Musings Opinion

The Performative Nature of America

Always Camera Ready

It’s quite incredible how much society has shaped us into thinking we need to be “on” all the time. We have to be ready with the right inspirational quote, or drop a spicy take on some topic, to have a well-told story, to have the perfect Instagram-ready vacation photo no matter how you felt in the moment, or if you’re the more nuanced type, to also be mindful to not “say the wrong thing” to spark outrage online for simply sharing a thought about … anything. 

Nearly everything is now driven by platforms, or “the medium” to reference Neil Postman’s “Amusing Ourselves to Death” – and our own behaviors in response to what’s happening on those platforms – to put our best and most curated foot forward. The person with the most polished presentation gets the most attention and moves “up” the ladder – wherever that ladder may be going. For better or worse, the most externally polished people tend to move up, especially on corporate ladders, sometimes in spite of them not being the right choice for advancement.

Over the past few years, the shift to remote work for office jobs meant being on camera a lot. It included becoming very self aware and self conscious of our appearance and our home workspaces. The peeking behind the home curtains was significant. That new requirement to make our personal homes look professional itself became a type of performance and of “being on” a stage (e.g. don’t move out of your chair, make sure your lighting isn’t terrible, that you also sound good, your background in your home working space is presentable, and so on) that I initially found quite exhausting. Have your opinions on remote vs. in-person white collar work, but it is undeniable that the experience of meeting over Zoom vs being in the same space together with other people is a very different energy that I find draining in ways unique from in-person work – which itself is also draining. Most of us were not built to be on camera like this.

I also have a newfound respect for news anchors who sit in the same chairs for hours with good posture. I need your workout routines for your cores/abs.

Do it for the Likes

As I scroll social media, I’m constantly in awe (maybe impressed?) when I consider the time, effort, and money people spend on content just for attention, likes, and views. Super fit people go shirtless in their Instagram posts or TikTok videos while they “explain” why it’s important to read books or list off signs of childhood trauma. People buy lots of equipment and lighting rigs for at-home studios for what isn’t even your paying job. And props to every person who ropes in friends or family to help stage and record some of the content I see. The commitment is truly admirable.

With easier access to technology and multimedia editing tools, more people have learned all the tricks in video editing and music selection to find the best ways to emotionally manipulate an audience. And I’m not sure how to feel about it all, but I think my eyeballs are supposed to be glued to all of it. Frankly, some of it works very well on me.  Yet, I can’t help but wrestle with what it means for us to be authentic and a “real person” when we’re all forced to live on a stage wherever we go online or in person. Who are all these people behind the entertaining content?

Social media continues to lean hard into the visual communication methods, with video currently being the leading preference for consumption. The explosive growth of TikTok is a clear example of this. Yet, I wonder where this leaves people like me who have no desire or inclination to be in front of the camera to create content and perform for others. My low frequency of selfies on any social platform is proof that I prefer to express myself behind the camera – and keyboard – instead. Where’s the chance to “make it big” and to go viral and be recognized for us non-visual performative types? Sure, good writers still get attention and article clicks, but that doesn’t go viral in the same way anymore. Maybe I’m just a guy with a personality fit for writing inane tweets, blog posts, and posting pictures of almost anything but myself.

Style Over Substance

Sometimes it’s perfectly fine to be boring and not be a spectacle.

Our culture continually rewards the bombastic, the over-the-top, the catchy message and video clip and phrasing that’s easy to cut up, quickly watch, and share. We then choose to intake only that content that either reinforces our perspectives and feelings or that which typically “eviscerates” the “other,” whoever that may be for you. And we, as everyday citizens, decided to follow what worked in mass media (news, etc.) into how we engage with each other online. It’s not about actual conversation. Instead, it’s about a performance we can put on to be seen. Along the way, we lost the ability to live with nuance, to consider the details, the unknown, to be comfortable in the in-between where everything is not black and white nor so easy to label.

Somewhere along the way, we traded difficult discourse for the easy diss. Where has that gotten us? Is this considered progress? Is anyone winning at anything here? What I take away from what I watch, read, and observe is the obviousness that we’re all out here trying to get attention. However, an increasing number of us are willing to change how we talk and sometimes do questionably moral things for eyeballs on us in spite of the cost. Is it really worth it?

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