Humans, Not Avatars
Let me tell you about a moment of clarity I had very recently.
I was pushing through the packed halls of my university, just trying to make it to my next class of the day in one piece. Suddenly, I bumped into a girl I had never talked to before, yet still recognized by name: Sara Kemppainen, Class of 2020. Despite never having interacted with her in person, the immediate link my mind drew upon seeing her was successful, untouchable, daunting. I quickly ducked my head and mumbled a brief “sorry”, and this could have been where the moment ended. But for whatever reason her own apologetic smile stayed with me and abruptly I realized: I had never once talked to Sara, yet had still made up my mind about her in a split second. But more importantly, I had made my judgement based entirely on what I had seen of her online, on her social media accounts.
I too had had an interaction with an online avatar, not a human being. But I was curious to see who the latter was.
To me, Sara Kemppainen is young, Finnish and utterly committed to changing the world.
A first glance at her Instagram account shows she is wildly intimidating. An honors student at Leiden University College in The Netherlands, a fitness enthusiast, the founder and chair of her own association “WIL,” a hand-picked representative at the 2019 G(irls)20 Summit in Tokyo and an intern at a humanitarian tech company.
In other words: passionate, committed, seemingly unstoppable. And a calculated image meant for outsiders.
When she first opens her door, letting me step into her one-room apartment, it is everything I expected and more. The mood, the setting, the atmosphere feels as if nose-diving directly into a real-life Valencia filter. Every item seems to have an artistic purpose, be it the tulips on her dining table, the oriental carpet covering the floor, or the two patterned dresses hanging against the wall.
But Sara herself, the mastermind behind the image, is so much more than the cool and professional young woman I had originally anticipated.
She looks relaxed, at ease, as she goes effortlessly through the motions of making avocado on toast, granola and Greek yogurt while chatting aimlessly about this and that. She’s excited to talk to me, she says. Social media is something she thinks about a lot.
Sara, I realize throughout speaking with her, is incredibly aware of the benefits and the pitfalls of social media platforms. For her, it began after returning to Finland from a two-year stay at an international boarding school in Italy. The student community there had fostered wonderful connections, the Italian internet access less so, and thus social media had never played a role in her life. After all, everyone she had wanted to share the details of her life with at that time was constantly around her. Upon moving back to her home country however, things changed.
“Suddenly everyone had social media accounts, and then I kind of got lumped into it too,” Sara recalls, a thoughtful look in her eyes.
She enjoyed it at first, she explains. “Sometimes I miss the early Instagram days. In the beginning it was a lot more about visually representing life. It didn’t have to be accurate, or include everything you do. It was just whatever I felt like posting that day.”
How much do I include? Am I being annoying? Am I putting too much, too little of myself out there? For a while, these were questions regularly at the forefront of Sara’s mind.
And not just of Sara’s, but of all of ours’.
To be active on Instagram today means to learn how to exist in multiple realities at the same time. We are constantly both within our experiences and outside of them. Being in the moment, while at the same time observing it, to assess whether or not it’s worth sharing with others. In a way this has made us publishers: always trying to find unique stories to tell and permanently aware of what the competition is trying to sell.
But this obsession with our online image, that carefully crafted personal brand we’re trying to communicate to the world, has skewed our perception of ourselves and others. We constantly feel the pressure to be our online avatar in every aspect of our lives, and when we fail to live up to it despite knowing this to be unrealistic, we take it out on ourselves.
We haven’t just lowered the walls between public and private. We’ve taken a wrecking ball and flattened those barriers, edited out any form of messiness left, and have accepted that to keep up the image we want others to see, we need to live a life of constant self-surveillance.
“If there was something I should have posted about, it would have been that trip,” she smiles, nostalgia evident in her tone. “But I lost all my pictures.”
The series of unfortunate mishaps – a precariously placed water bottle next to her laptop, a push and a shove leading to a phone on the floor – ended up being a blessing in disguise however. “Even the idea of going through all those pictures, choosing and picking and editing. As much as it can be fun, it’s also a huge amount of pressure and work,” she explains. “I know what I went through. I don’t need those pictures to remind me.”
Since then, Sara’s perspective on social media platforms has shifted. Instead of wanting to paint the perfect image of herself, today she sees her Instagram account as a tool to keep her friends all around the world updated about her life. In a way, her profile is her modern-day diary; something to turn to when feeling the need to trace back memories and be grateful for the opportunities and experiences she has had.
Nevertheless, she knows that her profile does not accurately reflect her as a person. And it never can. “You’re always leaving a lot behind, because you’re not taking pictures of the times that are hard. And even if you are, you are still picking and choosing and modifying the way in which you portray your life.”
Instead, her Instagram account is a collection of moments, all adding up to the image of the person she aspires to be, that she likes and appreciates, and that she wants to make other people aware of.
“Comparisons on social media are exhausting. Someone will always look a bit further ahead than you are, a bit more organized, like they’re having a bit more fun,” Sara sighs. This can motivate, but it can also merely make you feel lost.
“Sometimes it feels like you need to represent all aspects of your life, and that shouldn’t be necessary,” she says. To her, it’s a question of intimacy, and she herself is in control of what audience, strangers or friends, she wants to share that with.
“If there’s one place in the world, Instagram is the one you can make what you want it to be,” Sara tells me. And she’s right. By double-tapping the posts we do, we choose the kinds of posts that are promoted to us.
The algorithm does not need to control us. We can control the algorithm.
When I ask Sara to take a picture of herself as she would for her Instagram account, she laughs before agreeing. I watch as she tests first this angle, then that one, as she moves from one spot of the room to another with better lighting. “This is a little confronting,” she admits as she goes through her photo editing process with practiced ease. “It’s kind of embarrassing how natural this feels.”
More than an hour has passed and my mug of tea is empty. But before I leave I capture my own image of her.
Sara Kemppainen is young, Finnish, and utterly committed to changing the world.
But she is so much more than just her Instagram account.