I felt no need to update the world about my summer. Dublin, at least from my perspective, was drained of its vitality between June and September. My fellow students – who are the lifeblood of my social circle – dispersed, off to greener pastures. They headed to foreign countries, equipped with visas or funds from MyCharity campaigns, to live ‘The American Dream’ or teach English to impoverished Indian children. They took advantage of their free time and did something with it, put themselves in situations in which lessons could be learned and memories forged.
I remained here, spending 40 hours a week getting lime pith under my fingernails and serving bloody marys to emotionally deadened bankers and accountants. I had become accustomed to the streets being claimed by the young; during the year, finding a familiar face was simply a matter of loitering around Little Ass, Lemon, or similar haunts with a cigarette between two fingers. The landscape of my city became unrecognisable.
Loneliness and shitty working conditions do not good tweets make. I feel like my minuscule social media following would be utterly unsettled by a Valencia-filtered image of my scuffed work shoes, posted under the rubric “#wherearemyfriends”.
I instead took a step back and attempted to live vicariously through my peers. It was incredibly easy; my feed was inundated with photos of rolling hillsides and clear blue waters. New York towered in precisely angled perspective shots. My friends in the farthest reaches of the world crowded into Range Rovers and gazed at the Sahara; or perhaps, closer to home, they huddled under the glow of haphazardly hung fairy lights and sipped cheaply-bought microbrews, cheek pressed against cheek as they grinned and squinted at a photo flash.
I was like a crouched gargoyle sitting at the edges of their hallowed experience, the palatial shrine which they slowly built with each ecstatic update. My timeline was a hotbed of epiphany and joy. Beneath Christ the Redeemer on Mount Corcavado, acquaintances stood on tiptoe with arms spread and thanked Brazil for hosting them, giving them “the best experience of [their] life.” These people tamed cities – they wrote about their trips and excursions in happy, excited poetry. They went to music festivals, Broadway shoes, restaurants, casinos and bars. It all unfurled before me in one ever-growing, real time tapestry. As self absorbed as it may sound, I felt targeted by this. I had to ask myself who exactly these displays were for – for me, to rub salt in the wound of a summer spent tending to rich, drunk, hungry people? For the wider world? Who benefited from this?
I had an a-ha moment when I read about A Dutch graphic design student who pretended to be on a worldwide trip to South East Asia when she was, in reality, sitting in an apartment in Amsterdam. “I did this” she stated, while explaining her bizarre yet commendably cunning actions “ to show people that we filter and manipulate what we show on social media, and that we create an online world which reality can no longer meet.”
Then it occurred to me; these shrines of experience – the exuberant gushing about world excursions – were for the benefit of the user, and them solely, to aid the creation of an idealised, retrospective, hyperreal version of what actually took place.
I spoke to some of my friends about their J1s and trips some time after they returned; their testimony stemmed beyond the photos. They spoke about delayed flights, sweltering heat and bad working conditions. They shrugged their shoulders, a stark contrast to what I had seen online.
I guess I could have done it too; maybe it would have helped. I tried, on occasion; to my shame, I once took an artsy photos of an order of mekong duck, that being the closest thing I had to a trans-continental experience, and tried to make my months in a rundown apartment seem idyllic, even bohemian. I could have quipped about the invaluable economics knowledge I gained from overhearing CEOs discuss their tax evasion over bottles of Lynch-Bages. If Zilla can convince the world that she’s in South East Asia (albeit armed with incredible Photoshop skills), then I’m sure I could have lead people to believe that my months spent working in hospitality were in any way rewarding.
However I’m not sure what I would have achieved. I’d know the sad truth of the matter, and all I’d be really doing would be contributing to a twisted session of one-upmanship that we all seem to be engaging with. I saw my timeline anew – and saw the strange need that has overtaken people to out-happy each other; to be having the best, most incredible, most photo-worthy experience. The longest commentaries, the most superlatives and capital letters, the greatest lines of emoticons we can possibly muster.
To be blunt, I didn’t have a perfect summer. I don’t suspect anyone else did either. Hence engaging in the charade of a photo-ready life is a pointless endeavour. A collective decision to be more upfront about our less picturesque, imperfect, yet quintessentially human experience would relieve us of an incredible amount of pressure. We could lower our pretences and stop projecting a version of our lives that reality will forever scramble to live up to.
It’s possible I’m merely embittered, and that this time next year I will be writing glowing, descriptive reports about time spent languishing beside the Cote d’Azur, or recounting a torrid love affair with a coke-addicted Parisian. I’ll take to my keyboard and shamelessly romanticise my life. Hopefully though, I’ll vie to swallow the dry, powdery pill that reality truly is as oppose to self medicating with an Instagram delusion.