Permission to be awkward
Impression management in the digital age
Is that what I look like? Is that what I sound like? Did I say something dumb?
This is what it means to feel awkward.
I just started reading the book Cringeworthy: A Theory of Awkwardness, and at the beginning of the book author Melissa Dahl is defining what awkward means.
In short, she says, it’s when we have an unflattering recognition of ourselves through other people’s eyes.
Dahl, who writes about psychology for New York Magazine, says this is a universal emotion. It may happen when you see a photo of yourself or hear a recording of your voice. Dahl shared how a New Guinea tribe experienced awkwardness en masse when they were introduced to mirrors and video recordings of themselves by an anthropologist in the 1960s.
It can be painful to see ourselves too honestly, with too much clarity, staring back at ourselves. You want to look away.
This reminds me of the focus groups I had with college students about Snapchat. The students talked about how Snapchat’s rise coincided with the front-facing camera on the iPhone 4.
The new front facing camera, if you recall, allowed you to take photos of yourself and see how you looked in the process. But it wasn’t particularly high quality images. Early selfies were not at all flattering.
As one focus group participant explained:
The front camera was the main component for it. The concept of a selfie was blowing up and Snapchat took leverage on that and decided that they would own the selfie. It gave people an app to send selfies all the time. It made sense. I wouldn’t send a selfie in a text message all the time and this app makes is so much easier and it disappears. I can have a really gross face and no one will really see it (after it disappears).
Snapchat, of course, is much different than other social networks. Privacy is more controlled. Images disappear. You can select exactly who you want to see your photos.
On Instagram, students reported that have to show the perfect photo in the perfect setting with the perfect pose and the perfect caption. It’s all a sort of illusion of yourself, and everyone knows that. But they perform the role anyway, because it’s what’s expected.
“On Instagram you have to think of the perfect caption and edit it so it’s nice,” one focus group participant said. “There is more effort for Instagram. You want to post for likes. Instagram is more delayed because of the process that goes into posting a photo.”
Dahl shares an example herself of the effort it can take to post just a single photo on Instagram:
I do this too. On election day in 2016, in particular, I must have taken dozens of selfies before I settled on one to post to Instagram. “Why does it look like you voted in a park?” one of my more observant friends asked me later in the day. I was embarrassed. It looked like I voted in a park because the lighting by the church where I actually voted was incredibly unflattering, so I stopped in a park for a better-lit selfie later that morning. Her comment made me cringe, because it was a reminder of all the ridiculous work it takes to be the effortless, authentic person I want to appear to be online.
There are only 25 photos on her page because she deletes most of what she posts. The ones that don’t get enough likes, don’t have good enough lighting or don’t show the coolest moments in her life must be deleted.
“I decide the pictures that look good,” says 13-year-old Katherine Pommerening. “Ones with my friends, ones that are a really nice-looking picture.”
The truth is we all manage our image — in big and small ways — just to get along in society. It’s why you take a shower and put on clothes before leaving the house.
But impression management in the digital age takes so much work. Not only do you have to manage what people think of you IRL, now you have multiple online platforms that require careful image crafting, curation and upkeep.
Sounds exhausting, doesn’t it?
But on Snapchat, students reported that they could be themselves in the moment. They could take “the ugliest selfie,” as one student put it, and it would be OK. It would be for your real friends. It would disappear. But it would be a glimpse — just for a moment — into your real self.
As one of the college students I talked to explained:
“I feel more confident taking an ugly picture of myself, like with double chins or something,” she said. “I’m not gonna be like, ‘Oh my God, they are gonna make fun of me.’ Now it’s like, ‘Oh, it’s on Snapchat, whatever.’”
Snapchat creates the circumstances where Gen Z can share their authentic moods and their authentic selves for that small slice of their life, whether that’s tears of anger, the joy of celebration or the mundane moments of a dull day in an ephemeral text, photo, video or bitmoji.
Today, technology makes us confront the reality of ourselves more than ever. We see ourselves in photos that friends tag us in. We see our self-worth reflected in likes on Facebook, or lack of likes on a status.
We don’t always like what we see. It can be awkward. And we try to avoid this unpleasant emotion.
Dahl shared something called the FaceTime Facelift:
A Washington, D.C.-area plastic surgeon estimated that about a quarter (of his facelift procedures) had come to his office specifically prompted by their hatred of their own appearance on video calls. “People don’t come in asking for a FaceTime Face-Lift per se,” the surgeon, Dr. Robert K. Sigal, said in a YouTube video. “What they’ll say is that ‘I don’t like the way I look when I’m video chatting.’ ”
Commenting on this phenomenon in a New York Times article, a professor of media arts and sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology said that these new anxieties were a function of the omnipresent camera.
“Back when you just kind of chatted with people, you didn’t know you had broccoli in your teeth,” said Rosalind W. Picard. “Now the camera shows you all the horrible stuff.”
But Dahl says we have a have a choice when we’re faced with awkwardness: We can run from it, or we can learn from it.
We can’t manage the perfect image all the time.
“We can finally stop performing when we’re around close friends and family. We can finally drop the act,” Dahl writes. “In fact, we’d better drop the act; no one likes someone who is ‘on’ all the time.”
I think that’s what happening with Gen Z and Snapchat. There’s so much pressure to be perfect both online or offline for this generation. So they’ve created this niche of a social network where imperfection and awkwardness is the norm, and even celebrated. It’s a recognition that we’re all universally awkward at times.
“Instagram wants the perfect-picture worthy person,” one of the focus group participant said. “But Snapchat wants that imperfect conglomerate of a mess which adds up to something else.”
So you have a choice. You can be Instagram, or Snapchat.
You can stare at who you really are. You can embrace it. And we can be awkward together.