Vay's Place

The Adoration of Social Media, Our Gold-Plated Calf

When I wake up to my alarm, my brain immediately buzzes at the thought of missed notifications. Like every other morning, I try to fight the urge to open Instagram and see what’s new. I should pray first—I know that the practice of devotion first thing in the morning brings focus and centeredness to the rest of the day, yet my brain keeps buzzing for the easy dopamine.

I grew up having devotion first thing in the morning and I know a lot of us still practice that today. It is believed that connecting with the most important Being before making contact with any other starts the day off right. You meet God before you meet the Devil, as they say. Mornings, however, have shifted in these times. Being connected 24/7 means the 5 to 9 hours we’re asleep is a respite from the endless flow of information we’re caught up in throughout the day. Waking up means it’s back to the regularly scheduled program, which is why I check the apps, my emails, Whatsapp, and any other notifications to see if I’ve missed something urgent. When I’m done, I feel better. I’ve fed the beast and can now start my day, until it’s time to feed it again.

Like many of the world’s people around my age with an internet connection, I have a complicated and compulsive connection with social media. When I was 13, I joined Twitter for two purposes: to rant about my life and fangirl. I was a staunch Belieber (he’s been following me since 2011, hey bestie) and made friends in that community that I have never met but still keep in touch with. In my early days on Facebook, it was the medium for a lot of communication and miscommunication. My “friends” and I were deep in it: a lot of posting, messaging, tagging, and poking but also a lot of misunderstanding. Regardless, it was important to us to be in touch as frequently as possible, so when Instagram came, we moved there. This was a different playing field. Instagram was all about what we could see. It was about the look of the outfit, the event, the boy, the girl, the destination. It became all about what made the frame and less about all the different stories behind it and we entered adulthood on that. 

L’Adoration du Veau d’or or The Adoration of the Golden Calf (1633-4) is a painting by Nicolas Poussin, a leading French Baroque style painter who focused on religious and mythological stories. It is based on the Old Testament account of the Israelites and the golden calf they built while in the wilderness. Tired of waiting for Moses to come down from Mount Sinai where he had gone to talk with Yahweh, they asked his brother Aaron to make a new god for them. So, Aaron told them to bring him all their gold jewelry. He melted and molded what they brought into a calf and built an altar in front of it. Poussin’s painting is a depiction of the people’s celebration after presenting offerings to their brand new god. 

“The movement, energy, and crowdedness of the bottom half stand in tension with the stillness and relative emptiness of the top half. Below, the arms of the worshippers stretch out to one another and up toward the calf, while above, the calf’s hoof, necklace, and eyeline all point back down, and so the gaze circulates between these two sights: the unmoving, dead idol and the lively ones giving themselves over to it.” - Excerpt from a commentary on the piece by Natalie Carnes, Associate Professor of Theology at Baylor University. 

Beyond their impatience, the people had a desperation to have something concrete to serve as a constant reminder that they would be looked after. They needed something to fill the gap and created something they chose to believe was bigger than them, even though it wouldn’t exist without their resources. Social media as our gold-plated calf is the creation that has taken over its creator. We keep it alive with pieces of ourselves and it doesn’t stop growing because it doesn’t stop consuming us.

In a few years to come, I will have spent half of my life on social media. It’s already been a decade of reading posts in a poster’s voice until all of them sound the same. A decade of going somewhere and immediately thinking of how I can present it to my audience. It’s been a good portion of my teenage and young adult years spent analyzing why someone would say this in that way and what it Actually Means, why they would post that and why they wouldn’t. Half of our lives on these apps means that as young people, we only know how to be addicted and have no idea how to leave. And haven’t we all tried? We are equally as familiar with the deactivations and breaks and app timers as we are with the tension that comes when we try to manage this dependence.

One of the people I spoke with about this is Kysani who has been thinking of how much she shares online, from photos of herself to parts of her creative work. In some ways, the idea of giving so much out has made her feel uneasy but in other ways, she has been able to connect with others and not feel alone. This is the creative’s social media dilemma. We feel anxious about sharing online because of how intimate it is, yet we know the benefits of pushing it through and doing it anyway. We overanalyze our content and how it is received but recognize the value of the community we can cultivate by our sharing. Being able to reassess our relationship with social media means being able to make it work the way it’s supposed to, which is as an enhancer for what we do instead of an inhibitor. “Lately it’s just been about finding that middle ground between not being too exposed online but also not being hidden behind this cloak of sorts,” Kysani says. 

A typical day for her starts with checking her phone for any messages from her family. When she gets home from work in the evening, she chooses between working out and cooking dinner.. or unwinding with social media. The easiest option usually wins and she finds herself going back and forth on the same apps for maybe three hours. In terms of relationships, social media helps her maintain a sense of familiarity with her long-distance friends and makes the distance feel shorter. Still, there have been some months where she’s deactivated her accounts for the sake of clearing her head and keeping herself away from the “oversaturation of everyone else’s ideas and sometimes, the exact same arguments over and over.” In my first two years as a university student, a lot of my social justice awakening was aided by content on social media. It was all about rage and urgency coupled with a deep frustration with the state of things. We held the core belief that everything was a problem. Fast forward a few years and I can’t really name something that riles me up or shocks me anymore— officially overstimulated from the overconsumption. A high population can relate when I say that I’ve had the discussions time and time again. I know all the debates, I’ve heard all the points, and I don’t think my brain can stomach it anymore. Conversely, we are jaded by making light of anything and turning everything into a joke. I know we act this way in response to the reality at large which feels beyond our control, however, automatically swinging from the strongest to the most detached reaction of what we are seeing is abnormal and harmful. We are exhausted from the extremes and the memes and it strains our relationships even though we are always in touch.

Candace Amos runs social and audience at The Daily Beast and describes social media as the “wild, wild west.” The apps weren’t there when she started in journalism 15 years ago but she’s now grown to have them embedded in her life. She normally starts her day by working and checking various outlets to see what news broke overnight. “First thing in the morning, I check Slack, I check Twitter, and then all of the other platforms. Sometimes I find myself on social media for half of the day.” She keeps up with a lot of newsletters to educate herself on what’s happening, soaks up the different types of content on Instagram, vents about the industry on Twitter, and frequents Facebook to see what’s going on with friends, family, and the 250 Facebook groups she’s a part of. While these are her typical habits, she is the only one in her circle who uses social media heavily; her fiance and friends don’t understand the fixation. “They love me and accept me, but they see it as a negative.” If none of these platforms existed, she’s sure they’d be happier.

Because she hasn’t grown up on this and a lot of her activity is connected to her work, Candace’s habits are different from standard Gen Z behavior where “real-life” is heavily confounded with what happens on the screen. “The algorithms know how to play on our emotions and fears as humans,” she says. Her concerns are mainly for the younger generation and how difficult it is to confront the challenges online environments pose to mental health. At four years old, her son is already exploring the internet through Youtube. “He loves Peppa Pig, but some guy on Youtube made a twisted version of it where Peppa Pig is evil and he’s been watching that without me realizing it because it looks like the cartoon.” Most busy parents know the role of platforms like Youtube in keeping kids engaged, but also recognize that better alternatives are needed. A lot of social media is just that: simple and convenient, offering the watered-down of whatever we need, whether it’s entertainment or intimacy. We know that the golden calf we worship is actually just golden-plated, but we can’t stop.

In terms of intimacy, there’s that gap social media seems to cover when it comes to relationships. Due to constant interactions, people (read: strangers) tend to think they know someone and how they’re doing simply based on the few random moments they see. I find myself constantly in conflict between sharing those tidbits for the sake of receiving a response versus keeping all of it—how I looked today, the weird things I saw, the cool things I did, and the mundane—to myself. Social media has facilitated the starts and ends of a lot of relationships with couples engaging very differently from how they do in real life, even when they spend most of their time together. Family members use the shallow connections to try and bridge gaps or pass over the unsaid. People share constantly but are strategic in how they keep certain parts of their lives private. We compare the next person’s carefully curated story to the full knowledge we have of ourselves, which pushes us down the impossible path of discontentment with the person we are to love the most.

One of the first things Michal shared with me was that social media is what you make it. She spoke about the weird balance between collective responsibility and individual responsibility, and trying to do what she can in her individual capacity to make sure she has a healthy relationship with it. She’s mindful of who she follows and interacts with so she frequently refreshes her online communities. As a photographer, Michal recognizes the importance of having a strong following but also being intentional about what and how she posts for her audience. “I recently had a female Eritrean photographer reach out to me on Instagram saying ‘Oh my God your work is so amazing. I’m so glad I found you.’ I feel uncomfortable sometimes about being vulnerable on social media but the reason I keep posting is it’s clearly having an impact.” Connecting with other creatives and getting inspiration from their content are the main reasons she stays active on social media. While we’re conscious of the fact that we are losing a lot to this black hole, we have hints of an ideal future because we’ve seen the positive side. 

I’ve asked myself: What would my life look like if I spent more time in reality? If I lived more for what’s real and in front of me? I would probably be in a much better place than I am now. I imagine I would be much further in my journey to succeed in the various ways I want to. Yet, I also have to ask: if I take this away, can I really fill the gap? Will I be able to retrain my body to feel rewarded from a different source? From what? Being myself? Being with other people? Creating something from nothing? God? There will always be something that demands or requires most of our attention and, for the most part, we get to choose what it is. Whatever we repeatedly choose affects our brain functions, from how we process information to how we retain memory. So, I want to try something different. I want to allow myself to be bored, to feel like I’m missing things and to truly miss them. To fall out of shallow touch and meaningfully pick up from where I left off. I want to be able to be selfish with my experiences but also share honestly. The next time I’m out, I want to think less about framing my experience for my audience and more about staying in it fully. I want to develop a healthy relationship with sharing what I create, one marked by a willing openness and the belief that I work out of abundance and not scarcity.

We’re all born with a gap in our hearts that we spend our lives trying to fill. What will you choose to fill your gap? For me, I want my life to be filled with a deep connection with God and my inner self because that leads to who I am and why I’m here. Merely gold-plated, social media doesn’t offer what it claims to. It is a sham that stands in front of the real, precious gold: existence, connection, stimulation. We felt these things when we used to play in the backyard, write letters, and speak on the phone. Generally, we were present at gatherings and intentional with making contact, things that will never lose their value. As young people, we need to fight for ourselves and our chance to do better. This reality was passed on to us, but we don’t have to keep it as we continue to grow. We should do the hard thing today so that we can reap tomorrow. We can clear out the muck and grime taking up so much space in our lives to make room for who we really are. We can live slowly and thoughtfully, refusing to subscribe to FOMO and the idea that the world is spinning without us. We can relate to each other with vulnerability and truth, believing in the value of our relationships despite their nature online. 

A Few Days of Soft Social Distancing

I am writing this because all the weirdness around me tells me this will be an important time to take note of, both on a personal and societal (maybe global) level. I love journaling and I think it is important that I document this in real time.

I, alongside pretty much everyone in most parts of the world, am thinking about COVID-19, the Coronavirus Disease. It’s on our news alerts, social media feeds, and in face-to-face conversation. Italy and Norway have officially shut down. Americans are learning how to wash their hands for the first time and have bought out all the toilet paper.

I currently live in San Diego and there is no systemic lockdown so people are acting on their own and doing whatever they believe is best. People are staying away from large gatherings and working from home. As of the week of March 9, the small office I work in is not planning to close up and the work that I do can’t be done from home so I am happy to keep coming in simply because I keep getting paid. With no insurance or savings, I’m 40% reliant on my skinny bi-weekly paycheck and 60% reliant on the Blood of the Lamb. I know it should be 110% on the Blood but I’m a work in progress. Also, rent and bills are not being paused and the likelihood of that happening in the US, specifically in my case, is very slim so I’m trying to match my reality.

It’s Friday morning and I’m on the 10-minute walk to work from the bus station and it’s raining. My flimsy umbrella is keeping only most of my body and backpack dry. As I walk, I think of the chaos all around me, the external joining with the internal to produce.. calmness? I feel numb, like I’m outside of my body watching myself. This is common for me.

As soon as I sit at my desk and turn on the computer, I check my email. I’m reading one absentmindedly then I remember seeing a subject line from a university in the unread list, the university that has my graduate school application. I try to finish up the email I’m currently reading but can’t concentrate enough so I just rush to the other one. From outside myself, I watch my reaction as I read my acceptance to my top-choice graduate school program. I feel very lightheaded, like I’m going to pass out. I screenshot the email and put it in my family Whatsapp group and then send Snapchats to my brother reacting; I can’t believe it for some reason.

I want to tweet my good news but I can’t bring myself to do it. There’s a lot going on my timeline and there’s really no need to add to it, even though, I’ll note tomorrow morning, I waste no time in logging on to complain about the most irrelevant stuff. Moving on. 

Later that afternoon, I receive an email that the opening reception for an art showcase I’m in has been postponed. My friend and partner in this project are honestly relieved at this because now we have more time to pull it together. We’d been so busy that it was hard to meet up as much as we needed to to bring our project to work. It seems like everyone is getting a big life break that we all knew was necessary but not possible based on our society. We are being forced to stop and rest by this pandemic. My roommate texts me to say she was able to buy toilet paper. Good news since I couldn’t find any last night. It must not be that rough out there then. 

On my lunch break I go to see an apartment. I’m moving soon-ish and need to find a place. I don’t like the set up so it goes quick and I get a chicken sandwich on my way back to work. As I eat at my desk I think about my health for a moment: I should probably be eating something nutritious, when last did I take something with Vitamin C? and so on. 

Around 7 p.m., I go grocery shopping with my friend right after work. I wasn’t thinking of going to buy groceries but she thought it’d be a good idea since stores are getting sold out of products and we don’t know how long all this will take. The uncertainty is real. We hit up a 99 Ranch Supermarket and Trader Joe’s. When she gets to my apartment to drop me off, we end up talking in the car for over two hours. We always talk about life, how it is to be us here and now and it always feels good to talk about stuff that really matters. I wonder how important this moment will be if I have to look back on this weekend years after all this.

I have two cups of Trader Joe’s yogurt for dinner around midnight and at 1:44 a.m. I’m still up watching Monse from On My Block talk about being desensitized to pain and loss as a part of being numb to life. That really sounds like me.

A church conference that I was supposed to be at all day Saturday moved to Livestream and so did our Sunday service which means I’m looking at a weekend completely free with no obligations to leave my apartment. I truly can’t remember the last time I had a weekend to myself, when I didn’t have to leave my apartment both days and that stresses me out. I have been telling everyone that will listen that I need to stop being busy and need to start taking it easy. Constant, unstoppable productivity is an evil spirit that is very alive among us and very difficult to stop. This outbreak is handing me that time to rest on a silver platter but I’m not sure how I’m taking it. I stay in my apartment and in my bed for most of Saturday.

On Sunday, I go to a birthday brunch for my close friend. The restaurant is still open, packed even. It seems like with schools and workplaces closed, people are now having time to hang out with their loved ones. In other words, people are taking the time off from responsibilities to do what they actually want to do with their time, even if it is hazardous. This is interesting to me: our reality is looking very different because people are taking risks for what is important to them.

There are a lot of discussions on social media about the selfishness and privilege of going out and not properly observing social distancing and I understand those arguments. Still, I can’t stop thinking about what feelings of uncertainty and lack of control are doing to us. 

As someone who has been in a long self-improvement process of unlearning my need and desire to be in control of my life and all that concerns me, this is a massive test for me. I have things to do and moves to make that are time-sensitive and I can’t put things into motion that will let me know where I’ll be for sure in six months. I see a lot of people also being tested on a personal level. Folks are defying the new social norm of self-quarantining because they feel their comfort and freedom being threatened. Some people think doing the recommended and the needful, which is staying at home unless absolutely necessary, would mean some type of loss. Someone I know expressed not wanting to “give in to the hysteria.” Let me say a little about this person. He is the type who prides himself on being rational and logical in the face of anything and what I see going on with him is that his sense of worth and value is being threatened in this crisis. For someone who has always believed he is the level-headed one in the room, going with the crowd to feel worry or concern is against his brand. Instead, he has taken up a face of annoyance. From the people on this side of the spectrum to those on the other end of absurd panic who are buying out the stores, we are all acting out on our fears. And we all know what fear can make people do, regardless of who they are or what they know.

This common feeling of helplessness is definitely exposing capital and property ownership for the shams that they are. Our lack of control, which was already a pretense, has come to light. My roommate was let go from both of their jobs and has no idea what to do next. With a lot of people suddenly in this situation, we are collectively understanding of the fact that people need a place to live and the other things necessary to have a good life regardless of their ability to pay for it. We seem to easily understand that no one should have to suffer because of situations that are out of our control. An empathy that is aggressive is being shared by all of us and we are showing what love in action means. I really hope I don’t miss the point of all this, that I get out of this thinking of society and work differently. 

It’s around 2 p.m. on Monday and I am at work. I feel like a panic attack is coming on but I’m not sure if that’s what it is. Earlier on my throat felt weird and now my head feels fuzzy. I have had a lot of anxiety recently and being someone that does not express stress outwardly I am always concerned as to where the stress goes and how it is going to manifest because I’m pretty sure it stays in my body. I am already dealing with trying to find a place to move to by the end of the month and figuring out the road to actually get to the school I will now be attending. 

I noticed I am posting a LOT. I’m Very Online, even more than usual if any of my mutuals can believe that, and the hysteria mixed with humor is taking a toll on me. The fact that I can notice that means it has already done too much damage. I’m thinking of how to save myself. 

Journaling really helps. Keeping record gives me the freedom to check in with myself and how I am feeling in the midst of all this. I have shared a tiny bit, and I’m still working through the rest. It’ll also help me if I start to live my life more from day to day instead of in six-month time blocks.

I am taking advantage of all the free time I have now to stretch my body and read—two things that I hardly have time for in my regular routine—because they help with the anxious feelings by keeping me in and connected with my body. I’m still going to work, but I would say that my main responsibility right now is to take care of myself. I can’t say how long this will last but for now, I am thankful and mindful.

On the Interconnectedness of our Personal Responsibility

When the recent UN IPCC report came out stating that humans have about twelve years to keep temperatures from exceeding 1.5C and intensifying natural disasters, it found itself in mainstream media. With its strong but clear call to action, the familiar debate of who is responsible for environmental crises between the individual and corporations circled back to the forefront of general conversation. Should the focus be on Nestle’s use of palm oil in Kit Kats and Forever 21’s use of sweatshops? Or should it be on our fifteen-minute-long showers and use of plastic boba straws? This debate operates on an either/or situation centered around laying sole responsibility on the appropriate party but both individuals and collectives are responsible and we need to move forward with this in mind. Our thinking of personal responsibility in global challenges becomes complete when we see it as the other side of our joint activities. We replace our clothes instead of repairing them which fuels fast fashion. We choose plastic containers over reusable water bottles and lunch containers which end up in landfills. We criminalize and isolate the poor when we respond to their demands with suspicion which props up systems of apprehensive means-testing for welfare services. Responsibility for all of us means that we will always be directly connected to the state of the world around us, for better or worse, and we need to own that. 

We are highly interdependent on each other despite what we like to believe about the way our modern world works today. A product of our globalized society is that what we do or don’t do affects those around us both near and far. A subtle theme from Black Panther is the question of international interaction and foreign aid as Wakanda thrives on its powerful natural resources but is hesitant to help struggling nations and peoples. We are familiar and comfortable around the idea of helping people across borders and country lines in times of crisis and even expect it. Yet, it is hard to conceptualize that my water use while living in America is somehow linked to the drought affecting my grandmother’s farms in Nigeria, or that our actions may contribute to the dwindling resources in the Sahara Desert which make it a tense environment ripe for extremism. Seeing as we cannot clearly draw these type of direct connections even though they exist, responsibility needs to be thought of less in terms of blame or retribution for what has happened in the past and more in terms of doing what is in our power now.

Personal responsibility should be forward-looking. We should see ourselves as being responsible for what we do now and how that affects our future; being responsible should be in present and future tense. Being personally responsible means being aware that we are responsible for what our physical and political communities produce. We live in social systems that are based on putting down those more vulnerable in order to lift up the privileged. We also live under governments that do not acknowledge the worldwide reality of the growing wealth gap or the increasing climate change. By being part of these communities, the responsibility is ours to act in ways that go against the grain. Individuals are able to embrace the inconvenience that comes with carpooling more as well as support public measures which work to counter the fact that tax rates on the highest incomes have dropped. We can shift our lifestyles to be less focused on consuming in attempts to fill the void created by a lack of hope, security, and purpose as well as aid efforts to institutionalize programs that destigmatize mental health needs and pursue equality for groups that are more vulnerable to mental health issues. Thinking and acting on our individual responsibility in a way that is both current and forward-looking means that we do what in our power and control today in addition to contributing to something greater than ourselves for tomorrow. We have to personalize the urgency presented to us by news like the wider-than-ever wealth gap and the IPCC report. It means we recognize that our actions and decisions play out against the backdrop of global challenges. 

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