The first time I can recall observing this must have been during high school, sometime around 2017. I was lazily watching my friend Snapchat her boyfriend one afternoon, and I noticed that as she took each selfie, she frowned or gaped or made a face, then immediately relaxed her expression as soon as the photo was taken. For the caption, she would type in all caps, “NO OMG” or “HSFCGVCX I’M DEAD,” all with a deadpan face and then send off the message. With some degree of amusement, I realized how prone I was to doing the same thing, sometimes even striking dramatic poses to make the conversation funnier.
This thought didn’t have a tremendous effect on my 16-year-old psyche. But now, after seeing other people, or even catching myself crafting these expressions for Snapchats or texts so many times, I wonder what this indicates about us and our evolving interpersonal relationships in the context of technology and the virtual world.
A distinction I should make right now is that I don’t believe we are “faking” our level of engagement when we have these distant interactions — not considering, of course, some of our actually “fake” relationships; I mean our conversations with friends, family, and other acquaintances, in which we are attempting to convey our genuine emotions. I can honestly say that I engage in all-caps or playful texting to my friends to convey general excitement, even as my face stays mostly impassive save the occasional smile or raised eyebrow. However, it’s not as if I don’t feel those particular emotions when I’m texting people, it’s just that the emotions don’t always make it to my face when I’m not eye-to-eye with the person I’m conversing with. That makes me wonder — when we “do” interact with other people in person, how much of our expressions and mannerisms are socialized, less of an innate behavior than a learned manner of communication? Just like how actors control their facial expressions to convey the emotions of their characters, do we — to some degree, subconsciously — adjust our faces in order to communicate our own emotions, or the emotions we wish to present? Then, how much of the social cues that we receive from “other” people are, in turn, reflections of what they think are the appropriate signals to convey how they feel? And past snapshots of expressions, what about actual posts, videos, tweets — when we express ourselves on larger platforms?
I ask these questions in the context of the social media boom, in this time when so much and so many of our identities are constructed on social media platforms such as Instagram, Twitter and TikTok. These apps allow us to reach out to and connect with infinitely more people than we could possibly meet face-to-face, and certainly our social media identities can precede our actual selves — I swipe through other students’ Instagrams sometimes, and I constantly meet new people and have that moment of “Wait, is this your Instagram handle?” I’ve heard from friends who saw my Instagram before they met me that my Instagram page doesn’t match my actual personality or that my posts seemed intimidating, which is pretty funny, but then I wonder how my Instagram — and by extension, myself — comes across to the general public. And then I think about other Yale students and how many times it seemed like I knew at least “something” about who they were just from their Instagrams, but was surprised when I saw them in person. And then I think about the virtual world filled with billions of carefully constructed identities, and I’m reminded of this Twitter thread I read about how maybe the metaverse is not actually a virtual reality world like Facebook proposes, but instead a “time” when our digital lives begin to overcome our physical lives. It’s a thought-provoking theory that goes into detail about how so many aspects of our lives — banking, jobs, hobbies — are going online.
I think maybe it doesn’t even have to go so far. What if the metaverse has already begun on a microscopic scale through our text conversations, and gradually grows to larger dimensions as we expand to our social media accounts, our LinkedIns, all these deliberate identities? How much larger than our persons will our digital identities grow, and how will they shift in the process?
Yes, “we live in a society” is tiring, but I think we are building an nth dimension for our projected identities, an entirely “new” society that is only marginally tethered to the earth we tread. This digital dimension is on a path of burgeoning expansion, and its future prospects — and its implications for our physical lives — are both exciting and daunting.