In his first epistle to the Corinthians, Paul the Apostle describes his becoming all things to all people: “To the Jews I became as a Jew. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law. To the weak I became weak.” He tailored his message to each audience. For each crowd he was effectively a different person; he wore a different mask.
These days we are obsessed with authenticity. Masks make us uncomfortable. We are expected to be our truest, most unfiltered selves all the time. On reality TV shows and in politics, exhibitionists are rewarded. Contestants foolish enough to censor themselves (by, for instance, being polite to those they despise) are dismissed as inauthentic. Why is he such a snake? disgusted viewers ask when a middle-aged man smiles at an actor he would clearly rather stab. Why can’t he just be real?
When troubled youngsters have potentially life-altering breakdowns on national television, as one did on the last series of Celebrity Big Brother, legions of fans praise their emotional honesty. For this Snapchatting, Instagramming generation, feverishly tweeting its every thought and bowel movement, prudence and self-control have become dirty words. This ethos is encapsulated in the expression YOLO, an acronym famously popularised by Drake (the Canadian rapper, not the 16th century navigator). Before it was parodied into extinction, it served as a watchword for risk-taking teens everywhere. You only live once, so make it a life worth living. But for the risk-averse the exhortation works the other way: be sober, be vigilant, don’t break anything. If you do permanent damage to yourself by playing with the wrong drugs, ideologies or people, you won’t get to rewind the tape or start over.
Graceful shapeshifting was once considered an essential social skill. Now our elevation of “realness” has made it problematic. Generation Instagram encourages impulsivity – but it treats with suspicion both chameleonic adaptation and the failure to present consumers of one’s life story with easily classifiable public-facing selves or personal narratives. An exception is made for David Bowie. Everyone else must reduce themselves to a handful of labels and a single persona.
I exaggerate, of course. There is no “Generation Instagram.” There are only young people whose thoughts and preferences have been made visible by social media. Youth has always been sensitive to hypocrisy and pretence (see Holden Caulfield). In truth, none of the traits I’ve identified are uniquely millennial. From ancient times writers have urged their readers both in jest and in deadly earnest to “sieze the day.”(see Horace, Andrew Marvel, Robert Herrick and Dead Poets Society). The history of literature and cinema, however, leads one to suspect that carpe diem serves more as an expression of self-interested male desire than of ungendered youthful yearning.
It is also possible that the drive to create stable, branded selves, which then have to be endlessly performed and defended in public, springs not solely or even mainly from users of social media but from the corporations to which these profiles are marketed. Users with such online identities are easier to track across platforms, target with advertising and monetize.