The illusion of self-expression

It’s no secret that social media use among teens has stoked concerns around how it might impact their mental health. The jury is still out on whether that’s actually true, especially because there isn’t even a consensus on what ‘social media’ is. Anecdotally, I’ve found that visual platforms like Instagram tend to elicit more silent crises in friends, who then self-medicate by removing the app or deleting it altogether.

While each crisis is deeply personal and complex, I’ve wondered how the aspect of self-expression – or rather, the illusion of self-expression – might contribute to or exacerbate these issues. To examine this, I turn to some written works, both written coincidentally in the ancient year of 2009.

In Fuck Content, Michael Rock argues that designers have become distracted by the allure of creating content, all while forgetting that the essence of design as a craft is to shape the content. Through design history, we examine how the design of mundane objects like cigarettes or hair product have evolved, but the cigarettes themselves have never been the focus of our study. Rock says it’s not what’s on the page, it’s how that page is presented: in short, the content never mattered.

Part of the social media mental health crisis could be that these platforms necessarily reduce each one of us to our whats, despite the fact that the how is central to self-expression. Rock wrote his piece in 2009, which was the height of templatized experiences like blogging and MySpace. In the same year, Dennis Knopf notes in Defriending the Web that we see ongoing attempts at individuality on these platforms: using special characters in names, picking the perfect song, using a colorful layout, and writing out a lot of text in About Me. Sure, the content mattered, but true expression lived at the limits of how we could show it.

As social media evolved, we found ourselves boxed in more than ever. The only way I can represent my me-ness through Instagram is to be discerning with the photos I post, ensuring my caption is snappy and my overall grid aligns with the way I see myself. Beyond that, I’m in a McMansion equivalent of online presence. Suddenly, all of our whats are put on display as if they are directly comparable with each other, stripped of all context and devoid of any of the complexity of our hows that fulfill us and make us who we are.

All the same, these platforms reassure us that this is the height of self-expression; no other time in history have we been able to share and connect like this. As Knopf cleverly notes, they reinforce this with their use of pronoun-based naming: iPhone, MySpace, YouTube, WeChat. We’ve been convinced that these platforms are really about us, that we ought to put our whats out there in exactly the same way as everyone else. Much like the designers that Rock addresses, we’ve become distracted by the content while forgetting that the how is what’s really core to who we are. It’s no wonder we aren’t happy.