Mark Edmundson, an English professor at the University of Virginia, argues that “the internet is the most centrifugal technology ever devised” (Edmundson 8).
Let that sit for a moment.
While it has been a while since my days of physics, I haven’t forgotten what centrifugal means. For those of you who need a refresher, Merriam Webster defines centrifugal as “moving away from a center” or “acting in a direction away from the center.” By definition, that is the very epitome of the internet today; it leads us away from our true selves to act in ways we would not ordinarily
In his essay, “Dwelling in Possibilities,” Mark Edmundson argues just that to prove how “students’ spectacular hunger for life” leaves them vulnerable in cyberspace (Edmundson 1). He shreds apart our excuses for multi-tasking and over involvement, connecting this with our desire to be elsewhere. He wags his finger at our inability to be satisfied with what is in front of us. But most of all, he cringes at the manner in which we use the “centrifugal” internet.
While I agree with Edmundson’s opinion of the internet, I would even further his position, arguing more directly that social media by means of the internet is the most centrifugal technology ever devised; for social media allows us to present a manipulated, false representation of ourselves.
With globalization and the increasing connectivity of today’s world, social media has become part of our hourly lives. You surely can’t go a day without checking social media and not miss out on something. Refering to himself as the “Edmundosaurus,” Edmunson asks his students to keep their technology use at bay during class for just one or two hours, emphasizing that he is one of the few “dinosaurs” left not to succumb to the addiction of social media (Edmundson 17).
Through these social media profiles, we share countless details about our lives. Constantly. The fact that we can “tag” our photo location and throw on one (or two or three) filters seems to be more acceptable now that social media sites have created apps for their cellphone users. Now, god forbid (!) we are away from a computer for a moment, we can easily stay connected. Just pull up Facebook on your phone! Every. Single. Hour. These very apps are the reason Edmundson is grumbling that “life is elsewhere” (Edmundsom 8). Why, yes it is, Edmundson, because social media’s convenience and accessibility increases usage, making social media an integral part of our hour to hour life. Of course, there is nothing wrong with keeping in touch here and there via social media, but if we are going to use social media to the extent that we do, we have to understand the false portrayals and deceptions that come along with it.
Whether we like to admit it or not, we strive to present our most “groomed” and “manufactured” selves for others. With the increased presence of it in our hour to hour lives, social media provides the most convenient platform to do so. We naturally want others to acknowledge how put together our lives are; I can tell you I always have. Take my family Christmas card from when I was younger. My mom went the whole nine yards to hire a photographer with a ten-inch lens that replaced her behind the family Kodak. To get what she thought would be a cute, overhead photo, the photographer positioned us lying on the ground, looking up at the sky. To my disadvantage, I’m allergic to grass so a quick photo-op on the ground meant itching my hives all through the night. Regardless, I posed for the picture, curated myself, knowing that a couple of red bumps would be a dot (or ten) on the horizon when all of our relatives and friends were “ooohhing” and “ahhing” at the most precious Wilson girls.
If they only knew what went on behind the scenes.
My point being, though, that this was only one photo out of the entire year. Only one posed photo. With increasing social media presence and pressure to constantly share, share, share, we all run the risk of choreographing our day to day lives in hopes of showing our friends our best, curated selves.
This day to day posturing plays up the extravagances we want to show off a little bit more, leading to a misrepresentation of ourselves and lives. We over emphasize the days we have fun or the days we look best by adding more photos or posting more about said event on any given social media site. Through these constant posts, we sculpt ourselves to impress outside observers, “followers,” or “friends.” In censoring our online profiles, we boast we are doing better, having more fun than the rest of our online friends. In reality, though, it is only an inaccurate, false version of the life we live. This is exactly the reason Edmundson argues that we “live with the prospects of success and pleasure” (Edmundson 8). We will do anything, even censor and pose our daily lives, in order to prove we are successful and happy. What we may not realize though, is that this “prospect of success and pleasure” comes at a cost: these seemingly small attempts to posture and groom our lives over social media add up.
Soon enough, we will not only portray manipulated versions of ourselves via social media, but we will move away from being ourselves as well; centrifugation. Ring a bell? As ridiculous as it may sound, a common phrase amongst teenage girls today is “do it for the Insta,” in reference to the social media app, Instagram. Here, girls are quite literally doing something solely for the purpose of getting a photo and posting it on their profile for their followers to see. Notably, what they might “do” for the Instagram is not necessarily something they would do ordinarily (emphasis on the misrepresented identity, here). Doing something “for the Insta” or for another social media site could mean many things, positive and negative. Many people may push themselves out of their comfort zones. In attempts to brag or show off, however, some people often endanger their own reputations, the reputations of their friends, or, worst-case scenario, their lives.
As Edmundson says, the internet helps us physically escape or “take off” from our reality, but that doesn’t give us the excuse to act differently from who we are. Whether we like it or not, we are still living our same life despite our momentary “escape” thanks to the internet (Edmundson 8). Here, we can see just how radically and unlike ourselves social media can lead us to behave; because of social media, we portray a more groomed version of ourselves and ultimately change the way we behave and morals we hold on to.
Our initial dabbling in this innovative, exciting technology can be misleading for what is to come. What starts as innocent communication leads to something far worse. If we fail to recognize the deceptive, centrifugal nature of social media, we will find ourselves hovering behind a screen around the clock, portraying someone we are not, relying solely on social media for communication.
Nothing, not even the wonders of technology, can take the place of physical human interaction. A hug from our mother has more healing power than a thousand direct messages or inboxes. A lunch, quick coffee date, or simple in person conversation tells more than a photo on Facebook ever will, even if pictures are worth a thousand words.
We are a generation introduced to the advancements in technology, born into the life of social media. This is not an excuse to let it consume us. Edmundson says we need to connect “through gestures, intonations, jokes,” but that’s becoming increasingly difficult in the ever-advancing world of social media (Edmundson 12). Let that be our call to action. Our call to step out from the dark corner of our room, from behind the computer monitor. Our call to set down our cellphones and give Facebook, Twitter and Instagram a rest for an hour. Or two. Or ten. And good riddance, because, while social media may provide the means to interact and communicate virtually, it will never replace the face-to-face interactions we engage in.
Many thanks to Professor Ehrich for helping me articulate my millions of thoughts into a sensible position and for working with me for the remainder of the process to organize those millions of thoughts into a paper I felt strongly about. Another thank you to Adrianna Diaz for her very thorough and specific peer review. You helped me fix some very basic, but essential, foundational issues with my earliest drafts. Lastly, I would like to thank Mark Edmundson for his incredibly inspiring and interesting essay. Almost every idea struck a chord with me so I’m shocked that I finally decided on one to write about.
Edmundson, Mark. “Dwelling in Possibilities.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. 14 Mar. 2008: B7. Print.