The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.
We recently found ourselves at an event called a “silent disco” where everyone wears wireless headphones and dances silently to music only they can hear. It’s a strange and fun experience, in part because you know how silly it looks. In this case, the dance floor was divided into quadrants and when you moved to a new one, your headphones changed color and the music changed to a new genre.
As we were dancing I noticed an attractive couple arrive on the dance floor. The woman immediately turned her phone to selfie mode and started making faces into the camera. They walked from one end of the dance floor to the other, always looking at the phone and trying to find the most flattering light. More faces, more smiling. They didn’t dance at all. They just held up the camera and smiled as if they were having the time of their lives. As soon as the photography was over, their faces returned to normal and they looked bored. After about five minutes, they disappeared and never returned.
Watching from afar, I was fascinated. Whoever saw their messages that night was surely convinced that they were living the good life. They were partying at a silent disco and having a great time. Just look at those smiles and silly faces. Headphones, at a disco? Crazy! What a night!
What I witnessed that night seemed like a charade. I could be misinterpreting what happened, but it sure seemed like a show that was designed to make an impression. It was meant to create a sense of fun and exuberance mediated by social media apps. Yet, it wasn’t like that in real life. They didn’t actually experience the event or appear to have a good time outside of the world they were building through the camera’s lens.
That night, I couldn’t stop thinking about them. Did they ever consider that the event was a real thing that real people experience, just for the fun of it? Did they think it was odd, having taken so many photos, to walk off the dance floor knowing that they didn’t actually dance or enjoy the disco?
Seeing this happen reminded me that so much of what we see online is curated to provoke a response. It’s meant to make an impression and garner more likes and reactions. And often, people go to great lengths to make it happen. They go to a silent disco not to dance, but to wear silly headphones on a dance floor and then leave. It seems like a vapid way to approach sharing your life online.
I am not immune to the gratifying feeling of sharing something online and having it be noticed. It feels good to see friends react to a photo I share on Instagram. If I have a response in mind when I do, I hope it’s that people find the photo interesting, funny or beautiful. I also hope it doesn’t provoke a negative response that I didn’t anticipate.
When I think about the couple at the disco, I wonder what reactions they received, but also what impressions they made. I’m sure their friends responded with, “FUN!!” and added the appropriate emojis. But I also imagine some friends being envious or wishing they were in their shoes. Was that what they wanted?
This reminds me of a tweet I saw a while back by @robinmccauly that said:
Saw a couple holding hands while jogging and it made me hopeful that one day I will meet someone who will hate them with me.
Hilarious. This perspective is so real. Every day we are bombarded with images that show people living their best lives. They are at silent discos and holding hands while jogging. They create an unrealistic or unreal sense of other peoples’ lives and that portrayal can quickly turn from interest to disillusionment or even hate. Who do those people think they are? How can they be so happy with so much suffering in the world?
Watching social media can feel like reading an unbalanced story where there’s no conflict or negative consequences. While it might be fun to imagine living in that world, it makes for terrible storytelling.
There’s a line in a song I like, called Sober to Death, that relates this feeling. It’s a dark song, by the band Car Seat Headrest, about mental health and not being around to help someone who needs it. I think the lyric is about trying to see the bright side of a life that’s not looking good. When I heard this simple line, it stuck with me.
You know that good lives make bad stories
Good lives make bad stories. It’s true. But it’s also true that good lives still have problems and conflict and heartbreak. Despite what you see on Facebook, no one’s life is all good all the time.
That’s the challenge of the storyteller. Within a good, productive life there are still lessons to be learned and trials to be endured. No matter how good or bad things may appear, there is still a complicated person who is experiencing them and that is where the story truly unfolds. Sometimes, good lives are only possible through weathering a storm.
From all this, I take inspiration. I think about that couple on the dance floor taking selfies and painting a positive and inauthentic picture of that night. They inspire me to push in the opposite direction and share the feeling of the sweat that gathered in my ears as I danced. They make me want to share all the questions I had about how the headphones are cleaned and what might lurk inside them. They make me want to admit that I was tired and ready to leave before it ended.
It also reminds me that our story, the story I’m telling here in Ready for Rain, is subject to the same dynamics. We may not hold hands while jogging, but we are generally happy people who are in the middle of trying to accomplish a goal. For that story to be engaging and real, it can’t be one sided. I may take photos of happiness and joy. I may share successes and achievements. But I will also share stories about anguish, anxiety and disappointment.
And I can guarantee this: what I share actually happened. We’re not here to take photos with fake smiles and leave. We’re here to dance and sweat and share real stories about real people because in the real world, that’s what matters.