At this moment, my most recent tweet reads as follows: “going to disney world for your honeymoon should count as its own section of the DSM-IV.” For better or worse, this quip is a perfect specimen of the Gen-Z Twittersphere—short, snarky, provocative, and just bordering on unnecessarily harsh. My followers, an eclectic group of close friends, casual acquaintances, and sugar baby-seeking bots, agreed: 21 likes and one retweet. Not a bad engagement-to-follower ratio for someone on the lower end of a three-digit following. Mission accomplished! I got the laugh.
I would like to believe that, for the most part, my online persona is an honest representation of my real self—whatever it is that entails. I don’t tweet anything that I don’t believe to be true, besides the occasional exaggeration for the sake of comedic effect (meaning, I don’t really think that all adult Disney fans are deranged…though it’s a close call). The things I choose to talk about aren’t always funny or glamorous; I am no stranger to using my Twitter as a space to vent about personal struggles, like living with post-traumatic stress disorder, or the many frustrations of attending a selective, private university as someone who was previously educated in the public school system. But underneath this guise of vulnerability, there lurks an intrinsic falseness—a lack of intimacy that is inherent to any form of preplanned entertainment. The way I see it, my Twitter is a one-woman show in which I triple-feature as director, writer, and most importantly, the starring role. The seemingly countless inhabitants of cyberspace are my audience, and I can meticulously plan—or delete—any and every line. It is a virtual performance piece in the trappings of a public diary, and therein lies its quiet danger. If I remember anything from psychology class, it’s that you aren’t really you when you’re made to stand in front of a crowd.
This facade of vulnerability functions as shield and weapon all at once. No mode of entertainment can be successful without exposing its creator to some degree, with the rare exception of content that is published anonymously; conversely, if an artist pours too much truth into their work, they run the risk of being burned. I suppose that this is a line I am toeing right now, in writing both on and about my Twitter. Like all things, the more there is to lose, the more there is to gain; the more details you give away, the more criticism you will endure, whether you care to receive it or not. Criticism can be helpful, of course—and it is absolutely necessary in order to rebuke all too common displays of bigotry and injustice. But anyone who grew up during the age of the internet knows that it doesn’t take long for minor critiques to transform into absolute cruelty. This is how the persona is formed: no one can hurt you if the image you’re projecting isn’t quite the real thing.
Before living in the confines of quarantine, I didn’t give nearly as much thought to my online persona. So what if my virtual life wasn’t entirely representative of my reality? After all, whose is? I would hardly expect that kind of transparency from anyone else, or accuse them of falsehood for choosing to keep their most intimate thoughts and experiences private. Even celebrities who are followed by millions, who possess a thousand times more power and influence than the average person, are owed some degree of privacy from public scrutiny. But now that the overwhelming majority of social interactions must occur online, even my relatively unobserved life has begun to feel like a neverending performance. It’s like a significantly more Winnicottian form of what has recently been dubbed “Zoom burnout.” I’m not just tired of interacting with my virtual peers; I’m tired of interacting with my virtual self. She’s not me, but she’s not not-me either. She is a version of myself whose finger is always on the pulse, equipped with the perfect one-liner, rebuttal, or witty remark for any occasion. And the emotional toll of her daily upkeep is exhausting.
I am tired of performing vulnerability, although perhaps the alternative is even more draining—writing this piece took about three times as long as any other I have written, and I have broached some pretty serious subjects in the past. Just three days of mulling the implications of my various selves was more emotionally and intellectually challenging than I had ever anticipated, and that wasn’t even the most difficult part; rather, it was articulating these thoughts with honesty and coherence that nearly overwhelmed me. There were sentences I wanted to delete, because I couldn’t stand the girl they described. But I couldn’t deny that that girl was a part of me.
Now that the essay is written, however, I do feel a little bit lighter. In these few pages of brutal honesty, the most honesty I have ever displayed to a virtual audience, it seems that my many selves have begun to merge closer together, or at the very least find peace in coexistence. For the first time in a long time, I look in the mirror, and the girl staring back at me smiles.
By Isabelle Robinson