Millennials Equate Visibility With Value: How Has the Pandemic Changed Us?
A young woman unpacks what life looks like when the real world and the virtual one have a reckoning.
College was the first time in my life I suffered from tangible social anxiety.
I was a solitary public schooler, dog-paddling an ocean of private school cliques, and I hadn’t anticipated how out of place I’d feel. Until I got there, all I wanted was to un-go there.
I’d never struggled with making friends before. But in this new special hell, everyone’s parents owned an AGA and I didn’t know what that was. (It’s a fancy stove.) Sometimes it felt like for this reason, specifically, I was unable to form easy connections like the others did. By simple cause-and-effect logic, my parents’ oven was shit, and so I was bound to be friendless forever.
Parties were an endless cycle of people telling me it was nice to meet me, when they had, in fact, met me several times before. Communal mealtimes were one giant, feverish friendship orgy, which I felt like I was observing from the outside—a kind of sad, pathetic voyeur clutching a trayful of mashed potato.
I Felt Like a Failure
If I break down how I felt about it, though, it wasn’t so much the feelings of loneliness and disillusionment in themselves that bothered me. It was more that I felt as though I was failing—fantastically badly—at something. As a woman, I’ve only ever known a world where personal appeal is of the utmost importance, and self-exposure is encouraged. From childhood, women learn that worth ties to how socially visible we are: the number of female friends we (appear to) have, and all the audaciously Instagram-worthy things we do with them. In this way, for many young (particularly middle-class) women in a pre-coronavirus world, “being busy” was rendered a kind of twisted late-capitalist status symbol.
Of course, if the need to be visible in real life was a drag, the mirror-room dimension of social media made it near unlivable. Back in my first year of college, there wasn’t merely pressure to have fun and be popular (and know what an AGA was). There was also the pressure to prove it to everyone back home through Facebook and Instagram. Today’s masturbatory internet landscape—its frenzied orbit around the personal profile—is defined by an implicit performance incentive: a coded instinct to make ourselves look good. It makes sense that women are particularly deft at navigating this. As John Berger wrote, “A woman must continually watch herself”—not simply acting and existing in the world but forever considering how she appears when she does it.
For better or worse, between my college years and the present day, most of my life has remained inextricable from the internet. On social media, on dating apps and professionally, as a writer. Sure, I’m no longer a sad, pathetic student trying to prove I have friends (go me), but the inclinations to posit myself as hot, funny, virtuous, successful, politically engaged and the rest have, regrettably, continued to mount. What’s more, for someone in my profession, what used to be purely social incentives—to be seen, heard, even liked—have become economic ones. On many levels, the internet has architected a system dependent on exploiting attention and, indeed, monetizing selfhood.
COVID-19 Flipped the Script
But then the pandemic hit, and the world went into lockdown. And suddenly, this world in which I'd always lived—where social visibility was paramount; where selfhood was dependent on its constant production and reproduction before an audience—was turned on its head. I couldn’t see anyone. If Instagram is, as Jia Tolentino coins it, a “three-ring circus of happiness and popularity and success,” I indeed had zero to document. Hinge was redundant (*violin plays*) and career-wise, the media landscape was, and remains, perhaps bleaker than ever. All the typical means by which I sought validation were stripped away, and I was forced to confront what’s left.
I can’t pretend the period didn’t fuck with me. It did. Research found that the decline in mental wellbeing during lockdown has been twice as substantial for young women under the age of 30 as it has been for men. And so sure, in the first half, I cried. I cried in the mornings, I cried in the middle of the night, I cried on my daily state-sanctioned walk (throw in a couple of panic attacks, and then it’s a party).
But as the weeks turned to months, I realized something: A large part of me was enjoying the quiet.
Not only did lockdown remove the pressure to be popular and sociable, but it removed the pressure to look popular and sociable. I spent my birthday drinking wine alone in my backyard, and no one could call me a loser; I spent weekends re-watching the complete Desperate Housewives boxset, and I didn’t have to feel guilty about it. I had nothing to prove on social media, and neither did anyone else. It was bittersweet—miserable and magical—but, by any assessment, a long-needed escape from specific internet ecosystems.
Work Forced Me to Appreciate Just Existing
Under capitalism, what is at first pleasure swiftly becomes a trap. I always enjoyed writing, so naturally, I felt compelled to monetize it, make it a career. Another hobby, illustration, became my “side-hustle” and I spent my free time laboring over commissions. Soon, all kinds of creativity had lost their magic, operating under this engulfing cloud of pressure—pressure to create blogs and Instagram accounts for my work, to build a brand, flog myself publically. Apparently, if you’re not somehow generating attention and capital every minute you’re awake, you’re wasting your time.
But when a pandemic sparks a global recession, I’ve got news for ya: the economic side of all of that becomes kind of moot. The creative job market has become so bleak that creating for sheer pleasure has often been my only choice, while I take on less original work to pay the bills. In a kind of perversely welcome career crisis, I’ve been forced to let go of the relentless obsession with constant progression, and just allow myself to exist. Internet culture and accelerated capitalism overlap in myriad ways, but one of them is always worth remembering: in all the pursuits involved in both, real satisfaction remains, under the terms of the systems, necessarily out of reach. By definition, we want to achieve more, consume more, and project more, lest the system collapses.
But as the "real world" lingers once more on the horizon, we have a genuine opportunity as individuals to rethink our ties to all of this: the pressures of visibility, productivity, success.
Suppose lockdown served as a surprisingly refreshing escape from the absolutism of being busy, of being seen. Can we use its easing as an opportunity to prioritize those we actually want to spend time with? To establish who and what we need as individuals to feel fulfilled instead of merely keeping up appearances? If pre-coronavirus, it felt like there was less and less time for anything other than economic survival, could this be a wake-up call to commit to nurturing different aspects of our lives—purely for the sake of pleasure alone?
And on the question of the internet, can we start thinking carefully about what we’re getting from it, and how much we’re giving it in return? To care less about our perceived, projected identities, care more about retaining our humanity, and begin to exist within a model of actual selfhood—one that embraces insignificance and mediocrity?
I hope so.