How the stars of social media make a bad summer worse
Facebook and Instagram convince us that everyone is having a better time - and we go along with it, writes Donal Lynch
Was it easier to endure a crappy summer before social media came along? Back when we had to check Ceefax for sports results, the rain might be rolling down the windowpane in July, but it all seemed curiously inevitable. We sort of marinaded together in soft drizzle. There was nobody to really rub it in your face that things might be so different.
Even if someone returned from somewhere with an envy-inducing tan, you could console yourself that you'd just have gotten burned anyway. We were pleasantly insulated from people's rip-roaring good times. Showing someone 'holiday snaps' was television shorthand for 'boring the face off your guests'. In The Golden Girls, which is basically the Geneva Convention of sitcoms, it was specifically described as a form of torture.
Now, we are all either boring or being bored by other people's summers. Since the advent of Facebook, sighing at other people's narcissism has become as much part of summer as the All Ireland. A majority of us have accounts, through which we scroll, intermittently feigning interest or jealously. Even worse is when you detect a real tinge of envy. For a split second you buy into the idea that some people's lives consist entirely of matching glasses of Prosecco at Departures, and feel a bit worse about yourself. Then, when you do go on holidays, the whole thing becomes a photoshoot.
I've sat in restaurants with girls who'll ask the waiter if he has "a different candle" to light their gauzy fantasy of clean eating. I've known people who get up early on holidays so that their posts achieve the maximum intensity of jealousy in their friends back home (who have just arrived in work and already steeping in misery). I've seen groups of young people arrive on a beach and assess the light for iPhone snaps before even setting up their deck chairs.
There are people on my timeline I am amazed by: they are as cynically brilliant about imagery as most magazine editors. But I'm also slightly horrified by the whole thing. The filters, the duck faces, the mind-numbing details of their holiday run; it all ruins summer far more effectively than mere rain ever could.
This feeling that a holiday didn't actually happen unless it unfolded on social media is reflected in the sheer, unadulterated panic most of us feel if the WiFi so much as flickers while we are away. I like to say brave, wholesome-sounding things like, "It feels good to just switch off from the phone for a few days," but in reality, I have hung off balconies in search of a stronger internet signal. Roaming charges are more hated than stamp duty ever was. Everybody secretly wants to keep one foot in his or her virtual bubble. It's safer and easier than the messiness of reality.
I heard Hillary Clinton saying girls have to try even harder than boys to get the same results, and she might have been referring to Instagram, to which Facebook is merely the gateway drug. Instagram is like a vast, softly lit mood board where (mainly) spoiled, vain girls post the most aspirational non-ironic nonsense you have ever seen.
Toes twiddling in the foreground as a beach laps in the background in an Insta-staple (the whole nail lacquer industry has mushroomed accordingly). Quotes from books that weren't read are also de rigueur, as is the just-got-out-of-bed (been in hair and make-up for eight hours) look. Some of it is quite enticingly described as 'food porn', which conjures images of some kind of fruit and veg-themed sex scene, but in fact just means tastefully lit pictures of confectionery where every fun ingredient has been substituted for oats or coconut. Not that they're not up for a little soft-core porn; thirsty thigh-gap money shots masquerade as workout regime progress, just as showing off masquerades as motivational inspiration.
Instagram is, of course, home to the hashtag, which is basically a method of rubbing the obviousness of the image in with some overly literal words. So you grin like you've won the lottery (you just woke up and look like this after all!) but then also tell people that you are '#blessed'. Sort of like if you were an actor in a play, but instead of a line, you had a flashcard. Over the last six months, Instagram has rolled out video content which has the curious effect of ruining some of the mystique. Like silent-movie stars, the frolicking models of social media are really better when they have their mouths closed.
It would be easy to feel smug about seeing the silliness of all this, but nobody is immune. Despite ourselves we believe it all, just a little bit. I can safely say I spend more time in the mind rot of incessant scrolling than I do with my nose in an improving book. I try to stick to the smart remarks of Twitter but I can't resist the siren call of Facebook. I can resist posting selfies, but I fall prey to the knee-jerk bragging of social media. I might post an article that made news somewhere, or a photo with a famous person, culled, like a trophy specifically for social media. (Andy Warhol's idea was that the only acceptable photo you can have is one "in focus of you with a celebrity").
A friend, who is in perpetual horror at the excesses of Irish celebrities' Instagram posing, has her own underwear selfie, lacquered toe shots and endless food pictures. We ignore the contradictions because we all tell ourselves that it's different when it's us. In fact, you can actually talk yourself into thinking that boasting and shameless self promotion are really just a career duty.
Facebook has obliterated one of Irish people's national pastimes - whinging about the weather - and replaced it with something akin to a phony and seemingly off-the-cuff marketing campaign of the self. Every photo is carefully selected, every piece of good news carefully rolled out for maximum boasting rights.
So what do we do? Accept that we have become a nation of Instagram zombies and wander the planet looking for better lighting and sexier backdrops? Perhaps, for once, the answer might be to look at the tech Luddites of an older generation. My mother takes pictures as memories to hold onto rather than trophies to show off with. She doesn't get that free-floating anxiety I feel when 3G goes down, or feel any frisson of envy at the sight of Rosanna Davison casually posing half way up a tree - like a mountain lion. Rosanna might fall, and would it all be worth it?
Self-absorption was always seen as a big sin for the older generation, but now we have embraced it as a way of life. The result is that we're more stressed and more unhappy, even as we frantically curate a perfect image of ourselves.
Our kids barely play outside (unless they're running after a Pokemon). And a study was released this week that those who post details of their workout routines are generally suffering from mental illness.
What Instagram's pervasive popularity and detrimental effects underline is the real value of real-life interactions - where we present our real selves, warts and all - and the lesson that being plugged in all the time, walking around with several devices hanging out of us, is not particularly the path to peace of mind.
The journalist Grace Dent once said that her brain went "into spasm" when she tried to unplug from Twitter and she's not the only one.
Social media is a strange game whose contours and consequences we are only slowly beginning to get to grips with. And the first and most important rule of summer might be to turn it off now and again and forget about ourselves for a while.