Haunted by the ghosts of our online lives

The great novelist Penelope Lively was recently asked in The Guardian to name her guiltiest pleasure. ‘Malevolent thoughts about people I dislike’, she answered, brilliantly. I was struck by the honesty and mischief of her answer, and its discordance with the song that we’re all now supposed to sing. It’s never nice to be negative – and it’s especially frowned upon on Facebook.Inspo quote

Over the last few years, the cult of positivity has taken over modern discourse like a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed goblin brandishing a whitewashed sign saying ‘Live Laugh Love’. It used to be the preserve of self-help books and fridge magnets, but now it’s the dominant religion of our times, no more so than on social media. Log into any social network and the golden rays of positivity shine everywhere – the gilded sunsets overlaid with inspirational quotes, the hot-dog legs against an improbably blue sea, the food-porn photos of high-class burgers at boutique festivals (see this Guardian article by Jess Cartner-Morley for a brilliant takedown of Instagram clichés , and this delicious subversion of inspirational memes which don’t look quite as motivational when they’re replaced by quotes from notorious curmudgeon Werner Herzog). It’s also at least partly responsible for the rise of personalised positivity tat, from breadboards to flip flops, that threatens to become the landfill of the future.

Inspo gift

What’s wrong with this picture? Nothing, you might say. What harm does it do to present this sun-drenched life to others, to pepper our posts with impenetrable hashtags? We can bask in the warm glow that comes from sharing our perfect lives with our online friends and followers, knowing that while they may be gnashing their teeth at our narcissism, we rise above it in our bubble of #blessed #wisdom.

But beneath this positivity posturing, for many there lies a seething mass of rage and bitterness, fuelled by Facebook and the rest. Part of my day job is spent supporting children and adults to use social media mindfully, and consider the effects of what they share. Over the last few years, I’ve seen online disinhibition in all its forms – Twitterstorms, keyboard warriors, sock puppets, shaming (read Jon Ronson’s excellent ‘So You’ve Been Publically Shamed’ for a disturbing insight into modern-day mob morality). I’ve seen the fallouts, the cyber-rows, the ill-advised 2am Facebook posts (so much more public than the 2am text to an ex!), the seemingly innocuous shared meme that, along with its accompanying pass-agg comment, says more about a history of mental illness than a psychologist’s case file. I’ve watched, open-mouthed, as a Twitter discussion about skills vs knowledge descends into an ad hominem slanging match between respected educationalists. But it’s the cult of positivity that fascinates me, and the way it’s shaping the behaviour of many online and offline.

I believe that the harm of positivity comes because of the disconnect between how we present ourselves to others on social media, and who we actually are in our real lives. There are serious consequences to keeping the soft-focus edges on our aesthetically pleasing online existence – not only to ourselves, but to others. There’s one group I think are particularly vulnerable to the seductiveness of positivity, and it’s not (largely) those ‘digital natives’ who’ve grown up with social media, but have been constantly reminded of the fakery of Facebook postings and grown cynical of sepia-toned, Photoshopped imagery. No, it’s those pesky ‘digital immigrants’, those in their forties who came late to the social media party and hung around like wallflowers for a bit, watching the cool kids groove. When the digital immigrants took to the dancefloor, we created a new, hideous, way of being human.

This is what we do. In our real adult lives, we’re used to connecting with different groups of influence. With our families, the closest group for many, we may reveal our ‘true selves’, since they know all the grotty little details of our lives anyway, so what’s the point in pretending? With our friends, the next circle, we may begin to play with the truth a little, perhaps embellish a bit here or trim a bit there. With the wider community we can shape yet another version of ourselves, if we wish.

But in an online world, we can create a whole new character that represents the ‘real me’, where positivity is celebrated and life is one long golden sunset. We can ‘share’ a carefully collated set of interests that are designed to present the best possible version of ourselves, we can join a tribe that will welcome us with open arms and not ask too many awkward questions.

For many children growing up in the digital age, the groups of influence have collapsed in on themselves, and the real world and online world have conflated – this doesn’t make it any less confusing for a child who is establishing their sense of self, but they may have fewer layers of falsehood to reconcile. However, I think that for adults of a certain age, perhaps with disrupted self-actualisations, this real and online discordance can be terrible.

I’ve observed that many will do what used to be the preserve of fiction writers and create an alternative version of reality for themselves. In this world, they can present the life they wish they’d had, for who is to say that it isn’t so? Groups of influence for many people can be damaged by the ravages of everyday life in the 21st century – unemployment, an unstable housing situation, financial misery. No-one will necessarily know that your Facebook status is a bit sketchy or that your Instagram image is filtered to within an inch of its life. It’s not precisely lying, and you’re certainly not trying to catfish anyone – but for that moment, at least online, your life is the one that you feel you should have had. Occasionally there’s a glimpse of the truth behind the highly filtered photo, that 2am Facebook post that’s a howl of rage into the night, a bare few hours before the school run, but mostly it’s hot-dog legs and gleeful posts about red wine being Mummy’s Ribena.Wine meme

How exhausting to live like this. Your real life just simply can’t compare to the Instagrammed alternative universe. We become online ghosts, haunting the social networks with our memories of what might have been and unable to move into the next world.

Step into the light, and step away from the ‘share’ button. The young are so much better at this than we are.



Categories: That Internet


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