#13: Made of Many Contradictions
resisting the need to niche
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If I asked you to describe yourself, what would you say?
Would you have a lot to say? Would any aspect of you contradict another? If you asked me, I’d say that I’m curious and yet quickly uninterested, funny when I’m mad or self-deprecating, intelligent but not handy, hard-working but very easily lazy. I’m a myriad of contradictions. Who I am, I think, actually hinges on those contradictions and the specific ways in which I nestle into one or another. I think it’s good to be many things–to exist on many planes, to be hyphenated, and to be plural. There’s nothing more unappealing than someone who lacks contradictions or is so perfectly tailored and so elegantly on the straight and narrow. If I'm being honest, It’s uninteresting to be so effortlessly sure. I might even go so far as to say that it feels inhuman and dishonest. I can only assume that you never tried anything else, never took a risk, and never allowed your contradictions to let you fail.
I’d argue that we like people better when they're flawed. Not so flawed that they break everything they touch, but they're just a little cracked and a little reckless. I'd argue that we appreciate bravery. Speaking for myself, I tend to trust people more when they seem to reveal parts of themselves that I diagnose as vulnerable. The more open a person is about their flaws, the more I gravitate towards them, believing that they won't judge me for my own. This gravitation I have towards contradictions in others is precisely why I find certain social media trends so confusing.
I spend a decent amount of time thinking about filters. The washes of color born on Instagram in filters called "Clarendon" and "Gingham" have evolved now to robust packages on VSCO but remain the same in effect.
The blue-orange filters that bore the filter revolution were, at first, a fun way to elevate an image. When Instagram was created, I was in middle school. My old posts are deleted now, thank god, but I used to love the way that filters made my photos look vintage. Filters were exciting tools, meaningless and frilly, but one of the original ways that I remember being able to choose how I represented myself on social media. Instagram and its filters offered an entirely new way to express myself. Through images and their subsequent filters, I could distinguish myself and my style.
There came a point when Instagram filters–those chosen through the Instagram app–became hysterically uncool. They suddenly became an immediate signal of naivete. This was a social media death I don’t think I fully mourned, one quickly passed and replaced by VSCO, the still-popular app that offers packages of filters under unique themes–filters that cater to types of images, styles, feelings, and subjects. VSCO, like everything, has endured many evolutions, like the over-saturated, highly-contrasted one I previously participated in.
The point is that consistent filtering, the practice of adding a filter (often the same one) to any and every image, became status quo. It became a way to distinguish yourself to an extent beyond just a page–now, to the extent that your filter became your brand. Filters became the crux on which one’s aesthetic was hinged. Success on Instagram often meant consistency in look–a look determined by a chosen filter. Everyone got on the train, including me. I went through a phase of adopting an over-saturated skater-girl vibe, one that was then replaced by a faded, low-saturation, added grain vibe. In California, beach girls swarmed with orange filters and bright lighting. It was easy, at the time and sometimes now (for whoever still uses them), to identify a person based on their filter choice. For every filter user, each photo offered a new approach to the same aesthetic–an aesthetic that defined and supported the person's entire personality online.
I think a lot of trends on social media can be traced back to filters (and they do still exist). I'd argue that filters created a psychology in social media that demands users to acquire a niche and an aesthetic in order to feel understood, seen, reliable, and trustworthy.
I want to quickly note that not everyone niches to the extent that I’m laying out. I do think, however, that people take time to achieve the level of popularity that allows for a release from the niche. Even some vloggers today that talk about anything and everything at one point niched, even if to a small extent. Maybe they started out posting a workout vlog every morning, or an outfit video, or something small like that. Well-roundedness on social media is often earned, is my point. And until it’s earned, we crave simplification and a lack of contradiction. In other words, we start by describing ourselves in a few words until we earn a stage to express our humanity–our contradictions.
As a former community manager, I have seen every kind of person use the same filter, and for years. I’ve seen folks niche into posts about the same one, two, or three things. I’ve seen people talk in the same tone. I’ve seen people only be happy. I’ve seen people only be reserved, intellectual, funny, serious, and so on. Basically, I’ve seen people choose. The filter trap begs the question, What do I want to say? Who am I? Who do I want to be seen as? It asks you how you fit, how you identify, and how you associate. It asks you to describe yourself, and then cross a few things off the list. It forces an identification and an accurate representation. It asks you to be consistent. On apps designed to show you, it asks you to pick just a few things about who you are.
Think about it this way. Try to sum yourself up. Try to think of one filter, one hobby, or one fashion style that exactly explains your aesthetic. Try to think of one movie that exactly describes your personality. The thing about the trap of choosing a persona is that it works. It has its sinister side, as noted, but it also has its perks. It allows people to sum you up in a single sentence, feeling, or thought. It allows you to become digestible. The reality is, we like this. We like being easy to absorb. We like to be understood. We often combat loneliness with people who presumably understand us, and that makes us feel good.
But we are all plural. As much as the persona is easy to understand and uncomplicated, it can be the devil on your shoulder forcing you to submit to one side of yourself, rendering the other parts unnecessary or even dangerous. When we choose a persona, we quiet ourselves in a way that, for me, has been increasingly difficult.
I’m endeavoring to run a small business. I’d like to be considered smart in doing so. I think it would be nice for people to look at me, explore my profiles, meet me in real life, and think, she’s smart and funny. I’d like them to be able to list my contradictions and accept me for all of them. I’d like to be more than one thing. But is it possible to be both, considering the need and success of niches? I’m genuinely asking. Is it possible that I can be serious, harsh, and blunt when I have to be, while also maintaining a sense of humor, a caring attitude, and a desire for fun? Lately, as I attempt to gain some traction on social media for the sake of my business, I’m blocked by the feeling that I have to choose a persona. The reality is, though, that whether I’m in a blazer or a crop top, both are authentically me.
Maybe I associate certain aspects of myself with being taken seriously, and others not. I am an entrepreneur, but I’m also a 23 year old. I am serious, but also reckless. Perhaps I’ve gathered so much internalized misogyny that I think I can’t be taken seriously if I don’t play the part of the serious woman. I’m somehow short-skirt-she-deserves-it-ing myself like if I don’t choose a character I don't deserve to be seen as anyone. I’m assuming that if I don’t dress the part every day, choose the persona all the time, stick to the story every sentence, that I somehow deserve to be considered unprofessional and childish. A little girl. Or maybe it’s because all of my professional experience is with real-life girl bosses who force smiles for the camera and insist on arriving at the same persona in every move and word they say in public, only to bitch and whine in private. Maybe I’ve been overly conditioned to think that if I don’t have one filter, I can’t have any–that if I’m not one thing, I’m not anything.
To conclude, that’s not true and the filter trap is a bunch of crap. Some of my favorite humans are seamlessly capable of being funny and smart, of being happy and sad. I buy their books, listen to their podcasts, laugh at their jokes, and respect their opinions. I give them the grace of being plural and flawed. I consider their honesty heroic. I like people who never had a filter. I like hobbyists. I am one! I appreciate a lapse in character, a momentary flaw, a dip, a crack, a shatter. The reality is that I like humans made of many contradictions and that I like being one of them, too.
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