Untangling the Web

Untangling the Web

A Look Into Student Social Media Personalities

Published on March 2, 2016

Eliana Pipes, a sophomore at Columbia College, secures a camera onto a tripod. Twisting the wiry necks of a floor lamp, she smiles as a soft glow illuminates her face. She settles into a swivel chair and stares straight into the lens.  

Pipes plays Dia, a fictional YouTube blogger in Meet Me @ The Clinic, an eight-episode web series that Pipes wrote and co-directed about two girls volunteering at a clinic similar to Planned Parenthood.

Though not entirely autobiographical, the series is a form of authentic self-expression for Pipes. “A lot of Dia’s story is my story,” she says. “The emotional intention behind it is coming from me and is part of me. Narrative is the way I chose to express it because it’s the language I know.”

Pipes’ main goal for the series is to advocate for women’s health while also creating nuanced narratives for women of color on screen. Although she does not consider herself an active user of social media like Dia, Pipes hopes to also explore the disconnect between a community online and offline.

The character of Dia offers one interpretation of online fame. A social media personality can bring attention to important issues to a large online following. Her reach extends beyond her immediate circle and she can affect conversations occurring offline. However, online discourse can also blow narratives out of proportion, reducing the complex people behind the screen into certain tropes. Fame allows a social media personality to reach a wide audience online, but it can also lead to assumptions and misunderstandings that have negative consequences offline.

Furthermore, the appearance of popularity online does not always translate into having a supportive community. Pipes describes Dia as a lonely figure offline, “disconnected from her family and kind of desperate for a friend.” What Dia desires beyond external validation is being understood by others.

Pipes focused on narrative when producing the series in the hopes of resonating with others.  When it came time to market the series, however, Pipes discovered firsthand the need for validation from other users in the digital landscape.

“You need a certain amount of validation before people even think it’s worthy of being understood,” Pipes says. “You need a certain number of views [for others] to think, ‘OK, I’ll sit through three minutes.’”

Pipes finds it difficult to speak in the language of self-promotion with the same authenticity she felt when talking about the show in conversations. “It does honestly feel like screaming into a void sometimes with posts,” she says.

Pipes recognizes that she has to reach a certain number of viewers before her show can have the impact she hopes for.

“There’s a threshold of validation you have to reach before you can get to understanding,” she says. “At the end, we can’t market our show off understanding.”

Celebrity in the digital age

Streaks of bright pink and pastel blue extend across the photos on Daisy Chaussee’s Instagram feed. Earthier hues of green, orange, and camel brown run across her snapshots of brown paper packages and autumn leaves, a continuous ribbon of hue and tone.

“I don’t necessarily try to take photos with those colors, but maybe I’ll wait and post this pink photo when I have a couple more pink photos,” Chaussee, a junior at Columbia College majoring in computer science and East Asian studies, says.

The phrase “doing it for the ’Gram”—taking a photo with the intention of posting it on Instagram—implies a lack of authenticity and spontaneity and is often used ironically in popular parlance. But it’s a practice Chaussee embraces.

While she may be inspired to visit a particular museum or coffee shop in order to have a particular shoot, taking photos does not detract from her enjoyment of the experience. She argues that “doing it for the ’Gram” serves as an impetus for trying new experiences.

“Doing it for the ’Gram” may apply a disconnect from real life experiences. However,  Chaussee’s commitment to taking photos on Instagram allows her to hone her camera skills in such a way that lets her take a photo speedily while enjoying the moment in full.

“You have to find a balance of enjoying yourself in the moment and also being able to capture a moment,” she says. “Once you’re a little more experienced with photography, you can compose a shot pretty quickly. It’s great to just set up the shot and take it quickly, and then put it away and enjoy the rest of the moment.”

Taking these photographs has also made Chaussee become less self-conscious as she composes photoshoots.

“I am totally fine looking like a fool, posing in the middle of a street,” she says. “You just kind of stop caring what other people think because you have to if you want to get that shot that you want.”

Nevertheless, Chaussee sees Instagram as a visual diary that reveals her hobbies and creativity rather than a statement of character like Pipes’ web series.

“People have such varied perspectives on things that it’s hard to post photos in the hopes that other people understand you,” Chaussee says. “It’s much easier just to get this validation with the number of likes. At the same time, that validation can also feel empty.”

To escape from the hollow side of social media, Chaussee thinks of her Instagram feed as a catalog of the moments of beauty she has encountered in daily life. “I just want to stay true to who I want to be and what I’m taking photos of and how I’m seeing the world,” she says. “As long as I do that, I think being understood or being validated—either one, it doesn’t matter as much.”

Staying true to oneself is about taking control of one’s narrative, an act that is feasible only when others are not pigeonholing or, conversely, blowing your experience out of proportion.

Every aspiring artist, photographer, blogger, and musician has the means to build an audience. But the validation of some is worth more than others. Cultural gatekeepers, those in charge of media platforms, remain influential.

Shortly after Chaussee reached a thousand followers on Instagram during her first semester at Columbia, administrators of the app named her a “suggested user” and promoted her feed to other users. Since then, Chaussee has reached almost 64,000 followers.

“It was a total coincidence that Instagram found my feed and decided to share it with the world,” Chaussee remarks.

Teen Vogue discovered the Tumblr account of Columbia College first-year Jamie Grimstad while she was still in high school. “[Teen Vogue] was like, ‘We have this blogger platform, why don’t you bridge your content over to our site to kind of help you develop your blog a little more,’” Grimstad recalls. This kind of an opportunity has opened many doors for her since. “I ended up getting an internship with a girl who had a big website at the time to kind of learn about more of the business side of blogging.”

Since then, Grimstad has amassed a monthly audience of over 50,000 to her lifestyle website and connects with fans across multiple social media platforms.

Online fame doesn’t always just come up by chance, however. It came suddenly to Columbia College junior Jordana Narin after she won the New York Times “Modern Love” personal essay writing competition. Her essay about “the guy we never really dated and never really got over” was published in the Sunday paper, but most readers encountered the piece online. Given the personal nature of her subject matter, the international interest in Narin’s experience made her somewhat of a phenomenon.

“In the writing world and as an online persona, I went from not being known to people thinking they know me,” she says.

Narin says she entered the essay competition without considering what would happen if she won. But when the New York Times called to announce the news, it was an offer she, as an aspiring writer, could not turn down.

The opportunity to publish in a highly trafficked medium gave her a sense of professional validation. Furthermore, the hundreds of messages she received on Facebook, Twitter, and over email validated her emotional experience when readers claimed that her story resonated with them.

Assuming archetypes

Narin was validated both professionally and emotionally, but the high-profile exposure also allowed others to twist her narrative and reduce her identity into a trope.

“If you put yourself out there for public consumption, you’re going to assume that people are going to consume you in a way that might not make you feel comfortable,” Narin recognizes. “When people would call me names, or when people would make judgments on my character, like she’s naïve, she’s stupid, she’s easy, she’s slutty. … Those were judgments.”

Since winning the “Modern Love“ competition, Narin has become more private. Having experienced what it feels like to be judged based on a small aspect of her life, Narin does not find it necessary to expose herself again just yet.

“Right now, I’m not publishing any book. I’m not writing a screenplay. I’m not writing a TV show. So I don’t need to be a public persona. I can just be a college student,” she says. “But if I’m going to do something like that, I’d be willing to put myself in public again.”

Narin had to learn about what it meant to divulge one’s self on a highly public platform: the Internet. “I would take the negative consequences again in a second, if it meant that I was going to be published. For me, it was so worth it. It was also very much a growing experience.” Narin continues.

Understanding of the self comes first and foremost, but what are the consequences of staying true to oneself when validation isn’t guaranteed? Is it worth it?

Grace Alford-Hamburg, a Columbia College sophomore, discovered the consequences of staying by one’s beliefs when she became swept up in a comment war on Columbia’s class of 2018 Facebook page. Alford-Hamburg defended a commenter critiquing a sophomore who was requesting a white student in a Contemporary Civilization section taught by a professor of color to switch sections with her or another student of color. Then, the backlash came.

“I would say something and people would take one phrase from it and decide that it was the entirety of what I was saying,” she says, describing the negative feedback. “I felt that people were searching the things I was saying for things they thought I was going to say, and then if they found anything that remotely backed up what they were already assuming I was thinking, that’s what they would comment on.”

With her argument distorted, Alford-Hamburg felt reduced into an archetype. Though she tried to make a nuanced argument, she felt as though the people who disagreed with her only had ears for one simplified narrative.

The online disagreement had tangible consequences offline, within the confines of Columbia’s residential community. A student in Alford-Hamburg’s suite moved out as a response to her involvement in the online debate. Some former friends continue to look away when they pass her on campus.

“Nobody who disagreed with me on the Facebook post talked about it with me in person except for my one friend who moved out,” she says. “Now, several people will pretend I don’t exist.”

However, her presence in the public eye also lent her some support and solidarity. Some friends and strangers sent her encouraging messages online while others defended her on the comment thread. “It was a weird thing of feeling rejected but also really supported,” she says.

“I think I validated myself, which was the most important part, because I was always afraid to comment on things, and I didn’t want to get dragged into these things, and I was afraid of people knowing that I wasn’t 100 percent in line,” Alford-Hamburg says. “By commenting, I allowed myself to admit that was fine.”

The responses to Alford-Hamburg’s online presence had enduring effects on her campus life. Conversely, Tamar Mardirossian, a senior at General Studies, is able to enjoy a low-profile campus experience despite her fame abroad.

After her piano-driven pop-rock album Sinner or a Saint was released in 2010, Mardirossian, who performs under the name Tamar Kaprelian, began to experience the loss of the private sphere after fans discovered the private Facebook account under her real name.

Mardirossian’s 138,000 Facebook followers on her private Facebook account now exceed the 101,000 fans following her public artist page. Most of her fans are based in Europe, where her following increased after she represented Armenia in the 2015 Eurovision Song Contest with the band Genealogy.   

“There’s no privacy on any of my social media,” she says. “Everyone sees what I put out, whether I want it to be private or shared. Usually then, what I end up doing is not posting anything at all [on Facebook.]”

For Mardirossian, social media is not so much a source of personal validation as it is a way to keep in touch through Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter with the fans who are interested in her artistically, especially those in Armenia, who can only connect with her online.

“It’s cool to be able to post [Snapchat] videos from some of these places,” she says. “I think that that kind of stimulation is a way for people to learn things they wouldn’t necessarily be able to if they [were] living in a country like [Armenia].”

As a result of the physical distance from her fan base abroad, Mardirossian is able to regain a sense of anonymity in her daily life as a Columbia student.

“[That] has profound effects on you emotionally and psychologically. I feel lucky that I don’t have to deal with that on a daily basis,” she says. “I like being a student and being judged on the basis of the work I turn in.”

Behind Facebook’s facade

Some students, though, choose to get rid of their anonymity by engaging in campus discourse–and reaching a larger audience–through social media.

On his 27th birthday, General Studies senior Andrew Lawson posted a Facebook status opening up about struggles with mental health. By then, Lawson had established a vocal and expressive presence on Columbia’s online communities, engaging friends with humorous anecdotes and political commentary. Before this, though, he had steered clear from discussions of mental health.

“Why am I aiding the very thing I fear? Why am I helping a stigma by being silent to it?” he recalls asking himself.

For Lawson, the act of opening up was a way to take command of his own narrative.

He had been hospitalized for mental health issues in the spring of 2014 and encountered numerous rumors upon his return on campus fall semester.

“One narrative was that Columbia was too tough and I couldn’t handle it, so I was hospitalized,” he says. “At the time, it was more easy to say I’d rather have people think I was weak than have people say I was bipolar.”

Lawson was concerned that his identity was being shaped by a narrative in which he was not participating. “Because of that there was a greater pressure for me to take command of a narrative … to present myself in the most accurate light possible,” he says. “I used social media as a medium to accomplish that task.”

Similarly, Columbia College junior Jess Swanson saw Facebook as a platform for conversations about mental health when she decided to open up about her experiences in a long status update.

“It almost feels like an obligation when I go through something very emotional or anxiety-inducing to share on social media about that experience, because it fights against the stigma of conversations about mental health,” she says.

To Swanson, her post was an act of protest against stigma. “It acts as a statement saying these things are acceptable to talk about in the larger scheme of society,” she says.

For both Lawson and Swanson, the positive response to their Facebook updates opened doors to meaningful conversations offline.

Lawson wanted to reach out to others, offering to take walks and have coffee breaks with friends and new acquaintances during midterm and final seasons in an effort to alleviate their stress or any other mental health issues they might be facing. Similarly, conversations Swanson had with her friends following her Facebook post strengthened her relationships. She also felt supported by the “silent solidarity” of those who liked her post online.  

Social media allows the most private testimonies to reach a larger audience. But at its best, the response on social media provides only emotional validation of a particular incident. In order to access the deeper understanding we desire from others, we must go offline.   

The understanding we can expect from even the most personal posts is limited. Bill Nguyen, a senior at Columbia College, feels accepted to an extent on social media, but only on a case-by-case basis.

“It’s not all of me that feels understood. It’s the part of me that experienced that event feeling understood,” Nguyen says. “It’s a slice of me feeling understood, which is perhaps as much as you could hope to get from a social media post.”

Once, when Nguyen pulled a rib muscle from laughing too hard, he wrote a Facebook post describing how he rushed to Medical Services, thinking he was having a heart attack. “It’s about me being able to narrate my own tiny miseries and turn them into a source of joy for other people,” he says with a laugh.

Nguyen journals at the end of each day without fail, making a time stamp in a Microsoft Word document before allowing a stream of consciousness to spew out onto the page without punctuation or capitalization.

His journal is the place where his writing and thoughts are closest to being one and the same because, rather than his Facebook statuses, Nguyen doesn’t have an audience to cater to.

“By then I’ve already posted the status, and then I reflect on it in a less funny way in my journal,” he says. “I think it’s important to reflect on the same experience in different terms because you get different lessons even out of writing about an event in a different voice.”

“The self I’ve curated on social media is funny, has a lot of weird letdowns or seems like not apt to be in this world, the physical world,” he says. “The side they don’t see, I guess, is that version but expressed in much less funny terms, which is the self that I reserve for my journal.”

Conversely, some of Grimstad’s original journal posts actually make their way into her social media posts.

“I write a lot of poetry and I’ll think of phrases and different quotes or things that I want to remind myself,” she says. “A lot of the things that I write in my journal, I’ll end up using in Instagram captions.”

Grimstad’s personal musings travel from her journal to her public social media accounts, while Nguyen uses both public and private platforms in order to approach the same experience from different vantage points.

Social media allows users to express themselves while giving them access to an audience. The lack of requisite view counts, followers, and other indicators of external validation can lead to self-doubt. On the other hand, overexposure can blow personal narratives out of proportion, leading to misunderstandings and personal attacks with offline implications. Social media makes it challenging to keep things in perspective, whether from a dearth or abundance of external validation.

Platforms outside of the digital space are needed for a fuller and more balanced understanding of self. Personal reflections function as fluid entities that travel between private forms of self-expression, such as journals, and public platforms of social media.

“Social media is a medium between one-on-one conversations and a personal essay,” Nguyen asserts. “It’s writing—but you’re also getting that satisfaction, that immediate gratification of being with someone. So it’s just another addition along that spectrum. And sometimes I feel like I want to be there on that spectrum.”

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