Living in a Blue Screen
BY ANNA GREENE
Proudly, I show my friend, Aiden, who is staying at my house, my first post on Instagram. My hair is long and loose, and two of my fingers flash peace as I make a duck face. It is 2012, I am twelve, and I am nothing if not on trend. It has taken me forty minutes to completely perfect the required look, but I feel like I have aced it. That forty minutes, though, is just the start of the hours and hours I would put into this two-by-five addictive rectangle week after week after week, checking for likes and checking for new followers.
Before going to sleep on that first exciting day of discovering Instagram, I stop scrolling when I see a photo of a girl with hollowed-out eyes. The caption underneath says, “Repost or Alice will come to kill you at 3 AM.” I am gobsmacked, and I hesitate. Will she still kill me if I post a second late? “You better post that Anna otherwise she’ll come into your room, and leave mine untouched,” says Aiden quite seriously. I hit post and watch the Alice photo cement itself on my feed waiting for its next victim.
Six years later and I am seventeen in a beauty parlor with my friend, Samantha. She splays her baby blue fingernails on the countertop before me. I hold up my sparkly nude in return. “That will be $25 please,” demands the manicurist. I hand over my greenlight card, a card that has special parental controls. “Declined” flashes across the screen as she swipes it. “Do you have any other cards that you can use Anna, maybe your parents’?” prompts Samantha. “Yeah, I think I remember my mom’s number,” I stutter. I feel relief as I recite my mom’s credit card number from my phone to the cashier and she swipes it through. As Samantha’s mom drives us back to her house, Samantha sings Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space,” “Cause we're young and we're reckless / We'll take this way too far / It'll leave you breathless / Or with a nasty scar.” The second Samantha turns the doorknob to go into her house, my phone vibrates. The familiar yet newly scary contact name “MUM” appears. “I cannot believe that you have done this.” I freeze. “What? I haven’t done anything.” “I am ashamed of you and for you. When you are home you can give me back your card, and you can give me your phone.”
The shame I feel at being caught in what my mother thinks of as a “crime” is nothing compared to my fear of losing my Snapchat streaks and notifications. One of my streaks is three hundred days old! I cannot bear the pain of parting with my phone for a second. On my return home, my mom calmly looks at me. “Your phone!” is all she says. “But if I give you my phone, I am going to lose my streaks and my followers, and my friends will get mad at me for not texting them back!” I cry. “Your phone!” she repeats, holding out her hand. I hand it over.
My generation has come of age in a time when there is a huge focus on social media, on status, on comparing yourself with others, and on the cult of young celebrity. For instance, the obscenely wealthy twenty-three-year-old Kylie Jenner is actually being given money by strangers so that she can be the youngest ever billionaire as soon as possible. The construct of idolizing and envying others is exacerbated by social media. In effect, social media is a type of nomos. In his Sacred Canopy, Peter L. Berger describes the concept of nomos as a culmination of society’s worldview. The nomos, in this case social media, is sustained and imparted by our parents, friends, teachers, etc. To ensure that an individual does not stray from the socially constructed social media, “every society develops procedures that assist its members to remain ‘reality-oriented’ (that is, to remain within the reality as ‘officially’ defined) and to ‘return to reality’ (that is, to return from the marginal spheres of ‘irreality’ to the socially established nomos)” (Berger 24). Various people I care about and I myself follow Instagram, Facebook, and Tik Tok, and we monitor our likes and our followers. More likes and more followers will lead to opportunities (or, at least, that’s what most people think). Slack off, and we become irrelevant. Will I get more likes if I dye my hair, wear these boots, or have a beach background? At the age of twenty, I have to say (a bit like a Charlie Brown illustration) that my happiness is determined to some extent by being part of the perfect world of Instagram that my generation has created.
Social media vies for my concentration, attention, and focus in equal proportion to the way that my OCD does. In both cases, they sit there like black miasmas, threatening to vaporize huge chunks of my life. Right now, I do not feel like I can necessarily focus or enjoy my day unless I work out for at least an hour. Once, when I couldn’t get to tennis on time, I started to do jumping jacks to make up for the time lost. While doing them, I felt panic and anger, not relief. Sigmund Freud describes people with OCD in “Obsessive Actions and Religious Practices”: “Any deviation from the ceremonial is visited by intolerable anxiety, which obliges him at once to make his omission good. Just as trivial as the ceremonial actions themselves are the occasions and activities which are embellished, encumbered and in any case prolonged by the ceremonial—for instance, dressing and undressing, going to bed or satisfying bodily needs” (2). The compulsions that I have struggled with daily for a large part of my life, I now see mirrored in the faces and actions of just about everybody in the world. It’s impossible to focus on routine tasks when you are in an OCD spiral, but now I witness countless people in the streets and on the subway always on their phones, unable to keep to their side of the street, or even safely cross a street. I watch three-year-olds on large iPads being wheeled up to Prospect Park by their nannies, who push with one hand and scroll through Instagram or Facebook with the other. I see mothers not making eye contact with their young, such is the power of their blue screen. Sometimes I catch myself walking up the stairs of my house while I am on my phone. I tell myself that I need to get off my phone, but two seconds later I am back checking my Snapchat or texting my friends, and still haven’t made it up the stairs.
For the past nine years, I have probably spent at least half my day on Instagram from the first second after I wake up to between class to endless hours going through all my posts in the dark before bed. A couple of months ago, I began to hate it. Every month I would get a call from my former agent asking if I had posted my three pictures for the week. One had to be high fashion, the next was supposed to be edgy and sexy, and the last, a picture of my everyday life. The more times he called complaining about my lack of posts, the more I grew irritated and wanted to rid myself of it and him. Whenever I did put in the effort to post, I would find myself on my search page staring at other models, wishing that I had their perfect jawline or booked the last GUESS campaign like my friend, or checking whether I had broken my past record of eight hundred likes on my recent post.
Partly because of this emphasis on how my life should be shown through social media, and partly because I found that going to college opened me to thinking in a different way, I stopped caring about modeling. I would ignore all of my former agent’s direct messages on Instagram telling me to shoot with x or y photographer and what looks I should cover (sometimes specifically for my Instagram). This agent had influenced me to sign with a reputable agency in New York, but they had taken on so many new girls at once that they did not really care about me, so his insistent attention remained the overriding one. Each time I received a phone call from him or a message over Instagram saying that if I would just post more, I would gain more followers and therefore be more popular with my other agency, I felt sick. I told him that I wanted to focus on college and tennis, and he told me that was bullshit. I gave up on Instagram and so both of my previous agencies gave up on me.
On a recent shoot, I sang along with the young photographer, Stefen, to Billie Eilish’s “Ocean Eyes” word for word. While I was waiting for him to set up the lighting, I started twirling and swaying along to his music. He stopped what he was doing and just began to shoot me. It is not often that I feel like I can be totally myself in front of the camera, but that was exactly my experience with Stefen. I heard from the stylist that he owned his own agency. I sat down with him after the shoot wrapped and said, “I want an agent that is interested in me because of who I am. I really appreciated that you wanted to hear about my final paper for Writing and so enthusiastically wanted to talk to me about teaching within the special needs community. I feel like you see me and appreciate me for all of me, not just ‘Anna the model or Anna’s Instagram.’ I have always wanted an agent just like my coaches and my teachers, who I can have a close relationship with and feel like family.” I left my former agent who supposedly felt betrayed because he had “connected with me and furthered me so much.” I signed with Stefen. When I go into PMP, my new agency now, I can talk to Stefen about anything ranging from tennis to our class discussion on James Baldwin and whether he believes that there is a male within every female and vice versa. However, I do know that I cannot abandon Instagram as long as I remain in this industry in any way.
Yesterday, I was discussing with Stefen how sad it is that we live half our lives in a virtual reality, and, shaking his head, he agreed. “I’m sorry Anna, I know how you feel. You still have to play the game to navigate this industry. You don’t have to do much on Instagram, just try and follow under nine hundred people and have less than fifty posts.” I was comforted when he carried on by saying, “Your posts should be your lifestyle. Clients want to see you for all that you are, not some boring modeling portfolio.” After I leave this industry, I am planning to delete my Instagram account, so I can be fully immersed in my life. In the meantime, I have started to read before I go to sleep. I am focusing on each task as I do it, whether studying or playing tennis or modeling. I am growing up and, I believe, finally growing away from the insidious grasp of social media.
Berger, Peter L. The Sacred Canopy. Doubleday, 1967, pp. 3-28.
Freud, Sigmund. “Obsessive Actions and Religious Practices.” Translated by James Strachey,
The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume
IX, 1907, pp. 1-5.