Social media has always been a font of braggadocio. First Twitter brought us the #humblebrag; then #blessed bounced onto the scene, as earnest as the New York Times article covering it ("Blessed Becomes a Popular Hashtag on Social Media!" it announced, un-self-consciously). The latest trend, though, manages to combine gloating and feigned self-effacement and the very-2009 implication of being, ugh, so unimpressed, so over it. I see it every time I scroll through my Instagram feed. Observe:
An absurdly beautiful Montana sky at nightfall, streaked with orange and purple.
Caption: "last night's mediocre sunset #tbt"
A distant shot of a bustling Italian downtown at dawn, the reddish roofs aglow in early light.
Caption: "Just another crummy day in dumpy Tuscany."
A beautiful snap of the Manhattan skyline, sun-soaked and stunning from across the East River.
I get it; I know that the point is to be a little self-effacing and funny about something that's so obviously beautiful. I've fallen victim myself, updating my status about something exciting but tempering it with "...doesn't suck." (And the opposite? Done that too — deeming the situation "cool" or "cute" or "really great" when a bird shat on my shoe or a guy on the street scream-called me "horse face," or Donald Trump, like, opened his mouth.) I am not, on the whole, an opponent of irony — in the dictionary sense of saying one thing to mean its opposite.
But this trend bums me out — why can't we just be earnest and express awe when we're privileged to see something so grand? What's wrong with, "I can't get over how beautiful this place is," and with it, the implied admission that you're aware of just how lucky you are to see it?
I think people are afraid they'll look self-aggrandizing if they just come out as dazzled by their surroundings, making it clear they totally love their lives. And while captioning a photo, "I LOVE MY LIFE!" indeed would be annoying, I think the general instinct is misguided: Implying you're just not that into this glorious view or meal or trip makes you seem more puffed-up.
The friends who posted these this-is-crap captions — let's call them craptions — are awesome humans: conscientious, thoughtful, hardworking, kind. Which means this isn't a habit relegated to the entitled or out-of-touch, like the rich girl from high school taking to Facebook to bitch about the bad service in first class. It isn't a celebrity thing either; a Kardashian turning her beautiful button nose up at a vacay destination would read as, well, Klassic Kardashian, and even a cool social media user — Anna Kendrick, maybe — would look a little declassé throwing an "ew, gross" at something incredible. I can't prove it never happens, but in my feed, it's the Real People throwing jokey shade, not the famous ones.
You know who never seems to use the craption construction, based on my own unscientific observations? Anyone who had to scrimp and save and plan for months to visit Missoula or Florence or DUMBO. My evidence is all anecdotal, but it's striking; when a friend from Wisconsin visited Europe for the first time, you could almost feel the excitement bubbling out of her Instagrams. And when a French friend visited me in NYC for the first time, he was super stoked about everything (Skyscrapers! Mexican food! Squirrels!), both in person and in his social updates. Which is an attitude we should celebrate, right? The earth is pretty outstanding. When the sunsets and skylines and once-in-a-lifetime landscapes begin to seem humdrum, when we no longer feel #blessed or at least we no longer feel comfortable conveying our wonder or gratitude, then it's all over. The handwringing oldsters claiming social media will be the downfall of society — we'll have proven them right. R.I.P., authentic expression of human emotion.
I understand not wanting to be a braggart. I struggled with it just a few weeks ago, when I traveled to Cappadocia, Turkey, and took a hot air balloon ride over an otherworldly landscape in what was probably the coolest morning of my life. (I understand that my sharing this constitutes bragging; may I please cease pointing out the ribbons of irony curling into Möbius strips within this essay? Thanks!) I took more than 100 goddamn photos on that 60-minute flight, each one more stunning than the last, thanks entirely to the region's outrageous beauty. In the end, I 'grammed two, with captions that were variations on "Surreal much?" Sharing more than that felt like it could read as a fuck-you to my friends working under fluorescent lights that week, shuffling between meetings and being contributing members of society. You're stuck at work, but I'm literally 3,000 feet above it all! Look what I get to see and you don't! My life rools!
But I didn't caption either photo "Pretty OK way to start the day," either, because I wanted to come clean about how blown away I was by the experience. (I know, I know, patting myself on the back for not being an asshole = being an asshole.) Truth: I'm a huge proponent of sincerity. I've always been optimistic to a fault; friends have complained that I blast them with positivity grenades even when they just want some sympathy.
But in the realm of social networking, we're in an era that applauds gratitude and mindfulness and sincerity. (Correct, I'm even Pollyannaish about Pollyannaism.) It's no longer 2009, when it was cool to be a hater and showing positive emotion meant ceding some kind of power. (It also isn't 1995, when Alanis Morissette and, in turn, all of us had zero grasp on what irony is. Actually ironic: that she had a chance to course-correct earlier this month and instead dug in her heels on singing about things that suck.)
Writers at the Atlantic, Wired, and other outlets seemed to think that whole rejection-of-earnestness trend ended a few years after the Great Recession's nadir, with thinkpieces ushering in the era of "New Sincerity." The upshot: We can stop pretending things are lame when we actually dig them. Call me totally cloying, but when a friend sees something that brings tears to her eyes, I want her to feel like she's allowed to share it — with a caption that's sappy AF.