The first week of 2021, as you know by now, was complete madness: a pair of nationally watched Senate runoffs; a siege of the US Capitol by an insurrectionist mob incited by the sitting president; an electoral college certification vote that should have been a formality but turned into much more; and yet another new record for daily Covid-19 deaths. And for people at home who were watching it all unfold on cable news, social media was the place we turned to to talk about it all.
Instagram, the platform that was once just for sharing fun photos of your life, has morphed into a place for performative politics and virtue signalling. Last Sunday night, I deleted the Instagram app from my phone with the intention of taking a week-long break from the platform. I had found myself falling into the habit of idly scrolling Instagram countless times a day. Even when I had reached the end of my feed and there was no longer anything new to see, I’d still come back again, bored, like an addict looking for a hit. I felt like a clean break for a week was necessary — and it turned out to be particularly well-timed.
On Thursday, a coworker mentioned that Instagram Stories were basically unwatchable this week: everyone was talking about the events of Wednesday, posting screenshots of viral tweets and cutesy pastel colored graphics with political messages to make sure they had made their moral stance on the attempted overthrow of the American government clear. It didn’t surprise me; of course we would Instagram Story our way through an attempted coup.
Twitter, meanwhile, took that turn long ago. In the past couple of years, the tone of the discourse on social media platforms has taken a turn. I used to use Twitter as a discovery engine; it was a good place to find interesting things to read. But Twitter in the Trump years has become something else; it feels like mostly a vehicle for scolding and shaming others. Masses of people expend energy sniping and tweeting angrily about a new main character each day: last weekend people got genuinely outraged about some guy who wouldn’t teach his daughter how to use a can opener, an issue so inconsequential that it became a perfect example of how much Twitter has completely rotted our brains, destroyed our collective sense of what’s truly important and what isn’t.
Trying to post anything in the year 2021 requires performing an exhausting mental calculus: will I look insensitive if I post a picture of the dinner I made while the country is falling apart outside my door? Can I post a picture of me and my husband maskless in the park or will we be accused of not taking the pandemic seriously? Maybe it’s better not to post anything at all. But if I don’t say something about the coup, will people think I don’t care?
To many people, it now feels compulsory to announce every one of our political views, opinions, and thoughts on social media, that we must take a stance — whether it’s on mask-wearing or traveling during the pandemic or your views on an attempted coup or Black Lives Matter protests. Regular people with Instagram accounts now think like celebrities with public relations teams, wondering if we need to issue a statement about our position on a news event, crafting announcement posts to share news about our personal and professional lives, and having to anticipate what kind of reaction or backlash they might face.
Though we know social media is a place devoid of context, we tend to assume that what we see is the full picture, and make judgements accordingly. As Alicia Kennedy wisely wrote this week, “I am not performing my totality on social media. No one is; no one should.” On the surface, we all know this: we know that social media is a highlight reel. When someone posts something, we only see a fraction of their reality. Yet we frequently channel our energy into getting angry at what complete strangers are posting, even though we know we don’t have all the necessary context. It’s all too easy to get trapped in the vicious cycle of outrage at a new person each day.
It’s exhausting to post and it’s exhausting to read posts. I find myself wondering more often than ever: What value is social media providing me? Is it even providing any value at all anymore? These days, I’m not so sure.
Good things to read
Blurbed to death, Vulture. What happened behind the scenes with American Dirt.
The man who turned credit card points into an empire, New York Times Magazine.
How to work through a coup, Culture Study.
The nirvana of Ben Affleck, The Ringer. The whole piece is good but especially love my friend Meredith’s definition of “Boston Camp.”
On online, Alicia Kennedy.
The Holocaust stole my youth. Covid-19 is stealing my last years, New York Times.
We needed more significant others, New York Times.
They say this isn’t America. For most of us it is, Harper’s Bazaar.
Pandemic dressing takes a dark turn, New York Times.
Salt fat acid defeat, n+1. A meditation on the restaurant before and after Covid.
‘It was no accident,’ The Cut. Rebecca Traister interviews Rep. Pramila Jayapal on what it was like inside the Capitol on Wednesday.
A year without clothes, The New Yorker.
Good things to cook
This week I made an egg roll skillet, this steak fajita salad, and this sheet pan harissa chicken with sweet potatoes and kale.
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