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The Shadow Side of the Sharing Instinct

As family and friends try to squeeze the last drops out of this season, my various social media feeds fill with pictures of blended cocktails, garden hose-wielding and ice cream-covered toddlers, and rooftop dance parties. It’s summer. It’s so definitively fleeting. And yet we try to do everything to capture it.

Our instincts to document beautiful moments have been supercharged in the age of smart phones and social media. In some ways, this is a life-giving shift. The connective tissue between us is strengthened by all those shots, especially when it comes to long-distance relationships. I can’t feel my nephew’s leggy weight in my lap while I read him a book more than a few times a year, so I devour every single picture my brother posts of him on Instagram.

Scrolling through my feed also broadens the circle of people that I can witness and be inspired by; a newer friend that I don’t see more than a few times a year recently posted a photo of herself at the summit of a mountain and I felt elevated. I would have never known she’d reveled in such view had we not been Facebook friends.

I also feel like Instagram, in particular, has made me more aware of what a gift so many of my friends — non-professional photographers — have for capturing beauty. It enriches my life in all kinds of ways and spurs me to be more creative on a more regular basis, too.

Of course, there is a shadow side to all of this sharing. I was recently sitting around at a lake with my in-laws, feet submerged in the cooling water, watching the dog roll around in the sand and my daughter’s gaggle of sweet cousins show her the frogs they’d caught, when I felt myself pulled from being present. Should I go grab my iPhone from the house and snap a few photos? It’s not that it was a bad thought. In fact, I decided to keep my butt in the chair and just enjoy. The existence of the thought itself changed my experience of that moment, as it does so many these days.

On one level, I simply live my life, but on another, I dip in and out of observing myself living my life with a curatorial eye.

Another example: these days, my daughter spots our neighbors’ sweet yellow house and starts yelling, “Bunnies! Bunnies! Bunnies!” The neighbors are kind enough to let us visit the fluffy little creatures, along with the chickens and the fish, almost daily. As she wanders through her routine — looking for a ripe blueberry to pick, greeting the pen of bunnies, asking to be picked up so she can peer into the fish tank and greet the fish, opening the little door in the chicken coop to see if they’ve laid any eggs — I often snap an iPhone photo or ten. Partly it’s a parental instinct; my daughter is growing so fast these days and I don’t want to forget what she looked and sounded like at this marvelous age.

But part of it can’t be attributed to such pure instincts. I like the fact that, though we live in an undeniably urban setting, we also have access to such a cool little plot of land full of photogenic creatures. If I’m being really honest, the sharing of those photos says something about me that I want to be said. It’s subtle, to be sure. It’s not like I’m posting pictures of a newly procured designer purse, but it’s a status symbol of sorts nonetheless. It’s a version of my life. After all, I don’t post pictures of the bits of dinner strewn across our kitchen floor after that same very cute daughter throws everything off of her high chair in melodramatic protest.

So the capturing is part of the shadow side of the incessant documenting — this instinct to make permanent what is inherently fleeting. It pulls you out of the moment, makes you less present to the people you are actually surrounded by and spending precious time with. Another part of the shadow is the calculated, even if subconsciously, curation of the you that exists in public. The you that drinks certain kinds of fruity drinks. The you whose kid is playful, adorable, sun-dappled but never sunburned. The you that is always having the time of your life at those rooftop parties. The fictional you, at worse, the incomplete you, at best.

It’s not that technology is to blame for our performative selves. Sociologists like Erving Goffman have been arguing since 1956 that we shape shift for different audiences. The smart phone and the popularity of social media takes this performance to a whole new frequency. It gives us access to the delusion of permanence at all times. After all, we could always be capturing the moment as long as we’ve got our iPhones with us (and we almost always do, it seems). It seduces us into spending even more time selecting the parts of our days, of our lives, of our very selves that tell the story we want to tell to the world.

This can be a creative act, a celebratory act, an act of connection across distance and time. It can also be an act that pulls us out of the moment and out of the rare bliss that is unselfconscious and fully absorbed existence. Taken to the extreme, there aren’t enough “likes” in the universe for that kind of loss.

Morning in the Redwoods Image by Courtney E. Martin.

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