The Internet is Not Real Life       



{shot I took above my drawing table a couple of weeks ago: this is real life}

A couple of months ago, I was having dinner with a friend. “I’m going to take a break from Facebook,” she told me. “It makes me feel bad about myself. Every time I am on there, I have anxiety. I feel insecure, like my life isn’t as exciting as other people’s lives or that I’m not doing or accomplishing enough at a fast enough rate.”

“I think that sounds like a good idea, taking a break from Facebook,” I said. And then I added: “But you know, it’s important to remember — the internet is not real life. I mean, at least social media isn’t.”

We laughed together for a minute over our mutually felt relief.

“Thank goodness,” she responded.

Like my friend, I struggle with my relationship to social media. My personal struggle is with Instagram. Daily, as I scroll through my feed (and I follow mostly fellow artists, designers and creative businesses), I must remind myself that what I am seeing are really, really small, highly “curated” glimpses into the lives and work of the people I follow.

I have an interesting perspective, and that’s because I am also someone who shares only small, highly curated glimpses of my own life and work as an artist on Instagram. I do not share images of the messier, more personal parts of my life — hardly ever, at least anymore. And that is, of course, on purpose.

Mostly, that’s for privacy. I want most of my life to remain private. The more my Instagram following has grown (and in the last two years it’s grown a lot), the more discerning I have become about how often I post and what I post. On occasion I post personal stories or tributes to people I love. I might even lament on occasion that I’ve had a bad day. But most of the time nowadays, even those bits of gloomy information are accompanied by an image that I think my following will find pleasing. In other words, even if I complain about having an awful day, I still make sure it’s led by a nice looking image.

And therein lies the other reason I don’t post a lot of messy or personal stuff: my Instagram feed is intended to be a reflection of the art business for which I am known, and mostly (with occasional exceptions), what I post are fragments about my work as an artist or shots of my paintings, drawings, books or products. And I work hard to make those images light-filled and nice looking on purpose, so that people have a pleasant experience interacting with what I create.

When I take photos of my sketchbook spreads, for example, I clear off my bright white table and shoot them from above, with the supplies I used to create them lined up alongside. Most people who see those photos don’t know (or even consider) that moments earlier, the same sketchbook was likely on my extremely cluttered and messy drawing table (note image at the top of this post for reference) or on the coffee table in my dark basement TV room. But shooting it in the dark basement or on the messy cluttered drawing table would only be, well… dark, cluttered and messy.

It’s also important to remember that not only are most of the photos of my artwork that I post on Instagram “styled,” but also that they are only very small portions of the work I do in one day. I share only what I choose to share — and not the reject drawings that came before the finished pieces. Sure, I share messy work (lots of my work is purposefully wonky and imperfect). Occasionally I share a process shot, but I’m picky about those too. Much of the work I do in a day most people don’t ever see, because it’s client illustration work I’m not allowed to share in my Instagram feed until it’s in its final form in a book or magazine or product months (sometimes a full year) after I’ve made it.

Even when I post a photo of the inside of my home (which is far less often than photos of my artwork) I am only showing small snippets: my sleeping cats cuddling on a pretty seat cushion or the sunlight streaming into my brightly-lit living room. I’ve cleared away any clutter for those shots too.

Occasionally people will comment: “Your house is always so immaculate!” And, I’m thinking, “Really? You are seeing 10 square feet of my entire house!” What they don’t see is my dirty laundry or dishes or the cat vomit I was unable to get out of the carpet that morning. And that’s precisely because I choose not to share photos of those things. So I have to remind myself: of course they think my house is always immaculate. I only show immaculate pictures of my house.

What we see when we follow the feeds of many people (and the more followers a person has, this is generally more true) are only very, very small parts of that person’s life, work or creative process.

And, yet, people say to me all of the time, “I follow you on Instagram and I FEEL LIKE I KNOW YOU.”

And my response (at least in my own head) is: YOU ACTUALLY DO NOT KNOW ME AT ALL.

Of course, this “I feel like I know you” sentiment is heartfelt. I may not share a lot of personal information on my Instagram feed, but I do try to show my humanity. I share small stories about my day or a tidbit about something I’m struggling with. Maybe it’s my choice of words over my choice of photos that connects my followers to me personally. And I love that about Instagram — I have made friends there and met super kind people who take classes from me or who come to hang out with me when I have a book event in their town.

The point here, of course, is not whether people know me or don’t know me based on my Instagram feed. It’s that my own experience reminds me as I scroll through my own feed and look at beautiful, well-lit photos of art and design, fresh and sparkling clean home interiors, babies and dogs — that I am looking at the images from people’s lives and work that they choose to share. And that, like me, they edit them to make them even lighter and more beautiful. Like me, they leave the other stuff out, on purpose.

That person’s Instagram feed? It is not the sum of who she is. It is not her real life, just like my Instagram feed isn’t my real life or the sum of who I am.

At some point and not today (I need to think about it some more) I want to tackle the topic of whether all this “curation” (note: this word is in quotes because I’m not even sure it’s a word) and editing is a problem. Are we just artists and creative businesses trying to show our work, products and aesthetic in the best light? Aren’t the photos just an extension of our creative process? Or are we part of a trend that supports the idea that we should only share what appears pretty or perfectly clean and light-filled?

I struggle with this question continually. In fact, what I love most about Instagram (the beautifully put together feeds I follow) is also what makes me the most uncomfortable.

So I promise to say more about that soon.

In the meantime, have a great weekend.

CATEGORIES: Personal Essays