In a world of static and noise, people sometimes go the extra mile to make their voices heard. Social media feels to me like an overcrowded room where people are talking over each other. Everyone is talking a lot, but fewer people are listening. Some things are different with social media. Subtext can often be difficult to read. Tone can be difficult to convey in text. There is a possibility that if social media users were physically present in the same room, a larger percentage of arguments would be handled calmly. Chimamanda recently published a three-part essay that addressed her feud with two Nigerian writers. Chimamanda, in this essay, illustrated what performativity and conformity can be like in the age of social media.
There are millions of people seeking validation on social media, millions are building careers out of having a large number of followers. Some have this social media thing figured out. They know that saying certain things, fighting for particular causes or engaging with certain people may get them more followers and popularity in the social media sphere. Their words, expressions, praises and anger can be performative in nature. In context, a person’s social media personality can be distinguished from their offline persona.
The invasiveness of social media can be a problem for people without a sense of self. You can soak up many ideas without ever really forming your own opinion. Whether you are passively or actively engaging, the online world has the power to shape your attitude, beliefs, thoughts, and actions. Your desire to conform may lead you to refrain from speaking certain things out of a feeling of fear of being rejected. Your offline self may have to be toned down for you to attract the popular crowd. Quite a number of people walk around with different personalities because they’ve integrated the ideologies of other people.
My impression has always been that social media brings out a type of performativity in people. Performativity that teeters on the edge of authenticity. In a sense, it’s like the show must go on. Whether it’s calling out people, engaging in performative activism, stringing together pseudo intellectual sentences, portraying a certain lifestyle, the show must go on. How do we go about defining what is right and what is wrong in the age of social media? Simple, anything accepted by the popular crowd.
To approach the truth independently, we must always ask ourselves if the things we endorse are things we truly believe in. Too many cooks are prone to spoiling the broth; this happens in a situation where you are a collection of other people’s ideas and unable to voice your own. Social media have proven to be particularly useful in educating the masses. A thin line, however, exists between education, conformity and misinformation. Chimamanda in her essay talks about ‘people who ask you to ‘educate’ yourself while not having actually read any books themselves, or people who expect you to learn something by conforming to the ideas they hold. Conformity is associated with self-presentation. It is generally more convenient to present ourselves in a favourable light rather than ways that threaten our acceptance. Thus, we design a better version of ourselves that will reflect the image we want to project. In essence, the desire for approval is at the core of this.
Sometimes, people are encouraged to call out the people in their circle when something happens. Perhaps this person has made a wrong comment or done something that didn’t particularly appeal to the masses. The angry mob then says, “call them out!”, and because the show must go on, an iota of grace is not extended in the space of intimacy. A public performance that comes at the expense of personal relationships. People like the first person Chimamanda addressed in her essay have been perpetrators of this.
The nature of social media blurs the line between privacy and publicity. People are calling out their friends on social media, cancelling friendships, and walking out of meaningful relationships out of a false sense of righteousness, an air of indignation that comes with placing a topic on a pedestal and poking at it over and over again until the social media court decides on a judgement. There is a “passionate performance of virtue that is well executed in the public space of Twitter but not in the intimate space of friendship”. It is common for people to talk about extending kindness until the time comes for them to show kindness. As Chimamanda said ‘there are many social-media-savvy people who are choking on sanctimony and lacking in compassion, who can fluidly pontificate on Twitter about kindness but are unable to actually show kindness.’ Additionally, there are people justifying their wickedness and wrapping it in the cloak of activism.
The third part of Chimamanda’s essay, ‘It Is Obscene: A True Reflection in Three Parts’, teaches us several things: to be patient with those who are truly curious and confused, to not be quick to become part of the mob, to learn to be open-minded and inclusive of other people’s viewpoints, to question whether we are collections of other people’s opinions or fully competent to form our own opinions, to examine the reasons for what we believe, to put away the cloak of performativity and dare to express our own thoughts without fear of cancellation.