Irony walks the streets of Chicago’s most hipster neighborhood, Logan Square, where I live. Think Portlandia: Women wear ‘90s-style thrifted T-shirts, floral dresses, oversized sweaters, and Peter Pan collars; men’s curly mustaches and tapered pompadours stretch to new heights of hyperbole. They crowd local restaurants, sipping Pabst Blue Ribbon from a can and capturing it all on social media.
This neighborhood I love has, over the last few years, started to look more and more like a living version of the Hipster Barbie Instagram account. When you constantly watch the couples in coffee shops and restaurants practically having photoshoots for every single outing (perfecting the “candid” shot), all that #authenticlife starts to look little #disingenuous.
As with our lifestyles broadcast on social media, there’s mounting pressure for all of us—even kids and teens—to show how cool we are online. Many of today’s teens have had smartphones since they were in elementary school, and they’re being pressured to define themselves on social media.
On Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, and Facebook, they amass huge social media followings among each other (an extreme example: this 14 year old with 1.3 million Snapchat followers). I see the way this pressure affects younger women in my life, and I worry about how all this social media performance affects their identity. During a recent episode of This American Life, high school freshmen talked about social dynamics of constantly checking, liking, and commenting on each others’ Instagram pics.
Of course, the temptation to perform for each other, rather than to simply live, is as old as time itself. Neither is irony new; you could find irony in the popular culture of any decade. (In a 1997 interview, writer David Foster Wallace spoke to the blossoming of an ironic culture.) But in each age we have different and new means to execute it, and this version comes with selfies featuring our oversized glasses and smirking smiles.
What used to be a specific subculture of throwback “hipster” fashion, the ironic spirit and style now extends into the mainstream. Our entertainment, clothing, and Internet memes are tinged with a degree of parody, a wink of distance. As a Princeton professor wrote in a New York Times op-ed, “If irony is the ethos of our age — and it is — then the hipster is our archetype of ironic living.”
Even to be a “basic white girl” is to embrace normality with a sense of insincerity. Sorority sisters don’t rock Chaco sandals and Nike shorts because they find those items aesthetically pleasing—they do so because they’ve learned that embracing them corporately, with a flare of irony, is somehow “cool.”
We employ irony as self-defense: a distance between what we mean and us. Our emojis and silly faces make it clear that we’re not being serious (and thus, don’t have to take potential rejection seriously). Irony becomes a social media default to the extent that genuine sentiment needs a disclaimer (“Warning: Sappy post…”). David Foster Wallace connected the spread of irony to television in the ‘90s, but I’d argue that we’re seeing a growth of irony today because of social media. It’s our safety net.
Wampole, the Princeton professor, described the problem:
The ironic frame functions as a shield against criticism. The same goes for ironic living. Irony is the most self-defensive mode, as it allows a person to dodge responsibility for his or her choices, aesthetic and otherwise. To live ironically is to hide in public. It is flagrantly indirect, a form of subterfuge, which means etymologically to “secretly flee” (subter + fuge). Somehow, directness has become unbearable to us.
On social media, we’re also prone to another extreme: sentimentality. Facebook pictures don captions like, “Having the best time being all together!” (even if the reality was far more awkward and tense). Wampole looks at this through the lens of nostalgia: “The nostalgia cycles have become so short that we even try to inject the present moment with sentimentality, for example, by using certain digital filters to ‘pre-wash’ photos with an aura of historicity. Nostalgia needs time. One cannot accelerate meaningful remembrance.”
I worry about these trends encouraging us to essentially distort the truth. As Christians, our identity is deeply rooted in a vulnerable Christ and a communal story of confession—which is the act of prioritizing honesty with one another over self-image. Beyond that, due to the redemptive work of Christ, we have no need to perform for each other, or prove ourselves, online or anywhere else.
Both irony and sentimentality, which are the primary modes of being “cool” on social media, elicit the most response. There’s a Pavlovian connection: post a certain way, get the notification high. When I scroll through my social media feeds, what I see are pleas: Affirm me. I’m guilty of overusing irony and sentimentality in my own curated and filtered feeds. Our efforts to commemorate and celebrate day-to-day moments have, in many cases, become a distraction from them. (If, like me, you’ve found yourself thinking about how to make a moment more Instagramable, you've probably developed an unhealthy relationship with that medium.)
After realizing how I was looking for affirmation in social media notifications—and even tailoring my posts to make them as likeable as possible—I’ve been trying change my approach. That means paying attention not only to my motivation when I post, but my reactions when I see others’ updates (Am I judging others for being “contrived”?), and adjusting my social media engagement accordingly.
When I feel the urge to employ irony—be in a social media post, or in my dress—I’m trying to ask myself, is insecurity driving this? When I start to write a sentimental tribute to the friend I had coffee with today, I’m asking myself, have I told this friend these things to her face recently?
I want badly for the teens in my life to feel free to be themselves online. Sometimes it takes thinking about their future to realize that these are things I want for myself and my peers, as well. Between irony and sentimentality there’s a middle point called reality, and I think Christians should be on the prophetic cusp, striving to represent that reality well as they engage in technology that broadcasts their lives—and witness—before the world. Be yourself online—whether that fits today’s ironic definition of “cool” or not.