How To Be Human When Humans Become Brands

When it comes to my exes, there’s just one who remains absent from all forms of social media. As for the others, I’ve seen photos of this one’s trip to India and that one’s charming hilltop wedding. The guy from French class is a PhD candidate in some science of the mind. The college dorm neighbor stands before a Christmas tree flanked not by the two kid sisters I remember, but by two sophisticated-looking women I barely recognize. This access to their presents creates in me amnesia for the pasts we shared. Where there once might have been nostalgic longing or imaginative extrapolation, there is now the cozy but sterile fellowship that cloaks all things available to all people at all times.

The ex with no digital footprint is immune to this. I remember him as he was years ago and occasionally wonder what his life is like now. In the rare empty space surrounding my understanding of him, I can assume fictive futures. I imagine that if I bumped into him on the street, the concreteness of the situation would be too much. I’d fumble my words and revert to my 23-year-old self. After all, if not, “Congratulations on your new baby! She’s beautiful!” or “I saw your Italy pictures – how was the trip?”, what would I possibly have to say to this person? But I digress. The point is that he’s become a wildcard. A ghost. A marbly white, mystery-flavored fruit snack that refuses to broadcast its red cherriness or purple grapeness.

It’s unclear whether his virtual unavailability is magnetic or alienating – which, in turn, begs the question: when it comes to your virtual persona, to what degree are you drawing in, and to what degree are you pushing away? Though your involvement itself suggests a baseline transparency, are you stripping down to your rawness or putting on a well-curated show? And if you answered the latter, are you not somehow the same as the invisible ex? Hiding behind a re-tweeting, quote-happy avatar (guilty as charged) may be as distancing as avoiding the enterprise altogether.

I’m drawn to those who reveal – probably because their freewheeling revelations give any viewer ample fodder for connection (please note: it has to be artful; literalists need not apply). My favorites fall into two subcategories: the snarks and the glossy lifestylists. The snarks discuss everything from pop culture to politics, therapy, razor burn and what happens to their urine after eating asparagus. They’re alternately bombastic and self-deprecating, untouchably cool and professionally uncool. Just when you think they’ve devolved into an obliquely amusing vortex of navel-gazing millennial speak, they’ll whip out a striking syntax, insightful sense of humor or cultural critique that reminds you of their unique brilliance. And on the most solemn of occasions, they’ll employ the holy grail hashtag #serioustweet. If you’re the recipient of that, congratulations; you’ve slain the dragon.

The glossy lifestylists, meanwhile, inhabit a world of yogic trips to Bali and Sundays at the local farmers market. They collect vintage vinyl, spearhead charity fundraisers, lead lively book clubs, and birth the most ridiculously beautiful children you’ve ever seen. Even the foam on their cappuccinos is museum-worthy. I’m as much enamored of their luster as I am of the snarks’ crudeness. In my wildest dreams, I’m a glossy lifestylist upon whom the snarks bestow their acceptance. (Don’t tell them that; they eat earnestness for breakfast – or at least chew it up and spit it out as a meme.) In reality, I’m not any of these things.

As humans become brands, what happens to those of us who are neither exceedingly raw nor exceedingly sparkly? There’s no pithy message or narrative thread that says “loose ends” or “in transition.” Without a throughline or a point, the gray area is being squeezed out, which strikes me as odd because most of life happens in the gray. In this climate of exhibitionism, subtlety is becoming obsolete. Not only that, but by living quietly, you give people so little to connect with that you run the risk of alienating them. Revealing can be unwieldy, but refusing to do so is tantamount to withholding your name at a party. Then you’re just that loner in the corner, avoiding eye contact and giving us nothing.

Are you revealing too little? Too much? Are you contributing something valuable or just seeking approval? How do you become part of the conversation without laying yourself open to the myriad dangers of overexposure? Moreover, how do you hear your own voice in the midst of such a forceful chorus? I don’t have the answer. Bewitched by the siren song of the tweets, I dip my toe in, hope for the best and embarrass myself often. Maybe the invisible ex is onto something after all.

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