Most of this generation’s experience with social media hearkens back to the days of Myspace. For most, the mention of this website elicits a feeling of nostalgia—our Blingee’d mirror pictures, PC4PCs, colorful patterned layouts and Top 8 described a large part of our social lives at that early point. We spent hours with a digital camera held at arm’s length trying to capture that perfect, angsty shot (how we would have marveled at the ease of taking a “selfie” today!) and answered hundreds of bulletin questionnaires, in which we vaguely confessed whether or not we had kissed anyone whose name began with a K, G, J, A or D. I remember creating my account in sixth grade, giving in to curiosity. I was careful to only log on while my parents were not home or were at least at the other end of the house—they had nervously consumed countless episodes of “How to Catch a Predator,” and gave me many a lecture about staying off of “those sites.”
Alas, my friends and I derived so much pleasure from adorning our profiles with obnoxious glitter graphics and colorful music players that blasted “Soulja Boy” and the like. We displayed our preteen identities on a screen, unlike any generation before us. This was how we began to learn to define ourselves.
When I started eighth grade in 2009, my peers began migrating to a new social media outlet. Soon, there was talk of “likes” and “notifications.” These words entered my friends’ vocabularies, and I was lost. I understood that Facebook was the new Myspace, but with a sterile aesthetic and lack of personalization. Facebook felt more grown up, more serious and had a strange new component: parents. Most of my friends found, to their horror, friend requests from Mom and Dad, usually including an overly affectionate note and some strange abbreviation they made up themselves. Facebook felt more like a tool and less like a means of expression. Nonetheless, I remained, posting photos of my friends and I cavorting at the water park and declining friend requests from adult family members who were sure to post embarrassing messages on my Wall. Maintaining a presence on social media became less and less entertaining and increasingly tedious—I began to feel like I had to have a profile and friend all 250 members of my class in order to remain socially relevant and connected.
During the beginning of my sophomore year, my frustration with the website grew as I watched cases of harassment and cyberbullying unfold before my very eyes. What was once a fun way to talk to my classmates was becoming as hostile an environment as high school itself. At first, I blamed this phenomenon on the site, believing that these things would not happen if we just went back to Myspace. However, I came to realize that our age, not the medium, was the cause of this volatility. That December, after watching others’ unscrupulous behavior affect both my closest friends and myself, I decided to forgo social media altogether. I deactivated my Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and my decaying Myspace. I wanted nothing to do with this thing that caused so much agony—and for what? Pressing the “Deactivate” button was harder than I thought. I found this a bit creepy, actually, especially since I was sure none of these people would even realize that I was no longer one of their 500+ “friends.” It was because I was afraid of being out of the loop or considered “weird” for not partaking in what seemed like a natural part of teenage life. Despite my anxiety, I clicked that button and planned never to look back until I began college (and could guiltlessly deny friend requests from my high school classmates). I didn’t look back once.
At first, I did not know what to do with my spare time without these sites. My friends were all shocked at my decision, except my best friend, who also deleted her social media profiles. I opened up my laptop and, for the first time, did not know what to do. Out of sheer boredom, I decided to replace my social media apps on my smartphone with news apps, since I craved content. I began reading articles about technology and society, politics and fashion, and soon developed a close relationship with Wikipedia. I realized that this was much more fulfilling than reading hundreds of statuses detailing my peers’ breakfasts or watching passive-aggressive arguments regarding one party’s “fakeness” unfold. When people would discuss Facebook drama in homeroom, I felt lucky to be completely detached from that world of petty disagreements and blatant narcissism. I took pictures because I wanted to capture my experiences and remember them—not so I could flaunt them to the world. Most importantly, I came to know who my friends were: They were the people who would remember my birthday without a reminder, the people who took the time to call me.
For me, forgoing social media for the majority of my high school career was extremely beneficial. It allowed me to build real relationships without having to worry about promoting them online and therefore focus on things that were truly important. I rejoined Facebook this summer to connect with my future classmates and a choice few friends from home and noticed a profound difference. Now that my peers and I have matured, I have seen less people using this tool to seek attention and more using it to promote causes they support, share their new lives with their loved ones and brighten others’ days. Through my personal experience with social media, I have learned that it is not one-size-fits-all—we all have a different approach to it, and for different reasons. For now, I am content with using Facebook to read news, see my friends’ new dorms and, most importantly, scour Vassar Free and For Sale!
—Sophia Burns ’18