It’s dinner, about a month ago. I’m with Alisha and Harvey, reuniting the old study group from our undergrad days. Alisha is adorable, long dark hair, glasses, a nose ring. She’s good people, which you have to be in order to be a public school teacher in Oklahoma. We hang out sometimes when we can navigate her school schedule.
Harvey, on the other hand, I’ve not seen since we graduated. He’s now sporting a shaved head, a beard and huge plastic glasses, polar opposite of how he looked in school. For the past eight years or so, he’s been teaching Business English in Thailand, China and South Korea. His travels have aged him a bit, but I think he wears it well.
Since we got together at Picasso’s, we’ve been talking at length about his adventures in cooking, his students, his swing dance community (I know) and some absolutely wild nights at karaoke bars. Honestly, he has a really fascinating life, one that I regard with a kind of admiring envy. There are those out there built for more adventurous paths. I’m not one of them.
But, now with all his travels exhausted, we’ve hit a lull in the conversation.
“So, what else has been going on with you both?” he asks, draining the leftovers of his sangria.
I hesitate. Our jobs, a mere footnote in comparison to teaching English in a foreign country, were discussed an hour ago. I’m at a loss at what else to add. Unloading the epic saga of my back problems or my frustrations about my family is a lot for a one-off meal. He’ll be getting on a flight in the next couple days and it’ll be another few years until another dinner like this presents itself. Why burden the conversation like that?
After Alisha looks to me with a shrug, I offer this: “Dude, so this is really weird, but I’m absolutely obsessed with this girl from Instagram?”
“Really nice ass, huh?” he smirks.
“No, it’s not like that …” I say as I fish out my phone. I pull up her profile in a flash because her stories are always at the top of my feed.
“Okay so, her handle is @clubkinseyyyy, four Y’s. She’s 24, lives in Brooklyn in a small apartment with too many people. I think she’s a burlesque dancer, but also does part-time nail tech work on the side. She writes A LOT of super bad poetry.”
I click through a few of her poems on her most recent story as a demonstration. Harvey looks lost, but Alisha’s eyes light up. She nods.
“I honestly I’ve never met her before, but I watch all of her stories RELIGIOUSLY.”
I think back to yesterday’s story posts, how she went to the NYC MOA to a new exhibit with her friends, then to a slam poetry night afterward. Really looked like a blast.
“You never met her,” Harvey’s ginger eyebrows furrow with confusion. “But you still watch her stuff …”
Alisha cuts him off. “Girl, I have the exact same thing. I actually went to PCN with mine, though.” Alisha locates her phone and aforementioned Instagram profile to show me.
“Emily was one of the most popular girls in my graduating class, but our class was HUGE, so we never really met-met,” she rattles off. “She got married last month – that wedding looked so expensive and she looked so beautiful. But her dad was diagnosed with cancer last month –”
“No!” I exclaim. “That’s awful.”
“Right?” she says, sadly.
Harvey shakes his head and rolls his eyes, as the waiter comes by to refill our waters. It didn’t take long after for us to take our checks and wrap up our dinner together.
Since that night, I’ve been thinking about one thing since: why? Why was it easier to talk about the “Artistic” Kinsey or the “Popular” Emily than it was ourselves? When presented with the opportunity for a real, honest to God, human connection, why did Alisha and I punt the ball?
I mean, of course, you could write this off and say “Damn Millennials, you don’t know how to disengage from your screens and talk to people!” (In my mind, you shake your fist in the air after you say this.)
To which I would say back: Sure, okay, to some extent. But that’s kind of a simplistic takeaway. It’s like saying Brexit is only happening because a bunch of people voted to leave. Technically true but misses everything else happening around the vote itself.
In the days since, I’ve continued to watch Instagram stories. It’s not like my ponderings on the interaction between human nature and the Dark Mirror would slow my roll. But it really got me noticing. Stories from your actual buddies are treated the exact same way as content from everyone else you follow, which may include reality TV show stars and actors.
So, my feed will cut from a “rise-and-grind” selfie of a coworker to an outfit reveal from a contestant on RuPaul’s Drag Race to a sponsored post from Kylie Jenner regarding her new lipstick kits at Ulta. The presentation of real people in the same manner that we’re presented celebs, personalities and brands means our brain treats it all the same: completely surface level.
Which means that Instagram Stories are frequently just a never-ending loop of short reality TV episodes that star whoever you follow.
Psychologist and researcher Dr. Jana Scrivani, in an interview with Hello Giggles, said that human beings’ fascination with reality TV personalities is a “perfect storm” of finding less connection with those around us and finding more connection with people on the show (or on the feed). She elaborated further:
Every genre of television, but reality television in particular, gives us a false sense that we really know the people we see on the screen each week. Modern life has us pulled in many different directions, and close ties between family and friends are at all-time lows.
Over time, we come to see the folks portrayed on the screen as friends. We identify with their struggles and triumphs. It's much less time-consuming to take in a half-an-hour television show than to connect with a friend – we can squeeze reality TV in between work, the dishes and putting the kids to bed.
The fact that I can watch Kinsey’s Instagram stories while I’m waiting for my latte or on the treadmill shows how easy it is. If anything, Instagram Stories are this model, just more efficiently packaged.
Also, just look at the word “Stories” used in this context. When I think of someone saying “I’m going to watch my stories,” I think of my aunt saying she’s catching up on The Bold and the Beautiful, not someone checking Instagram. The difference between the two, though, is that one is fiction and the other is not.
We, and I do mean me in this, need to start actually honoring the difference between the two; about cherishing our relationships with the respect and human connection they deserve, not just phoning it in because we watched so-and-so’s Instagram stories every day last week so we “know what’s going on with them.” Actual friends are not just another form of “content.”
As for those celebs, personalities and non-famous strangers with whom I have a voyeuristic fascination – I’ll continue with caution. Their polished and fascinating lives, often so different than my own, do present an opportunity to walk a mile in someone’s else’s shoes. It does satisfy a curious and nosy itch, but like all entertainment, it allows me to disengage from my issues when maybe … I shouldn’t.
Dr. Racine R. Henry, a researcher and clinical therapist, weighs in that reality tv is the “ultimate escape":
We get to see lavish lifestyles, outrageous arguments and never-ending drama. We don’t have to think about the problems we have in our real lives and we get to weigh in on the choices and mistakes of a population that was foreign to us before the reality TV era.
Going back to my dinner with Harvey and Alisha, now armed with some new reflection, I think of what I could do better in future situations like this. Appropriate amounts of vulnerability, which can be a scary thing, is a start.
Luckily, that night, not all was lost.
On the way to our cars after dinner, and after Alisha jetted because of her early school day tomorrow, Harvey and I take a pause.
“It really didn’t feel like we had a chance to really catch up,” he starts as I fumble for my car keys.
I chuckle nervously and say, “Yeah, I’d agree.” I stop trying to open my door.
“Well, I’m not doing anything right now. Want to grab a cup of coffee?”
I nod. “Sounds good.”