From the glances and subtle shoves, to the headphones kept on when I’m speaking to the tone of their voice, I knew I wasn’t welcome. It may have been my hair, my height, how I dress, or how I talk, but what I do know for sure is that parts of my grooves and edges do not fit into the aesthetic friendship jigsaw they so diligently craft for their Snapchat stories, their Instagram posts, for their two-minute increments of a daily BeReal. And so I distance myself.
As a first-year who recently arrived at Wellesley College, the last time I attempted to make new friends felt like a distant memory, a hazy, ambiguous feeling I could not quite grasp. There is no formula for starting a friendship, of course; some march into one’s life with a good laugh, others through intense bonding experiences, and some are even borne from forgiveness after conflict and fluorescent rage. But as the world shifted ever so slightly four or five years ago, with COVID, political change, graduating high school, and becoming an adult, the opportunities for raw, genuine interactions blossoming into friendship dissipate. I’ve come to realize that I have departed from the innocence and spontaneity of childhood friendships, entering into a world where human connections are, more often than not, goal-oriented, unauthentic, distant, and unreadable.
Gen Z has been socialized in the art of suppressing real emotions and identities to engage in strategic self-presentation from as far back as we can remember. Although, in recent years, researchers have noted an uptick in social media fatigue, attributed in part to the pandemic. But even the tech-weariest among us find it hard to disregard the mandate to put forward our best selves online. Indeed, growing up in the age of blossoming social media and technology, the concepts of selectivity, status, and popularity became increasingly ingrained in our minds and infused into the ways in which we approach socialization.
The purpose behind friendships is no longer for mutual growth and support, but rather to create a perfectly curated group of companions. Some people are not loyal to you. They are devoted to their need of you, of you to be in their frame of the 0.5 camera, of your ability to provide content for those colorful Instagram stories, laughing at an inside joke or fond memory. These stories seem to say: people love me, I am not alone, I have something you do not. Forming these communities that are seemingly inclusive online but exclusive offline is, in my view, the goal of many modern friendships. We want to survive the social scene; we do not want to be excluded, so we exclude. We do not want to be lonely ourselves, so we create loneliness for others. We help people around us, but only when it’s convenient for us and benefits us, so really, we’re just helping ourselves.
BeReal—the French photo-sharing app launched in 2020—has been heralded as the antidote to combat such a trend. While BeReal has been lauded for its novel spontaneity, informality, and provision of unvarnished glimpses into everyday life, it represents the latest iteration in the cycle of social media sites that spring from the push-and-pull tension of authenticity and performance. Increasingly, the idea of “authenticity” that media companies are flaunting becomes more and more of a social construct. We don't want authenticity, we want neutral makeup. We are curated enough that we don't hate the way we see ourselves, but not so curated that it looks staged or artificial to everyone else. It's a farce we're all playing with one another for a society that wants to be understood but not seen. This means that pinning down our most “authentic” self is always elusive.
How do we combat this climate of social life that our generation must dwell in? Are genuine connections impossible to pursue? Can we go back to making dependable, faithful friends?
In the 1950s, social psychologist Rebecca G. Adams discovered in her research findings that there are three components to a long-lasting friendship: physical proximity, repeated, unplanned interactions, and settings that allow people to let their guard down. Circumstances, where these conditions are met, are increasingly rare to encounter as we all refine our myriad social facades. Perhaps, if we all take a deep breath and devote our time to someone else’s well-being rather than the style of our social media profile, whole-heartedly listen, hold a safe space for those around us, put down judgment, and welcome vulnerability, we can replenish the desolate seeds of modern friendships.
Editors: Chris F., Leandra S.