Views expressed in opinion columns are the author's own.
"Real life" increasingly occurs online. So much of students' academic and social lives have migrated to the sphere of the virtual. The underlying culture of much of social media — think Instagram, Twitter and Facebook — fosters a mentality in which we are taught to conflate "likes" with social capital and self-esteem, assigning currency to the experiences, photographs and thoughts we decide to share online. The result of this virtual identity construction is a world in which people aren't engaging with their individual, multi-dimensional existence; rather, we live in a world in which identities are watered down within a confined character limit.
This online culture has blurred the line between feelings of validation and those of genuine connection. Rather than striving to be known and to communicate the multifaceted existence we inhabit, we settle for being seen and validated. Thoughts are followed by an evaluation of their share-ability — rather than examined for their impact and value. By commodifying the moments, thoughts and experiences that compose our daily existence, we collectively assume the role of performer while remaining firmly in the audience.
For as many think pieces and conversations I've absorbed that insist on the internet's value as a resource for learning and connection, the election and subsequent political climate indicate the power this insidious virtual world holds. The cyclical internet culture of distraction, consumption and validation distracts people from their positions within social hierarchies. It creates watered-down versions of our identities and prevents us from critically engaging with the social and political issues around us.
In an interview with writer George Saunders, author Zadie Smith reflected, "Historians in 100 years might write about [the 2016 election] as being the first internet election, in which what happened was actually an expression in the real world of a virtual reality." To which Saunders responded,"I don't mind being criticized intelligently [online]; although I don't love it. But social media sometimes feels like a vehicle for one-dimensional sniping."
Like both Smith and Saunders describe, the migration from the real to the virtual has impacts that are new and unknown. It changes the ways in which people portray themselves and interact with the world around them. And when we choose to invest so much time in online pursuits that magnify the worst of human behavior, our identity and political consciousness suffer.
American rapper and artist Saul Williams has spoken repeatedly about how the media we consume is as much a part of our diet as food. "All of [the things you consume] are parts of our diet, you know. … All of these things have an effect." As college students, we are beginning to find our footing as individuals and develop our own opinions — as we should be. But investing so much in the identities we create online does a disservice to that growth. We have to start disconnecting from the screens in our lives. We must think critically about the ways in which various platforms force us to create smaller, less nuanced versions of ourselves and promote a culture of disengagement rather than critical thinking.
While we must be aware of the world around us, online culture does more to distract us than it does to enlighten us. And, at the same time, internet and social media consumption undermines our identity formation at this dynamic and formative time in our lives. Breaking this seemingly inescapable cycle of visual consumption and validation isn't easy, but learning to recognize the pull of our screens and say "no" is a step in the right direction. For me, learning to catch myself when tempted into distraction has allowed me to become clearer about who I am and who I want to become, in my own way, and in as many words and characters as I'd like.
Sarah Riback is a sophomore English and sociology major. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.