I came across the most interesting line in the New York Times a few days ago.
I was reading an article about the passing of Lilly Pulitzer, whose iconic clothing line, popularized in the 1960’s, continues to be a symbol of wealth (and WASP) despite the audacious color choices and patterns which are her signature. I wore a vintage Lilly belonging to my mom to a wedding in Virginia last summer and the dress brought the house down. I had old men looking at me like I was their 1960’s prom date, older women stopping me to reminisce about the Lilly’s that they had worn and loved, and people my age wondering where I got it and how they could find one too. Vintage Lilly designs are fun, quirky, and more elegant than anything they put out today.
But this post isn’t about Lilly’s per se, it’s about the changing way society uses symbols and shared meanings to communicate information. To wear a Lilly was to indicate you were a part of, or at least understood, the rules and customs of a certain part of the population; a typically upper class part with the luxury of being able to buy and wear outrageous resort-wear without shame (or you simply have exceptionally loud taste). She may never have intended this as a designer, but the brand grew the way things have for years: a good idea, worn and shared at first by friends and family locally, and eventually shot into another echelon when worn by Jackie Kennedy Onassis, an old schoolmate supporting her business.
I enjoyed reading that Lilly Pulitzer hated promoting herself. The author slipped a truly telling line about the world’s changing social mores in her piece, saying “She (Lilly) meticulously avoided personal publicity, as was once common to people of bottomless wealth.” It was a refreshing reminder of what used to be the norm before social media amped up each of our personal megaphones. Once upon a time people let their actions speak for themselves, without putting it on youtube, writing an ebook, blogging, tweeting, Instagramming, or facebooking each passing thought or moment of their day. I long for the time when being humble and soft-spoken about one’s life and achievements was the mark of character. I thought it was one of the most sharp statements I’ve ever read on class and the changing dynamic brought to today’s society through social media, and it really hit home to me.
The topic of how social media is changing our rules and mores is a topic I have given a lot of thought to. I recall sometime in college writing an email to facebook inquiring whether Macalester could be included in their network, back when it was only in the East. I wanted to be a part of it then, the connectivity and intrigue of being able to learn about the people you see every day. I don’t think I anticipated then, what social media is today. And, honestly, I don’t know if I would have gotten on board then had I known.
Whatever happened to understatement and the elegance of doing something for its own sake, without sharing it ad nauseam? I find that from facebook, to twitter, to instagram, social media seems to induce a sense of self-importance among its users that rubs me the wrong way. It memorializes life as we’re living it, giving a sense of urgency to each of our desires to share or promote our moments as we live them, rather than just living them. It makes everybody’s walk home from work, or bike ride, or dinner, or baby suddenly worthy of blogs, photos, and incessant snippets shared via Twitter. and while these are important personal moments, the sharing element seems to me like crying wolf on what’s important in life, slowly lowering the bar for what qualifies as memorable.
I recently joined Instagram while traveling with Eliot. He loves it and finally convinced me to get off my high horse about it. And it’s fun, I can admit it. But I catch myself in the midst of editing a photo of something utterly mundane that, upon further reflection, has no place on the web and then deleting it. Not internet worthy. Not worth memorializing, at least not anywhere outside of my brain. I don’t want my life represented in a series of over-hyped vignettes.
I think perhaps most Instagram photos fall squarely in that category. I mean, I love sharing photos of my life – but they can’t possibly produce an indicative image of what my life entails. More than anything, the images present a custom-crafted vision of how I want my life to be seen by others. It’s a form of personal marketing, and frankly I think it’s turning us all into narcissists.
Maybe I just don’t get it. Is Instagram about marketing your life or is it just an artistic toy? If it’s about art, again, it’s setting the bar pretty low. I took a photo of my shin guards today and made it look good using filters. If it’s about sharing and memorializing one’s life, I think there is more insidious stuff happening to each of us when we begin to see the mundane details of life – a glimpse in a mirror, or a flower we pass on a walk, a morning coffee, etc., as media to consume and share, rather than personal experiences that make up a life. I wonder at times whether this type of consumption of isolated personal moments takes away from them, and instead turns them into media tools to craft an image of who we are and what our lives look like.
This is just something I’ve been chewing on lately. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy social media and I don’t think it’s going anywhere fast. It’s here to stay. But, I worry about what it does to me, and what it does to each of us.