We used to cringe over old fashion trends but will the embarrassment of our age be the strange digital way we’ve documented everything?
Back-clicking through your profile photos on Facebook can be like standing at the control panel of a train hurtling into a wall of regret. Let’s say you’re Justin Timberlake. You go left and bango: you land on a picture of noodle-coloured cornrows. Or a denim suit. Or a bedazzled leather jacket. And if you’re Timberlake, you tell Playboy – as he did back in 2011 - that you would “probably pay good money to get some of those pictures off the internet”.
In hindsight, it’s easy to see why a certain outfit – say, the Jack Wills X Claire’s Accessories ensemble circa 2007 – doesn’t look great. That’s why we retrospectively remove Facebook pictures. When we look back on 2015, perhaps we’ll feel the same way about sportswear, top-knots, and rainbow coloured dip-dyes. Yet these are simplistic, comfortable styles. Will we regret them? Or will we regret something else? Are we participating in trends that are far more unforgivable than fashion?
Will we be more disappointed in ourselves for earnestly describing a co-workers lunch as “lit!” than wearing a pair of huarache trainers?
The advent of the internet heralded a new age of self expression. As sites like Instagram, Tumblr and Twitter have grown into the self-aggrandising behemoths they are today, there are new ways to express ourselves beyond throwing on a pair of well-cut jeans and box-fresh trainers. And with fashion blending into one big melting pot, the biggest trends this year are arguably the ones that’ve spread over the internet rather than the streets. Sending out a “Hotline Bling” meme? Tagging up a photo with the phrase #SquadGoals? Using the aubergine emoji?
We take selfies; we share photos of avocado on toast; we tweet the banalities of our mundane existence. In a way, sharing these moments isn’t dissimilar to choosing an outfit. They’re acts of self-expression. Yet as time passes, and apps like Facebook Memories or Time Hop retrospectively bring up old status updates, will we regret our online presence far more than our offline one? Will we be more disappointed in ourselves for earnestly describing a co-workers lunch as “lit!” than wearing a pair of huarache trainers?
Unlike fashion, where you need money or access and knowledge to the right shops to get involved, online trends are accessible to anyone. As a result, we all find ourselves sucked into the latest phrase or meme, often without a second thought as to why we’re participating in it. When we look back at fashion trends, we see an outfit we saved up to buy or a pair of shoes we lusted after and placed in our shopping cart for months. These ensembles are attached to sentimental memories and desires. Online trends are somewhat different. They’re a flash in the pan. They appeal to our base instinct to be acknowledged or be part of something, yet there’s little to no meaning behind it. Is our use of slang words and participation in social media bandwagoning self-expression? Or is it a thirsty need for acceptance?
The problem with using social media as a vehicle for self-expression is that the trends we participate in die out far quicker than fashion. Memes and phrases that were cool a few months ago, like #fleek or “yaaaaas!” are now painfully outdated. And perhaps, more importantly, corporations or authority figures are quick to co-opt them, with brands frequently sharing adverts for their product using social media slang – just take a look at the Twitter account @brandssayingbae. We look back in three months to see an image of ourselves that has been marketed and mass-sold to consumers. This process, where everything moves quickly and gets co-opted, can make it feel less like we’re presenting an image that’s true to ourselves, but more one that feels shallow, insignificant, and embarrassing. Why were we so obsessed with saying bae for one month last year? Who are we really?
Of course, our life online comes with an element of self-awareness. We know these trends and words don’t paint an honest portrait of ourselves, because 99 per cent of us don’t use them in the real world. But what about the pragmatics of our culture of self-expression? It’s been said time and time again that this generation is a one of oversharing. In their high-and-mighty ivory towers, adults look down on today’s youth, lambasting them for spending too much time staring into a screen.
In the Court of Passing Time, what from this era will age better - our attire or the way we’ve documented it?
There are benefits to being online: we get instant access to news, we are instantaneously connected, we can forge relationships that cross continents without ever meeting someone face to face. But then there are the downsides, too. Some of us feel the need to share moments, to remain connected, living inside our timelines and feeds rather than creating memories outside of them.
Like the old Facebook photos of yore, deleting these moments is time-consuming but easy. Instead, it’s more about our sense of self. Will we regret taking so many selfies in the future or will we simply not care? In the Court of Passing Time, what from this era will age better – our attire or the way we’ve documented it? These seem like trivial, fickle questions. But as a generation that won’t have photo albums to share with their grandchildren, it’s something we’re going to have to face up to in the not so distant future.