You come from a gifted generation. Each day, you unwrap a stream of new presents, with all the urgency of a morning coffee fix. Your thumbs are always slightly bent from the effort, but your ego is well-massaged by 8am. These daily gifts arrive in frantic bundles, ballooning from the corner of your cellphone screen. They are tiny and orange, bearing a heart with a number – a measurement of their ability to butter, to blandish, to spread honey over insecurities.
Exclamations trail from them like ribbons. Stunner. WOW! You’re flawless. I like that. Like. That’s so cool. Like. OMG. Like. Like. Like. Each compliment a new delicacy, curdling self-doubt into something sweet and thick as ice-cream. Does it matter that the faces behind these words don’t know your favourite colour or even your last name? If it does, it soon doesn’t. For they are the benevolent, their fingertips affirming the sheen of your existence, with a simple ‘double tap’.
Ebola is long gone; the world’s new pandemic is narcissism. The symptoms are obvious – a lone man taking a selfie in the supermarket. A 12-year-old girl using her free time, not to read or do sport, but pose for her cellphone, her mother’s lipstick a garish gash on her face. And you, taking a ‘candid’ of your cappuccino, because in the 21st century, coffee cups are the Internet’s Holy Grail.
This is not an age of ‘doing’ but of ‘seeming’. It is not enough to check out Oliver Twist from the library; it has to be documented, preferably beside a cup of tea on a floral tablecloth. Never mind that you hate classics and couldn’t get past 23 pages of damn Oliver Twist. But what with the Sylvia Plath quotes underneath your sunset pictures, and the fashionable feminist poetry peppering your wall, you need to keep up an intellectual image.
The idea of doing something solely for yourself has become a novel concept. Journaling, unwinding with some tea, playing music in the car – nothing is spared from a camera. What was always ‘me-time’ has been cracked open for the viewing pleasure of all 328 of your ‘friends’. Perhaps, if you reach into the tap root of this phenomenon, something darker lies there. Just think. Are you so desperate to scrape off the mundanity of life? Is this your malady, a constant search for something shiny enough for your Instagram page? Or are you always flailing to find meaning in boredom, in the little things, in your solitude, that laying a filter on them and captioning it #blessed, is better than accepting it as life’s grit?
Some truths have no gloss, so they have to be skirted. But sometimes you do cry yourself to sleep. You have problems with your parents. You worry about getting into college; your best friend got an Ivy League acceptance letter and its image mocks you from your feed. Everybody else is having fun. Everybody is happy. Happier than you. It is all a lie but somehow you believe it.
Filters can erase pores but not unhappiness. In a world saturated with aggressive optimism, with imperfect ideas of perfect happiness, nobody is interested in airing their troubles. Negativity does not gleam. So you tuck away your worries, and furnish an alternate life, airbrushed with unreality. It is all a lie, but somehow you keep telling it.
One morning, while at brunch with a friend you haven’t seen in a while, you crack an old inside joke, expecting nostalgic laughter. But your friend is silent; she is uploading a picture of her salad on the Internet. Instead of getting irritated, you suddenly marvel at the cleverness of naming a phone’s camera function as ‘point and shoot’. For it pulls a trigger on a moment that could have been genuine. A pleasant encounter is shot before warming into memory, its glittering shrapnel left to hurtle into cyberspace.