Call it a first world problem, call it millennial bullshit: creating and curating a “successful” online presence has become increasingly essential in the modern world, and accordingly, increasingly anxiety inducing. Though often referred to as digital natives, I believe that in actuality many millennials face unique and potentially detrimental challenges from having transitioned into an ever encompassing online world during their tender teenage years.
The major dilemma seems to boil down to dissonance between online and offline identities. As a culture of sharing (or oversharing in some cases) becomes the norm online, the gap between reality and perceived reality widens. We often end up questioning the authenticity of our online depictions of ourselves, while on the flip side wondering if our offline lives really live up to our online depictions. As smartphone culture hones the dexterity of our thumbs and exacerbates strain on our necks, the desire for constant connection has proliferated into an addiction to external validation where unless something is posted about on social media and receives X number of likes and comments, it wasn't worthwhile or valuable.
Receiving approval online can be extremely satisfying, and has resulted in the development of a need for recognition online in order to feel like we are indeed interesting people living interesting lives away from the screen. This need for recognition is visibly widespread and has resulted in the rise of the anxiety inducing pressure to create an appealing personal brand and market oneself for approval online. It begs the question of which comes first: an authentic desire to eat more photogenic brunches and go on picturesque adventures, or creating and curating a dynamic, potentially exaggerated online presence that is then emulated and influential of who you are IRL (in real life)?
The world loves to hate on millennials, calling us the “Me Generation,” generalizing that we're all spoiled, entitled, and incredibly self-absorbed. The fact of the matter is that we do not exist in a vacuum, we are the way we are because the world has shaped us to be so. While our childhood teachings emphasized the importance of privacy on the internet, we have since been thrust into an online world where human beings and human experience are becoming increasingly commodified for public consumption. For many of us, posting about our lives and experiences on the internet is both the representation and creation of our experience of life. The online and offline versions may not be one in the same but rather, grow together as we learn to navigate the nuances of identity creation and self-discovery in the digital world.
Parents nowadays flood the internet with photos and anecdotes about their children; children who will indeed grow up to encounter their own range of issues, but this identity dissonance will likely not be one of them. Unlike the children of this new generation, millennials have only recently come to terms with the troubling truth that sometimes we have to treat ourselves as products in order to turn personal branding into an advantage. So while our processes of self-development and identity formation may be perceived as narcissistic and materialistic, putting our lives out on the internet and seeking the approval of others is part and parcel of how we deal with the pressures of personal branding. In the words of Snapchat CEO Evan Spegiel: “We do have a sense of entitlement, a sense of ownership, because after all, this is the world we were born into, and we are responsible for it.”