On the fifth floor of the MoMA in New York City, it’s nearly impossible to get a good look at Van Gogh’s “The Starry Night” without squeezing through the crowd of tourists. People won’t stand any closer than five feet away, not because there’s any barrier preventing them, but because they don’t want to get the backs of their heads in anyone else’s picture. They just want their blurry Snapchat, their filtered Instagram picture, their “I’ve seen something famous” Facebook post. Yes, the majority of these people know who painted this: They’ve seen reprints on posters, on T-shirts, and postcards. But do they know why it’s important? Or what it means? Instead of using their phones to engage more with the art they’ve paid to see, they’re focused on their own social relevance.
There is a reason why we are glued to our phones as we waddle in bathroom lines. Why we sneak a peek at our notifications when our dates run to the bathroom (where they will probably check theirs, too). Why we believe we unite to overcome technology’s suffocation by stacking our cell phones in the middle of the table at a dinner party.
We believe we love technology because it connects us to the world, but this connection has become an excuse for dependency. Cell phones have become a social crutch. But the paradox of the 21st century is that this pressure to remain relevant often creates such strong disconnect among those with whom we try to reconnect. Without WiFi and Internet access, we feel like we’re missing out on our friends’ lives. The anxiety of being without a WiFi password is universally understood: That’s why Chicago launched free WiFi at five public beaches, and Barcelona’s airport-to-city buses advertise “free WiFi on board” next to their ticket prices. But when we start timing our Instagram posts so they’ll get the most likes, our lives begin to become a popularity contest.
Facebook has become a time capsule for posting and preserving special moments in a public sphere: We share prom pictures and celebrate anniversaries, but we also dedicate paragraph-long posts to relatives who have recently passed away. But underlying each of our posts is a desire to remain relevant, and our shared memories are manipulated: They’re marketed for an audience and advertised to gain likes. To make our own memories relevant on these media platforms, we sacrifice sincerity (how we truly felt about that day, that person, that event) for popularity (how we want others to feel about us).
Just as it’s impossible to take quality lecture notes when we’re simultaneously scrolling through our Facebook feed, it’s impossible to fully appreciate an experience when it’s lived through a screen. At musical festivals, concertgoers post videos of the most popular songs to their Snapchat stories. I’ll always be able to re-listen to Alex Turner asking me “Do I Wanna Know?” but I won’t get to re-experience sitting on top of my best friend’s shoulders and singing the song at the top of my lungs. The only problem is that I didn’t experience this concert the way I should have: I was too concerned with an in-focus picture and great sound quality so I could record it on Snapchat. And after leaving Lollapalooza feeling like I’d missed something, I asked myself why I post. Why am I taking these videos? Is it for me? Or is it for my Snapchat friends, 75 percent of whom are people I’ve lost touch with and haven’t “connected” with in years?
When our concern with staying relevant starts coercing us into living life half behind a screen and half in the moment we’re desperate to share, we need to ask what the purpose of each post is. At the beach, if your first thought is to Instagram the sunset and not to let the water hit your toes, ask yourself if it’s more important to experience the beauty in front of you or the gratification from reassured relevancy. Deactivating our Facebooks and deleting our Instagrams isn’t a solution, considering they’re two main mediums for modern communication. But if we can’t go to an art exhibit without Instagramming it, and if we can’t fly to another country without checking in on Facebook, maybe it’s time to take a step back and determine if online relevancy corrupts physical reality.
Brooke White is a second-year in the College majoring in political science.