pics or it didn’t happen

This post is the first in a two-part series about the Internet. In Part 1, below, I write a pages-long excuse for wasting all of my time on the Internet. In Part 2, I’ll illuminate the inseverable connection between trying to buy a mattress and the declining art of writing. Keep yourselves busy in between posts by contemplating whether Twitter will, indeed, be the downfall of Western democracy.

I got Instagram in June. (Yes, this June. In 2017. I still don’t know what David S. Pumpkins is, and I can’t confidently identify dubstep, but I get millennial pink now. It’s a start.) What converted me, ultimately, was being in Stockholm on the longest day of the year. I was so overwhelmed by the beauty of the waterfront that I could think of nothing but how best to brag about seeing it.

I avoided Instagram because I have a fraught relationship with my own image. I can think of few photos taken of me over my lifetime that I can stand to look at, fewer if I don’t count the ones where I think I’m cute only because I’m so cringingly awkward, fewer still if I tell myself not to look fondly on the photos from when I was starving myself. I’m not sure if I want to get married in no small part because I so dread the photos. I dread looking at them and I dread what I will do to myself to create photos that I can tolerate looking at.

But I’m a child of the Internet, a geeky, lonely kid who didn’t understand that there were people like me in the world until I found them on the message boards of the early 2000’s. The Internet was the first place where I felt that I could be myself — and the place where I learned how to reinvent myself. (Did I once stage a dramatic departure from a message board I frequented then re-register under a new screen name just to see if I could make strangers believe that I was a different person than the one they already knew? I’m not saying I did, but I’m also not saying that I haven’t known from a young age just how distinctive my voice is.)

When social media took over the message board as my Internet drug of choice, I fell in love with what I saw as a new tool for self-expression. I was about to make a crack about how I mean self-expression, not corporate brand expression, but then I remembered how much I love that I can tweet at United when my flights are delayed, for example by sending them them a prose poem in the style of “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” 140 characters at a time if they strand me at Heathrow for 29 hours. It was more productive than taking myself on a pub crawl around the four Star Alliance lounges in Terminal 2, which I know because I also did that. And having to acknowledge that fast-food restaurants are now sentient entities that communicate with one another feels like a small price to pay for being able to channel my constant, low-level rage at United to United.

I’m being facetious — as a former customer service professional I don’t make a habit of attacking them — but more to the point, I am who I am as much because of my Internet presence as my physical presence. I dated a man who, on principle, avoided social media, and while that was hardly the only way in which I wasn’t my authentic self in that relationship, it felt more significant than I would have anticipated. If you don’t follow me on Twitter, can you really know my id? (My id, apparently, wants to troll customer service professionals who represent airlines that fly planes from the Soviet era. We all have our vices.) My Twitter self is an abstraction of my physical self that gleefully flouts the rules of grammar, communicates complex sentiments with images instead of trying to unpack them with words, and blurts out shameful thoughts in a way I never would aloud. I see Twitter as a place where I can put this version of myself on display in a sort of ironic light that exists separately from the articulate, measured identity I strive to cultivate in real life.

Much of what I loved about the Internet as a child and young teenager was how I could exist in words but not being. I wasn’t an ugly child, but I was a gawky one, and I felt limited by the body that I lived in. It wasn’t that being on the Internet allowed me to pretend I looked different than I did — I think all of us spending time online in the early 2000s were well aware that none of us were secretly babes, you know? Even better, it was irrelevant. I was my brain and my wit and nothing beyond that mattered, except my sweet avatar.

In 2017 it feels tragically unhip to be enthusiastic about social media. I think I’m supposed to be casting aspersions on people who post frequent status updates on Facebook because #YOLO, and it’s bad to think about what your life looks like to people on the Internet rather than simply live it. It’s like being twelve again. I know that Internet cool isn’t properly cool but frankly, I don’t feel like I can be cool in any way except Internet cool. (And Facebook isn’t even Internet cool anymore. I’m fucked, basically.) Not having Instagram had always been a minor point of pride for me. Like, I was an Internet-obsessed loser, but at least I wasn’t part of this weird cult of disembodied hands holding ice cream cones.

But then I went to Stockholm.

Over the past couple of years I’ve become a frequent traveler. I look at my passport as a symbol of triumph over adversity, and I don’t just mean that I have listened to to four screaming babies in dulcet harmony for eight hours without throwing myself out of the overwing exit. For many years I was so afraid of flying that I couldn’t really do it without medicating myself. And within that period, there was a long time when the idea of putting myself in an unfamiliar environment — i.e., one where I couldn’t rely on my food and exercise routine — was unfathomable. Even after the worst of my eating disorder had passed, travel still felt like something that was beyond me. There’s more than a paragraph’s worth of material to uncover here, so obviously I’m going to save that for the next time I want to write something really clickbaity that gets me on the WordPress Discover page (“How I stopped worrying and learned to love the fact that if you’re in France, there is no breakfast but croissants”).

Travel has become one of my favorite ways to get out of my own head. I’m too disoriented by jet lag and language barriers and the staggering weight of history to worry that I’m not supposed to be eating simple sugars for breakfast. When I look up from the Marienplatz or down at the Tokyo subway map, I’m free from the burden of thinking. I need only react. (Especially because Google Maps is really good with Tokyo subway directions. Otherwise I’d probably still be wandering around Shinjuku, living off corn-soup-in-a-can from the alleyway vending machines.) And I get to look constantly outward, away from myself.

In Stockholm, I wanted to share what I saw when I looked outward. Stockholm is impossibly precious in a way that makes me want to peer around every corner to make sure that I’m not missing some charming little staircase tucked in an alley that in New York would just be another place to store the trash. It’s the kind of place that feels worth getting off your couch to explore. But I have long felt overwhelmed by leaving my house. Inside, in the confines of my routine, I know what I have to do to feel accomplished; outside, the world overwhelms. I lack the rules to navigate it and it refuses to conform to my expectations. Instagram gave me a framework: a means of knowing what I was setting out to do and, ultimately, to do it. “Look,” I could finally say, “I left the house, finally, and it’s scary, and there were screaming babies on the plane, but aren’t you proud of me? I left the house.”

The zeitgeist would have you believe that the keep-up-with-the-Joneses pressure of social media is net negative. Quitting Instagram is the new quitting gluten (probably healthy but mostly an opportunity to show your moral fiber). Looking outward can so easily deteriorate into comparing yourself to the rest of the world and invariably coming up short because you don’t have an eight-pack or a baby or interior decorating skills.

For me, looking outward is what I do to remind myself that the world is there to experience — and now Instagram is what I use to remind myself to experience the world. I recognize the paradox. I leave the house so I can find photos to prove that I left the house. And, critically, I am not in those photos. It’s not like in college, when every weekend meant a new slew of Facebook photos that I could only cringe at and criticize. I feel, like I did in 2002, that the body I live in is irrelevant. It’s only a tool and when I use it as intended, instead of letting it lie fallow or cultivating it beyond practical utility, I can climb a mountain or even visit Hogwarts.

And anyway, I like to people-watch. I like to read fiction and magazine profiles. (It occurred to me recently that if I never achieve notoriety such that someone is tasked with writing a magazine profile about me — or if by the time it happens, magazines no longer exist — I might need to pay a freelancer to write me one before I die. Just to have, you know? I just really want to know how they describe the way I eat my lunch salad and see how far backward they have to bend to depict my home generously.)

Social media is just another lens through which I can observe human behavior. I find it terrifically fun to look at how my friends and family live their lives. I scroll through Instagram and wonder idly whether I, too, would like one day to travel to Hawaii (sure) or have children (nah) and admire how other people manage to hang their curtains straight. I empathize with people I’d otherwise be quick to judge — I can’t stop thinking about @butlikemaybe who has made me realize that maybe liking brunch and being perceptive aren’t mutually exclusive — or whose plights I’d never consider. I have college classmates whose work opens my eyes to how the structures that have elevated me over the course of my life have served to oppress others. And all this on the same platforms that are disrupting Western democracy and forcing me to listen to long-lost high school friends pontificate about healthy eating like they weren’t the ones begging to hit the Del Taco drive-through at 4 A.M. after the club!!!

The Internet has always been the most powerful tool I have to cultivate the image that I want to present to the world, and now it’s the most effective way for me to understand a world beyond the one that I encounter in my daily life. As a child, it was where I discovered that there were people in the world who wanted to listen to me. In college, when a classmate created a Facebook group called “Dana Cass’s Facebook Statuses are the Highlight of My News Feed and My Day,” it occurred to me for the first time that words could be my profession. (S_____, if you’re reading this, I’m not sure I ever thanked you properly for that.) Today, the Internet inspires me to cultivate a memorable and, yes, enviable life, and to strive for an offline life that extends beyond the borders I was born knowing. When the call comes in now, I go, whether it’s a work assignment on the other side of the world or just an evening on a rooftop in Brooklyn. Going, I’ve learned, is better than staying. Going means finding a photo to share — and stories to tell.

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