Do you have FOLO (Fear Of Life Offline)?

Robyn Wilder finds out what it’s like to live an uncurated existence

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We can now edit and art-direct our lives online like never before. But how would our friends and followers react if we removed all the filters and presented our existence In Real Life? Robyn Wilder strips away all the filters. 

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There is a woman on the internet who is my nemesis. She doesn’t know she’s my nemesis, of course – or even that I exist – but that doesn’t stop me getting all emotional over the photos she posts online. Because, you see, her life looks flawless. This woman is a beauty blogger with more than 90,000 Instagram followers. I, however, am a journalist, and fewer than 2,000 follow me. One in five of this woman’s selfies are taken in an azure infinity pool in Bora Bora with someone who looks suspiciously like Tom Hardy. One in five of mine are taken in a terraced house in Kent when my baby, who looks a bit like Max from EastEnders, pulls a funny face. 

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Whenever Bora Bora woman pops up on my Instagram feed with her poreless skin and poolside life,  I suddenly feel catastrophically unattractive. This woman looks the way I might if I had a stylist, won the lottery and had never heard of potatoes. It’s galling. Suddenly my own messy fishtail braid is a knot of malnourished rat tails. My outfit is too generic, my life not as sun-kissed and aspirational. ‘Why am I even sharing photos if I’m so lumpen and uninteresting?’ I find myself thinking. It seems searingly unfair that such a glamorous creature could even exist in the same universe as one in which I have a wandering right eye and an unhoovered living room. Obviously, though, you’re never going to see my wandering right eye or unhoovered living room. Just like Bora Bora Lady, and just like anyone who’s run a no-make-up shot or #iwokeuplikethis selfie through an image editor (which 
is pretty much everyone), I’m very active on social media, but only share the most photogenic parts of my life online. 

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Offline Me cries once a week and still hasn’t unpacked all her boxes, seven months after moving house. Online Me, however, is happily raising a bonny child in a sunny, well-kept albeit unhoovered house with nary a frown nor a vomit stain in shot. I’ve been conditioned by society, my parents, and by the mean girls I went to school with, to keep all that less-than-perfect stuff locked up tight. In his essay about imagery and meaning, Simulacra And Simulation, the philosopher Jean Baudrillard observed that we are becoming increasingly unable to distinguish reality from the imitation of reality. By not challenging the status quo, even Bora Bora woman and I – with my filtered-to-oblivion online self – are contributing to a culture of FOLO.

FOLO is the fear of living life offline, of real life, the dispiriting dissonance that occurs when your own humdrum moments – say, queuing in Lidl on an unfiltered grey Tuesday afternoon – don’t measure up to the Facebook update you just read about your friend drinking Aperol Spritz at sunset in Bali. 

Social media is inextricably linked with depressive symptoms, claim researchers from the University of Houston. A recent study suggests that the longer you spend on social media browsing the curated highlights of other people’s lives, the more isolated, jealous and worthless you can feel – scientists have called this phenomenon ‘Facebook depression’.

‘It doesn’t mean Facebook causes depression,’ the study’s author, Mai-Ly Steers, has said. ‘But that depressed feelings and lots of time on Facebook and comparing oneself with others 
tend to go hand in hand.’

My friend Sara Levi, a charity information manager, deleted her Facebook account last summer when she found it was actually worsening her existing depression. ‘Facebook wasn’t doing good things for my self-worth,’ she tells me. ‘I forgot that people deliberately present their best selves online. I was starting to think that the smiling selfies and status updates about wonderful partners and friends were how everyone lives all the time, rather than snapshots – literally – of one moment in time.

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‘No one was sharing that they were crying for no reason, or having a panic attack at work, or couldn’t face leaving the house today. So I felt no one would understand how I was doing because they all had such marvellous lives. And that I shouldn’t bother them or bring them down with my gloom.’

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But what would it feel like to show real life? I decide to embark on an adventure and go unfiltered for a week – I will step out from behind the edits and share my life and face online. The very idea sets my teeth on edge and I have visions of being chased off the internet by villagers with pitchforks the very second I share my first IRL (In Real Life) selfie. 

I start with 5,490 Twitter followers, 1,193 Instagram followers and 475 Facebook friends. Can I really go for 10 days unfiltered on social media, and come out alive? Will they still like me?

Day 1:After a rough day, and with a fridge full of decomposing aspirational salad vegetables, I cheer myself up with a questionable takeaway chicken burger, and ironically Instagram my leftover chips with the hashtag #avocadotoast. I follow several eat-clean devotees, so I’m surprised when my post acquires 58 likes and several more hashtags from my followers, including #eatclean, #wellness and #eatnourishglow. My followers are the best.

Day 2: Using the hashtag #shoppingaddict, I Instagram my shopping list, which includes tampons and bin-liners, and people compliment my handwriting. Later, I am in Lidl, so I post a picture of Lidl on Twitter, and tag it ‘#Lidl’. It gets retweeted seven times. People are weird.

Day 3: A borderline racist rant about ‘migrants’ appears on Facebook, all dingbat send-’em-all-back terminology and poor spelling, from someone I barely knew at college. My instinct is to ignore it and move on. This time, though, I reply with my own, rather more liberal point of view, with links to relevant news pieces. I’d like to say that this opens my › Facebook friend’s eyes to a broader outlook and we all live happily ever after, but the truth is he calls me a c-word and unfriends me, and it makes absolutely no difference to my life whatsoever.

Day 4: Technically I’m on LinkedIn to further my career, but I’ve never got a job out of it, and the same five bizarrely named people like my updates. Despite this, I only update it when I’ve written a serious, impressive feature. Today I just post, ‘I quite fancy a jam sandwich.’ Troy St Augustine Squire, Reuters Starbucks III, Ahmed Ahmed, Molly McGee and Samson LaGuardia all approve. Again.

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Day 5: I attend a barbecue and share a boozy ensemble selfie on Facebook and Instagram. It’s wonky, people’s heads are cut off, my whole face – apart from three double-chins – is obscured by a chicken leg, but we’re all grinning like fools. ‘You look like you’re having an excellent time,’ someone comments, which pleases me because we really are, and that may not have come across if we’d all been duck-facing.  

Day 6: Time to be real on Twitter. I’ve been dreading this. Twitter is where I trot out the random (hopefully, funny) one-liners that pass through my brain. Posting something opinionated or emotional is far beyond my comfort zone. Still, I post that I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed by new motherhood. No one pays me the slightest attention. So later I live-tweet my progress through a packet of Bourbons and the self-loathing that accompanies it, and I get about 20 retweets and lots of LOLs. I’m slightly horrified, though, and later I can’t help but delete my tweets.

Day 7: On Instagram I share a real, unedited, no-make-up selfie from my bed. I slightly cheat by including my baby son, who brightens any photograph, but, to my credit, I do look extravagantly decrepit. I hashtag it #wokeuplikethisselfie and wait for the insults. Instead, I get 20 likes. Less than half of my average of 50.

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Day 8: Someone tags me on Facebook with the #widn (What I’m Doing Now) tag. Generally, I’ll either ignore something like this, or lightly art-direct a photo that may feature any combination of my baby, a clever-looking book, and some flowers in an interesting vase. Instead, I just post an unfiltered shot of my curtained window and whinge about being stuck inside with hayfever. This results in 23 likes and tons of hayfever remedies. More interestingly, people tell me in the comments what they’re doing right now (crocheting; waiting on a scary medical diagnosis; sitting by a pool; shopping), and the conversation becomes about them, not me – something that I’m realising, with some shame, rarely happens on my social media.

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Day 9: Nervously, I share an unfiltered full-body fashion shot on Facebook. All my clothes are from the high street, and my post-baby figure is more Tweedledum than Blake Lively, but the response is mildly positive, with 13 likes and a compliment about my lipstick (Ruby Woo by Mac, of course).

Day 10: It occurs to me that there are glamorous internet entities whom I follow on Twitter and Instagram, and compare myself to regularly – but I’ve never actually interacted with them in any way. So I email the brains behind one of my favourite accounts, a relentlessly picturesque Londoner who, when she isn’t displaying her perfect thigh gap on a yacht, skips about Notting Hill in haute couture eating massive burgers (the dream). When she doesn’t respond, I contact the sartorially sound (and very approachable) Susie Verrill, the author of stylish parenting blog mymiloandme.com, whom I have admired from afar for many months. 

‘I think we all need to own up to the fact that only the most Stepford Wives among us actually have immaculate lives,’ she tells me when I say I’m writing a piece about the simulated reality of social media. ‘It’s like airbrushing: we all know it goes on, it makes things nice to look at, but it’s not realistic. ‘That said, I won’t include my dogs humping or the washing-up in a snapshot. If I’ve had a shoddy day, I’ll put up a cheery photo of something pretty, rather than post reality – I like following people who put effort into what they upload and I use it as a tool to inspire me, so I like to give the same back.’

So that’s it. I’ve shown the world my uncurated life and lived to tell the tale. I end the experiment with 5,495 Twitter followers, 1,197 Instagram followers, and 474 Facebook friends – I’ve actually gained followers (although I’ve lost one Facebook racist). And many of my posts have sparked discussions, and generally made me feel better about myself than any updates I’ve ever posted for visual or comedic impact.

That’s followers, though. My actual real-life friends are a different story. ‘Are you feeling depressed?’ one texts me. ‘All your Instagrams are of closed windows, too many biscuits, and your captions have become paragraphs, suddenly.’ Paradoxically, a cousin who lives in Canada is a fan of the new, wordy updates: ‘It’s just so lovely to hear from you and know what’s going on with you.’

However, this little experiment has brought to light several things. First, given that I have largely been whingeing about motherhood and mainlining Bourbons, I might be feeling a little vulnerable, and using social media largely as a means of escape – the way that you might flick through a glossy magazine on a grey day. Second, I might be keeping my online self locked down a little tightly – so much so that I’m a mystery even to family members. And third, I’ve been comparing myself, my wonky eye and my unhoovered living room to a photoshopped magazine advert that’s almost entirely designed 
to make me covet it.

Somehow, I’ve forgotten that, in life, we will experience both Aperol Spritzes and queuing in Lidl (at least metaphorically), but we’ll only share the former online, and that brands will sponsor particularly scenic social media entities, like Bora Bora lady (and often style and professionally photograph them within an inch of their lives), and that’s where aspiration can tumble over into feelings of inadequacy.

Obviously, when I return to Instagram I will remain a devotee to the filters Lark and Clarendon (frankly, I live in England and the weather is not kind to my bone structure), but otherwise I’m going to use social media as a way to connect, not just to preen insecurely, and not as a barometer for my own self-esteem.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to comb through my Facebook friends and do a cull of racists. And I’ll unfollow the Bora Bora infinity-pool lady because, let’s be honest, there’s no way she’s ever going to introduce me to Tom Hardy. 

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