A Digital Life: Don’t judge me by my Instagrams, please

Since my college friends graduated and scattered across the country, we’ve been scheduling a Google Hangout every few weeks to catch up on each other’s lives. This almost inevitably turns into a conversation about someone’s recent first date. “What’s his name?” we always ask. “I want to Facebook him.” The friend will sometimes gleefully, sometimes reluctantly (depending on the date’s choice in profile picture), disclose the poor guy’s name, and we’ll all type it into our browsers, looking for evidence of poor internet etiquette or too-recently-tagged photos with other women.

From any kind of objective standpoint, this behavior is creepy. And judgmental. And somehow completely normal. You’d be hard-pressed to find a 22-year old who hasn’t stalked a potential friend, date or boss on the internet and tried to make corresponding judgments about that person based on the thinnest clues, no matter how sketchy or incomplete those details might be.
But even as my generation is devoting ever-greater time to polishing our online identities, tagging each other on Facebook and downloading the latest app, I think we overestimate how much information we can actually glean about a person by looking through Facebook photos and Twitter updates. We all participate in the digital judging, but the digital baggage we all carry around — and assiduously cultivate — can serve as a barrier to actually knowing each other “IRL.” We’ve come to assume that anything you need to know can be gleaned from what a person posted online, even as we know our own online personas bear only passing resemblance to our actual lives.
The information about other people is widely accessible but so rarely useful, sometimes wonder if we’d be better off eschewing it altogether. If there was a way to meet people at dinner table first, and then stalk their high school prom pictures second, we might all be better off. Because this initial stalking is ultimately so futile.
This weekend, I Instagrammed a photo of my apartment after I hung new photos on the wall, because I knew it would be popular and lots of people would like it. And they did. But I chose to Instagram the side of the apartment that looked pretty, not the side with all my dirty dishes and piles of laundry. Our online selves are not, clearly, a faithful representation of who we really are. Anyone who actually knows me knows I drop clothes all over the floor. My Instagram audience, not so much.
And think about the last time you Googled someone obsessively to find out more facts about them before you actually knew them. Did you turn up anything useful, something that would help you better understand what kind of person they are? Sure, maybe you learned that they tell terrible jokes on Twitter, or they ran a 5K last year, or they were tagged in vacation pics in Hawaii. These moments might give you a vague sense of the person’s habits or activities — they’re athletic, or they like to travel (just like everyone else alive), or they… you know, went to high school once. They could assure you that the person doesn’t tweet offensive things, or have a criminal background.
But in terms of real personality, a real sense of what it’s like to sit across a table from them? Limited at best, deliberately misleading at worst.
People who are older and wiser — or anyone who’s ever tried online dating — will find epiphany obvious. Of *course* you can’t truly learn about someone from their Facebook tags or too-fabulous Instagram history.
But it’s frankly hard to withhold judgment on someone’s internet persona, or to avoid cultivating your own fake-perfect avatar, if you’ve grown up with the expectation of advertising your own life. Our generation increasingly communicates through platforms like Twitter and text and photos uploaded to the sharing-friendly app of the moment, and it’s hard to resist the tide.
I went through a phase in high school where I was missing a front tooth, and there are a bunch of supremely unflattering Facebook photos documenting the snaggletooth era (before we knew to untag these). I now have two choices with them: I could leave them there for old friends to enjoy and for new acquaintances to peruse, no doubt wondering why this dentally challenged girl was walking around without a front tooth for so long. Or, I could delete them and hope that I won’t be associated with my toothless former self, giving me the chance to tell the whole story to new friends on my own terms, and at a time of my own choosing.
For now, I’ve gone with the former strategy, but sometimes I wonder if it would be better to delete everything and force people to get to know the real me, not the mystery snaggletooth uploaded to a website. Maybe I’d be better off not photographing my apartment at all, avoiding the risk that people wrongly assume I’m the kind of Type A person who neatly folds her clothes, which is oh-so-misleading.
These are trivial examples, but when I see parents uploading photos of their babies to Instagram and Facebook, or creating Twitter handles or domain names for them, I wonder how these kids will come to terms with their pre-fabricated online selves when they’re going on dates 20 years from now. Toothless pics from high school are one thing, but having the full archives of your baby photos and videos online for potential dates to peruse? Or if you had a parent who blogged about every awkward, miserable stage of your childhood? That’s another realm of deciding what to keep or delete altogether. And good luck not Googling and misjudging those.
As luck would have it, I recently met someone who wasn’t on any social media at all. Not Facebook, or Twitter, or Instagram, or Pinterest. Imagine! I’ll to actually find out about his interests and hobbies, you know, in real life. By talking. We’ll see if I can remember how to do that.
To read previous Digital Life columns, click here.