only form of social media — my only window into the superfluities and quirks of good friends and mere acquaintances. Last week I stepped up my game. In a fit of uncharacteristic fury I signed away my soul to Twitter and Instagram to experience what it might be like to experience my self-worth dribble away to be replaced by likes, comments, shares and retweets.

So I shared my life in pictures and pithy 140-character spasms. In one way, it was just what I needed. In another, it was “just what I needed” (cue eye roll). On the plus side, I could practically feel the surge of dopamine slither through my brain’s pathways each time I opened my browser to new notifications, but I subsequently have become all too attached to those little red boxes that proclaim the grandeur of one’s success and the depths of one’s failure.

Even now, I possess your technophobic uncle’s level of proficiency on social media. As a proper scholar, I undertook research on the kind of posts and interactions in which your average young whippersnapper participates. Do people still use Vine? I know Myspace is antiquated, but is there a new buzz of life over there?

What I found might not surprise you. Kids these days are into Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram. So I created Twitter and Instagram accounts and got to work.

I posted a moody shot of a landscape on Instagram complaining about the persistence of winter yet showcasing its beauty — aced that one — and I must say that even FoCo’s cement-esque scrambled eggs glistened scrumptiously (especially after a nice helping of the app’s liberal filters).

With my Instagram account still fresh, I’d hardly built a grassroots following. Despite the lack of a robust sample size, there was still a pretty big gulf in the number of likes I received depending on the type of post.

My post with fewest likes — to which I alluded a few sentences ago — was that tastefully filtered shot of the fire tower brooding under a few inches of soggy snow. My most liked post thus far, on the other hand — with a crushing 26 total likes — was a trashy meme of a forlorn chocolate Santa Claus that my mother jettisoned off with me on my way back from spring break, captioned, “when u get to the party but u four months late.”

When it came to Twitter, I also found varying success depending on what I posted. My most liked tweet was an absolutely delectable overheard I’d had the luck of catching from a passionate conversation across the street: “Overheard some girls talking about Mennonite overalls. Why am I always so behind on these trends??” Another post received less, but more diverse attention: I shared a New York Times article announcing the Pope’s acknowledgment of the Armenian Genocide and called on Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to do the same on the 100th anniversary of the event later this month.

In trying to decipher the reasons for the variation of reactions to my posts, I fished out of the murky depths of my subconscious two distinct motivations for posting photos and statuses. First and foremost, I sought likes: the numbers themselves, not even some abstract notion of acceptance — though one could say the two are pretty strongly correlated.

But in fact the most edifying impetus behind posts was making something I myself enjoyed and felt proud of. My angsty fire tower photo did not receive much of a warm, fuzzy cyber-embrace. Nonetheless, it was something I am proud to have created myself. Likewise, the Armenian Genocide post, though it was a miniscule gesture, helped me to reaffirm my own conviction and commitment to human rights and my ethnic identity. On the other hand, I felt like I was cheating a bit, playing on sensationalism and actively like-seeking when I posted my overheard and the Santa meme (both objectively hilarious).

So I had played the artsy/quirky role on Instagram and the incisive/humorous one on Twitter (to varying degrees of success), but there was still something remarkably asocial about my experience so far. I hastily dispatched my art into the ethereal realm of the World Wide Web, duly appreciated the likes I had cashed in and then let it recede down the fast-flowing stream. There was rarely a real interaction focused around a post. It was more of a nail-baiting battle of sink or swim.

For Morgan McGonagle ’18, who has close to 1,300 followers and averages around 200 likes per photo, her popularity is relatively incidental. She doesn’t change what she posts to garner more likes, and she merely thinks that Instagram is a nice way to share pictures more spontaneously.

“I try to put up pictures on Instagram pretty often, but I wouldn’t say I do it in order to get followers or to please followers,” she said. “It’s more of a natural thing to be able to post pictures in the moment.”

She attributes the popularity of her account to her diverse social groups. At this point, she knows just about all of the people who like her photos. Likewise, she has certainly cultivated a distinct style in her posts that others might enjoy or identify with.

“It’s what I’m drawn to or attracted to,” she said. “I don’t think I would change it randomly, but I don’t think it’s something I need to uphold for the sake of people enjoying it.”

In all, she doesn’t see fame or popularity as the goal, even if she has to cope with her online identity bleeding into her personal one.

“A lot of people have started calling me by my Instagram name,” she said.

By comparison, I am lashing out in all directions because I still lack any kind of holistic online identity. It was not in complete vain, however, and despite the relatively tepid experience these two new platforms afforded me, my entry into this world did not go unnoticed. I took on this experiment because I am usually someone who interacts rarely and passively on social media, and so my friends were therefore incredulous that I had entered the big leagues in one swoop.

I received confused texts from high school friends, and the first topic of conversation with College friends was “What? You? Why?” Of course it’s classic Zak to do this as a personal experiment and write a floridly phrased newspaper article about it, but I chose to conceal my true purpose and attempted to convince my friends that I had finally chosen to share my brilliant life and mind through modern platforms.

My seamless efforts to insinuate myself into social media unraveled when I decided to exploit a Facebook trope a bit too viciously. Over the past few months I had seen the practice of commenting on and liking old pictures and Facebook posts become excruciatingly popular, and I decided to go scrolling for juicy tidbits of Facebook past.

Though evidently by commenting on a friend’s old post, I accidentally struck a rather embarrassing recollection, and she came back with a vengeance.

As far as I could tell, she inaugurated her Facebook page in 2011 — three years after I had — and as a Facebook veteran, I had quite the gold mine of statuses for her to choose from. She pulled the trigger and shot their sickening contents — did everyone need to see “Zak is.” on their page? — to the top of newsfeeds around the country. I had proverbially booted in my own boot.

That whole experience, while certainly but a blip on the radar of my friends and followers, reminded me why I had never felt comfortable with social media in the first place. It requires a leap of faith that I am not willing to take. To me it requires staking a piece of myself on the possibility that it will serve to either improve my image or utterly backfire. Maybe it is because I am deeply image-conscious that I stray away from social media in the first place.

I sat down with sociology professor Janice McCabe to discuss what role social media might play in the development of youth social networks and behavior. We tend to view social media without much nuance, she said, and she suggested that social media might not be producing anything entirely new.

“Although the platforms have changed, the roles that [social media] plays in youths’ lives hasn’t changed that much,” she said.

Indeed, while social media may be changing the site of our interactions, the same social development occurs in youth whether or not social media is involved — even without Facebook, we have no problem sifting out alpha from beta or extravert from introvert. She did, however, acknowledge that social media provides today’s youth an excuse to be capricious — Instagram makes for an instantaneous venue for discovery and definition of one’s identity.

“Social media can play important roles in helping [people] think through who they are,” she said. “Online you have opportunities to try out different selves in ways you can’t in person.”

While who we portray ourselves as online can be indicative of our personal identities, what I say and do online often feels too removed from my person to effect evolution in my identity. Everything I do online can be worded and reworded, and the reaction isn’t personal. I don’t get blank stares when I throw out a dud on social media. Crickets in cyberspace don’t chirp as loud and clear as they might in real life.

Psychology professor Kyle Smith explained why, despite my exasperation with social media, I can’t stay off of it. Seeing likes, seeing little notifications and hearing the ‘ba-doop’ of a new Facebook message is satisfying.

“The brain is just very good at latching on to those sorts of positive feedbacks, whether social, food, whatever, and stamping these things into routines,” he said.

Social media seems to provide all the rewards of socializing — with acceptance and gratification coming in the form of all the little bells and whistles — while minimizing the painful parts. It’s alluring for our mammallian brain. Smith noted that we feel safer experimenting with our personalities and identities online than we might in person.

“What strikes me too [about social media] is, compared to other social situations, is it’s — I think — maybe implicitly a little safer in the sense that you can post something and not have to deal with the response right away,” he said. “It dilutes some of the negative feedback you might get.”

After this short sprint for the limelight I will be happy to let my Twitter handle gather dust, and I won’t be too crushed when that notification globe on Facebook isn’t blinking with a little red square. My mind is one track — two at best — and I lack the energy to build my own little internet empire.

But to all of those who are up to this arduous task, carry on entertaining the rest of us lurkers.