Conformings’ | Ask Me When I’m Not Listening
In the middle of a compulsive late-night scroll through my phone’s Facebook feed, I paused on a meme about Mark Zuckerberg. I don’t remember why I decided to relinquish fifteen precious seconds to this, rather than to, say, the reverberating screams of whichever political story was enraging the Internet that day, or instead to some clickbait-sponsored article insidiously leading me to my Amazon cart, but I guess I ultimately behaved as expected of my generation: I chose the meme.But because I apparently approach every day as if I were born yesterday, I didn’t think it was a meme at first.
It looked like a screen cap of an article, just a couple lines of text saying that, in response to a recent wave of online criticism in which he was called “robotic,” Mark Zuckerberg has announced plans to enroll in classes taught by behavioral psychologists in order to appear “more human.” Which led me to think: One of the world’s most powerful and influential people, who connected the world in a way previously inconceivable, feels like an outsider? The irony was obvious. Too obvious to be believable. Although maybe, I thought, it’s fundamentally human enough to be true? So I typed some keywords into my phone browser. Google spat back an answer: a certified-legitimate, 100 emoji- emblazoned shitpost originating from “The Donald” subreddit.
The Donald, in case you haven’t yet stumbled into that corner of the Internet, is a conservative watering hole whose members swap memes, troll the political compass, “red pill” each other, trade spin on the daily news, and generally muddy the waters of communication with facetious jabs at any available target. The latter is how I arrived there. The fact that what I initially thought was a news story turned out to be a textbook shitpost didn’t upset or disappoint me, but it did give me pause. By no means was it a notably popular post—it didn’t come close to cracking the subreddit’s own top page—but it held its own, on the heftier side of a hundred upvotes. And, considering where it came from, it also had a solid amount of traction on Facebook (my piece of which tends to bleed almost monochromatically blue). That combination struck me: irony aside, what about this shitpost resonates across Internet users?
I’ll save us further expository paragraphs which serve to set up my assumption that, ultimately, this shitpost resonates because the vast majority of people have experienced the feeling of being compelled to “fit in” with society. As a country, we seem to frame an individual’s struggle to Fit In from one of two perspectives: celebration, or condemnation.
Stories about the Clueless/Luckless yet Persistent Outsider Who Finally Gets the Girl or Guy or Job of Their Dreams are long-standing favorites in fiction, as well as in first-or second-hand experience. A totally converse scenario, and without intending too much cognitive whiplash, can be found in the news media cycle, which tends to narrativize acts of domestic terrorism (i.e., mass shootings) through a stock profile of Alienated Male Avenges Himself for Said Alienation Through Violence.
Most often, though, everyday life doesn’t present us with such extreme or obvious examples. Our earliest memories may include instances of sudden, crude awareness of social hierarchies and their attendant expectations. Later, more nuanced personal experiences with “Fitting In” may seem overwhelming or even mortifying, but, at the same time, we are often at least dimly aware of their triviality (which can either exacerbate or relieve any humiliation). While our media ostensibly reflects truths in our lives and experiences, the majority of our lives aren’t as exaggerated as the narratives we consume.
As pure entertainment, this is mostly harmless. We’re grounded in the emotion of a given narrative just enough to take flight, tune briefly out of our lives, escape our troubles, etc. Yet so often we study people we aspire to be more like, hoping to replicate their successes in our own lives. Or we watch others from a place of judgment, and are grateful we’re not so pathetic or delusional. We spend our lives constantly evaluating ourselves and other people, cross-referencing reality and fiction, blurring lines when convenient, and benchmarking our progress against where we think we should be, without really considering why we want what we think we want.
It seems that in spite of popular media’s cheerleading little has changed for us in the long term. We continue to step on the heads of our neighbors in our mad climb toward happiness—as if happiness were a faraway peak which—sorry!—accommodates only one person at a time. A broad conception of happiness incorporates, explicitly or implicitly, status, money, children. To achieve these goals, eccentricities are discouraged, interpersonal differences are exploited to benefit one’s own interests, divergent opinions are suppressed or shamed. We minimize, conflate, transform differences and disadvantages into something else, something inconsequential or self-inflicted, because acknowledging our failure to respect these differences might mean having to rectify them, might mean we risk losing an advantage, might mean surrendering our resources and livelihoods to another.
Rising to the occasion and embracing differences—or, put another way: by knowing thy neighbor, protecting the communal position—could have seemed somewhat feasible once, but that time appears to be behind us. The unprecedented volume and availability of people makes any meaningful, nuanced comprehension of individuality exponentially more challenging than ever before. And while social media has been critical to bringing marginalized socioeconomic issues to the forefront of public discourse, the most apparent response to this quandary, then, has been a heightened aesthetic of conformity.
Fortunately for us, our new digital tools are wonderfully suited to self- censorship. To maintain the necessary illusion of freedom, however, we tell each other and ourselves that we are different, even while using the same emojis, the same filters, the same stickers, the same hashtags, the same memes, the same captions, the same locations, the same backdrops, the same angles, the same postures. These aesthetics ignore divisions, even as our news media outlets tell us our sociopolitical divisions are widening and deepening more than ever (use your best judgment there as well). We could, theoretically, distance ourselves from the world of digital media and connect the old-fashioned way, but these apps live on devices we rely on throughout our daily lives, and the devices and apps aren’t shy about reminding us to use them. As a result, we’re now getting constantly high on likes, and this dopamine release addiction cycle demands replenishment and reciprocity. On an intuitive level, we realize we get our highs most easily when we follow a rubric, and we’re validated when we see others following suit. The Mutual Admiration Society reigns supreme.
Thankfully, at least one movie released this year addressed this idea head-on. I’m referring to Ingrid Goes West, which perfectly captures the psychological stress social media has inflicted on some of those who’ve grown up with it at the center of their lives. As an audience, we spend much of the movie squirming as Ingrid, a mentally unstable young woman, insinuates herself into the inner circle of her idol, Taylor, a social media influencer living in idyllic, boujie Venice Beach. Taylor embodies the boho-chic social media consumer/producer zeitgeist, and Ingrid wants only to become just like her. Despite how strange Ingrid comes across, her plan works. Gradually, we start to notice a trend of deceptions laced throughout the movie, and these deceptions take many forms: mimicry, stealing, extortion; inflating one’s own financial stability, artistic aptitude, cultural savvy. When one of the movie’s least self-involved main characters mentions his love for Batman, we may interpret this as a suggestion that other, fictitious personas aren’t ever too far away. Without giving too much away, in just over and hour and a half, we witness Fitting In’s paradox of condemnation and celebration, and that dissonance urges us to reassess which aspects of ourselves we’re willing to sacrifice to attain our versions of happiness.
I don’t have a clever segue into my personal experiences with Fitting In, but I don’t have a lack of those either. My earliest related memory goes back to kindergarten, when an older kid at my elementary school called me gay on the playground. Did I even know what being gay meant at that time? Maybe vaguely. Regardless, I didn’t need a definition for the insult and its barbed delivery to sting. That was just one of many insults flung around on the playground, but I remember feeling privately pursued by that word throughout my childhood, after I learned its multiple meanings, after I changed schools (for unrelated reasons), after I forgot the other kid’s face and name, after my already weak religious inclinations fizzled, after I decided there might be some truth to the word in my case, after I decided to suppress that, and after I finally accepted it.
Today, that word is an aspect of my identity that feels prismatic; I can hold it to the light of memory and watch moments and stages from my life refract and separate into their component emotions and preoccupations, their conscious and subconscious thoughts. It meant I was too sensitive, that I was a sissy, that I scared easily, that I cried easily. It meant I was basically a girl (a condition just barely excusable for little girls, but not for me, obviously, as a boy). It meant I was bad at sports. It meant I was disgusting, sick in my head. It meant I was a sinner in the eyes of God. It meant I was an embarrassment to my family. It meant I chose all of these things.
I’ve had time and experience to better cope with these anxieties, but in some ways I’m still that kid on the playground who doesn’t want the other kids to run away and laugh at me and feign disgust. I still see or project traces of him onto the all the ways I’ve tried to compensate for a weakness I now know doesn’t actually exist. By playing video games instead of sports. Seeking company in books and movies and things instead of other people. Keeping quiet around strangers. Sharing only as much as I believe is required to maintain an appearance of sociability. Sniping with sarcasm.
From all this, identity erosion—and maybe erasure, ultimately—seems to be the outcome. Though I’m fortunate to live in a time and place that has taken significant steps to dismantle antiquated cultural constructs of masculinity, I can’t shake my suspicion that for every deconstruction that takes place, those materials will inevitably be repurposed for something else. The sleepless, anxiety-ridden nights I didn’t have the capacity to articulate as a kid, when lying awake I repeatedly reassembled and reconfigured that day’s events into forms that could approximate and explain my changing identity, must have a cousin somewhere out in the world. Sometimes I pick up my phone to check.
Written by Anthony Yarbrough