We’re all performance artists (on the ‘Gram)

We’re all performance artists (on the ‘Gram)

When was the last time you hurled an axe across a corridor while sipping an IPA? If you’re an aspiring Brooklyn hipster (or a finance dude who hangs out with them) chances are you’ve done your best John Snow impersonation at a friend’s birthday. But did you post it on the ‘Gram?

Notice the perfectly-placed hashtag

Just like the (sad) tree that falls in the forest with no one to hear it. If you didn’t post it, did it actually happen? So why has axe-throwing surged in popularity? It’s a primal and edgy activity that showcases well on the ‘Gram. (And oh btw, it’s perfectly framed for a vertical camera and makes for a dope boomerang post.)

Instagram-induced (Millennial) Burnout?

The “burnout” conversation is inescapable these days. In her viral Buzzfeed article How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation Anne Helen Petersen attributes it to three reasons: helicopter parenting that bred a culture of over-optimization, crushing student debt, and the need to compose the perfect narrative across a plethora of social media feeds.

It’s not enough to throw the axe. You must hit the bullseye, then smile and dab in front of the camera. Order another IPA homie, we’re gonna be here for a while.

Someone’s gotta be ‘Gramming this

When Maria Abramovic sat in the MoMA’s towering atrium for 700 hours or David Blaine suspended himself in a plexiglass box over the Thames River, chances are you brushed them off as crazy performance artists. But now armed with these tiny supercomputers in our pockets AND an audience ready to consume and critique our creations, we’ve all become crazy performance artists – in service of The ‘Gram. Are we ok with this?

LARP’ing through Life

Imagine taking Dungeons and Dragons and recreating the game with your BFFs. I’m talking the whole shebang – the costumes, face paint, weapons, props, fighting, and hideouts. It turns out this already exists, it’s called Live Action Role Playing – abbreviated as LARPing.

A group of LARPers

If you follow me on Instagram you’ve probably seen daily (and egregious) examples of me LARP’ing through life. It begins with an artistic sequencing of how I set up my Aeropress coffee maker. (The performance takes longer than the act of drinking the cup itself.) Next, while dropping my kid off at school, you’ll get a Cardi B hook (“And I just checked my accounts, turns out, I’m rich, I’m rich, I’m rich”) for a perfect lip synch (timed, of course, to a stop light). Then back at my desk, there’ll be an artsy composition (rule of thirds, obviously) of a Moleskine page with six unchecked deliverables (subtly showcasing that I’m both right- and left-brained).

What’s even real anymore?

LARP’ing on Instagram is all-consuming and exhausting – yet why do so many of us opt-into this way of being? The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson (who contributed Workism Is Making Americans Miserable to the burnout conversation) told Ezra Klein that “social media is a brutal force for externalization” and it’s truly about the tree falling in the forest:

“The work isn’t real until you Slack about it. The vacation isn’t real until you Instagram it. The job accomplishment isn’t real until you add it to your LinkedIn. The baby isn’t real unless you put in on Facebook.”

Yes, humans are motivated by their mimetic desires (as foreshadowed by Peter Thiel’s early investment in Facebook) and social media provides a never-ending feedback loop of endorphins. But there’s more to it, and bloggers like myself agitate a sleeping predator: the personal brand.

In a side-hustling, everyone-can-own-their-business world of solo creators, if you’re not priming the pump of your personal brand, you might as well be wasting away. Here’s Buzzfeed’s Petersen on how Millennials have perfected this craft:

Social media is also the means through which many “knowledge workers” market and brand themselves. Journalists use Twitter to learn about other stories, but they also use it to develop a personal brand and following that can be leveraged; people use LinkedIn not just for résumés and networking, but to post articles that attest to their personality (their brand!) as a manager or entrepreneur. Millennials aren’t the only ones who do this, but we’re the ones who perfected and thus set the standards for those who do.

I can’t tell you how many people abhor Instagram but defend their compulsion that they need it to be “better at their jobs.”

The endless Identity Optimization

Identity in the (pre-social media) dark ages used to be simple. You were a Catholic, a member of the Auto Worker’s union, a Goldman banker or a member of Princeton’s Cottage eating club. The adventurous might have combined a few of these, but in a one-to-one world, the ultimate constraint was physical proximity.

Enter the ‘Gram and the one-to-many broadcast mode. Not only do we instantly become exposed to millions of “identity components,” we have the ability to delicately curate these identities. Now don’t get me wrong, I think that this access to information and others is a beautiful thing. But you can quickly see how it can quickly spiral out of control. Choice overload. And a taxing maintenance schedule. Here’s a brain dump of my current identity curation:

You think this identity’s gonna maintain itself?!?!

LARP’ing at what cost?

Nearly six months ago I drastically cut my Instagram use. And many of y’all know, I was LARPing every single thought, action and humblebrag for years on end. And it was fun. It was on brand for RadReads. And I developed some killer friendships in the process. But I had to stop for three reasons:

1. My kids didn’t opt-in to LARP’ing

Joe Rogan tells the story of a baby ape learning how to walk. The baby hoists itself onto its two wobbly legs, takes that precarious first step and then looks towards mama. In a microsecond, mama ape gives baby ape the one thing it needs at that specific moment: Validation.

A simple dash of eye contact at this critical moment lets the baby ape know, “You got this kiddo, you’re doing great.”

Now compare this to my two kids’ first steps. When they looked towards dad for validation, what did they see?

I’d unwittingly enlisted my (cute) kids in my quest to build a personal brand. And in the process of LARP’ing them, I’d occasionally snap at them for ruining the perfect Instagram story. It was no longer about them or the moment, but about how they would showcase. That just felt plain wrong.

2. Leisure and hobbies become leaky

Have you heard the joke about the Crossfitter and the vegan?

Hobbies, by definition, are not meant to be performance art. The entire point of a hobby is that it’s fun to suck at them. In Tim Wu’s brilliant New York Times piece In Pursuit of Mediocrity, he reminds us that “there is a real and pure joy, a sweet, childlike delight, that comes from just learning and trying to get better.”

Yet LARP’ing your hobbies on the ‘Gram – whether it’s Crossfit, cross hatching or cross-country skiing – destroys the line between hobbies and work. Everything becomes work. Therefore everything’s gotta be perfect. Glamour Magazine’s Karen Rinaldi wrote about the “aspirational dread” of social media:

It’s hit our hobbies hard. Instead of just going for a run, you have to share a picture of your mile count in the health app. You can’t just macrame a wall hanging—you have to post daily progress on your Stories. It seems there is little we do for the joy of doing it because we’re always trying to prove that we’re enough, by getting as many “likes” of approval as possible.

It’s not enough to wear cool sneakers. You need to be a Sneakerhead that can explain a pair’s provenance to show your dedication to your craft.

3. There’s beauty in private moments

When it comes to lovemaking, Warren Buffet is not the obvious guru. But the Oracle of Omaha succinctly reminds us that it’s ok to have your private moments.

“Would you prefer to be considered the best lover in the world and know privately that you’re the worst—or would you prefer to know privately that you’re the best lover in the world, but be considered the worst?”

Wu reminds us that technology was meant “to free us from the struggle for survival and to make room for the higher pursuits.” But when we push everything online, wait for approval from the masses, and handpick a curated (and unrealistic) identity of ourselves we’re actually undermining our own freedom.

So this weekend, remove the shackles. Delete Instagram (just for two days, let’s be reasonable). Smile at your loved ones. Observe the beauty around you. Stop LARP’ing. Start living.

This post was inspired by tweets from @nikillinit, @canthardywait, @kunaltandon. They’re rad and you should go follow them!

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Khe Hy
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Khe Hy is the creator of RadReads.