For many of us, our social media profiles have been cultivated since those awkward middle school years, filled with highly saturated, peace-sign photos with angsty, Avril Lavigne lyric captions. While some of us decided this content was far too embarrassing to keep online into adulthood, many of us still hold these memories in the archives of our various accounts, which are now filled with more current photos and posts, updating our friends and family on our daily lives, college decisions, friends new and old, and travel experiences. Whether or not you decided to ditch the pre-teen years online, the past decade or so of social media use has been recorded and stored. Thousands of posts, “likes”, “retweets”, followers and followings have collected an enormous database that illustrates our preferences, interests, likes, and dislikes. In many cases, this plethora of information may have a better understanding of our persona’s evolution than our closest friends and family, or even ourselves, do.
The tangibility of one’s online persona is depicted in Black Mirror episode “Be Right Back”. In this episode, a young couple moves into a remote cottage. A day later, one of them is tragically killed in a car accident. The other is devastated, but is informed by a friend of a service that, when one dies, uses their previous social media profiles, interactions, and activities to develop an android that is fully interactive. This allows the young woman, who found out shortly after her husband’s death that she is pregnant, to continue to “interact” with her husband, essentially avoiding the reality of his death. While this episode also delves into the ways we misrepresent ourselves online, the premise of determining an individual’s core personality from their social media profile is indicative of the relationships that individuals create with their social media profiles. Our social media profiles have become a depository of life experiences, a source of nostalgia, and preservation of time as it passes. Like we do in “real life”, we have spent years maintaining a persona on social media. So much so, that it has become an extension of our own self.
The investment we make into developing our online persona also translates to a significant investment in participating in social networks of people online. Some scientists argue that an individual’s attachment style–how avoidant, anxious, involved, and dependent one is in their social relationships–actually manifests itself in the way they consume social media. Omri Gillath, psychology professor at University of Kansas, conducted a study examining how participants conducted themselves on social media, concluding that people follow the same patterns in their “real” relationships that they do on social media. Social media is not only a representation of our individual self, but a significant component of our social lives.
Interestingly enough, last week, international airline JetBlue announced a peculiar sweepstakes encouraging social media addicts to wipe the slate clean. This contest will reward three lucky winners with an entire year of free flights, with only one entry requirement: delete all of your Instagram posts, make your account public, and post a photo promoting JetBlue. Many Instagram users have compared this sweepstakes to the Fyre Festival promotion, where the event encouraged influencers to post a mysterious, burnt orange square on their accounts promoting the experience; however, it presents an interesting dichotomy: both boycotting and using social media to promote a brand. On the one hand, this contest taps into the anti-social media sentiment that has been ruminating over the past few years, especially following the Facebook data breach. Social media consumers are becoming increasingly aware, and concerned, by the amount of data that is collected on their online activity and interactions. Because of this, we’ve seen a staggering popularity in wellness applications such as Apple’s new “My Weekly Usage” tool, where social media users can better monitor and limit the amount of time they spend online. On the other hand, this sweepstakes uses individuals social media accounts as promotional leverage, and even encourages users to continue posting photos of their travel experiences once the contest is over. Like Fyre Festival or The Egg’s viral moments, JetBlue seems to be using a sense of mystère to attract a following, a trend that is becoming more and more effective on social media.
As a photo-posting app, Instagram thrives off of the travel experiences of its users, and travel photos are some of the most popular and most-liked photos on the platform. Because of this, it is natural to assume that users are excited and interested in travel, and would likely be very intrigued by a sweepstakes offering thousands of dollars in flight value. However, users still feel very hesitant to participate. This dichotomy of both consuming and boycotting social media raises the conversation that social media is both something we don’t want to live with, but cannot live without. As said before, social media has become a part of our identity and a significant component in the way we interact with others. Even a sweepstakes such as the one being offered by JetBlue, which would give users the opportunity to experience something so many are seemingly passionate about, is not considered because of the implications of deleting social media presence. This lends itself to the notion that our social media accounts are becoming a part of our identity, and deleting them would mean deleting a part of one’s self, something that is not easily done. It begs the question, is travel a true interest of so many Instagram users, or are these pictures posted for the purposes of cultivating an image? How crucial is an online profile to one’s self and social life, and at what point would we be willing to entirely give that up?