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Don't Listen to the Internet
There's no one right way to do this
The internet is a wonderful place, full of interesting people and thought-provoking stories and helpful information and really cool oddities. Also, pet memes. The internet is a terrible place, full of bile-spewing morons and echo-chamber rants and misleading misinterpretations and utterly terrifying obsessions. Also, pet memes.
Both of these things are true. Because people are chaotic and complicated and the things we invent are just as likely to be abused for ill-gain and nefarious purposes as they are to inspire us to be better versions of ourselves.
Last month, I was writing about the weirdness of the expat/immigrant friend pool here in Portugal and I veered off down a fairly large rabbit hole about the internet’s role in our expectations of what life should look like.
It sent my piece in a whole different direction than the one I intended, so I pulled all of those paragraphs out and set them aside. But it’s a tangent I haven’t been able to stop thinking about.
This is what I keep wondering: How would this particular experience of moving to a new country be different if we did it without the aid and observation of the internet community?
When you first begin thinking about moving to another country and you click open a search window to research what kind of visa you might qualify for, you don’t just get the consulates and the facts. You get stories and opinions. You get expat publications peddling glossy fantasies of life abroad (and selling their services to get you there). You get breathless TikTok testimonials and YouTube channels run by people eager to show you what their (edited) lives looks like. You get one-off stories in chat groups and months worth of stories on personal blogs—maybe that’s even how you ended up here.
On Facebook alone, there are multiple groups dedicated to Americans moving to Portugal, populated by overexcited folks dreaming of exiting their former lives for an affordable European paradise where the skies are always blue and the wine flows like water. (No offense to the overexcited folks — I was once one of you, suffering midnight panic attacks and midday heart palpitations while waiting for the arrival of my visa.)
These online groups can be incredibly helpful for navigating certain bureaucratic idiosyncrasies or, once landed in country, figuring out which grocery store has the kind of «insert here» you’re craving. These groups are places where you can ask for advice from people who’ve walked the road ahead of you and where you can share the wisdom you’ve earned thus far in your short tenure of 1 year or 2 or 5. (Of course, some of this wisdom can be outdated and ill-advised, since governmental requirements are ever-changing and one person’s experience does not equal every person’s experience.)
The tricky part is that all of these groups fall victim to the usual social media pitfalls. They become a specific sort of public performance arena where we all parade our accomplishments across each other’s screens, competing for hearts and likes.
For immigrants to Portugal, this means an endless stream of posts of that first arrival at the airport with your three or twenty suitcases and blue IKEA duffel bags, your dog panting outside their Petmate sky kennel. It means a selfie outside the SEF (Serviço de Estrangeiros e Fronteiras) office, flaunting the piece of paper that temporarily declares you a temporary resident. It means pictures of yourself at the beach, at the winery, at the local expat meetup in your best paste-on smile. It’s shots of the blooming jacaranda, the “amazing! so fresh!” produce at the mercado, the golden hour lighting up the calçadas just so. It’s Sunday Funday! posts about your YouTube channel where you detail how you did it and how others should do it too, just like you. It’s SEO subtext that screams: OMG I’ve made it. I’m here. The wine is so cheap! The people so friendly! The water so clear! It’s paradise, just like paradise, we’re knockin’ on heaven’s door!
Yes, I’m taking the piss. No, I’m not exaggerating. Ok, maybe a little bit. And yes, of course I did some of these exact same things, my adrenaline jacked on the high of finally realizing a dream. So I get it. I truly do. But now I have a little bit of distance from the initial hubbub and when I look at it from over here, what I see is how easy it is for our consumption of social networks to set up a solid sense of the Shoulds.
What we Should do and where we Should go and how we Should do it and who we Should talk to and what it Should look like when you’re doing it “right.”
Folks back in the homeland on the other side of the Atlantic press their noses to the screens, scroll this endless expat selfie stream and fantasize about their own airport baggage arrival shot, their own golden hours in the praça, glasses of cheap wine at the ready. They start making mental lists of what they should do when they get here, what events to attend, what pictures to take, what backgrounds to pose in front of, what levers to pull to make their lives look like the lives on the screens.
The thing is, the lives off the screens don’t look exactly like the lives on the screens, do they? Sometimes they’re downright unrecognizable. Nobody’s hair or body or life truly looks that amazing all the time.
We’re all just out here with our iPhones and our wifi collecting (or completely fabricating) the “best moments” of our days so we can curate them artfully and set them to some simpering pop tune all for the consumption of that one guy we went to high school with who we don’t even like. For the pleasure of all the strangers peering through internet peepholes.
Look at me, I’m doing great! I’m so happy. So are my kids. My partner adores me. I never fart.
Of course we all know deep down somewhere in our lizard brains that the competition is rigged. That Kim Kardashian is plastic. That the people who post the most gushing Valentine tributes to their husbands are three minutes away from a divorce. We know that nobody’s life feels the way it looks on social media. We know that just because those other Americans in Setúbal are looking like a million bucks clinking wine glasses in sundresses overlooking the Sado River, we ourselves would have had a miserable time introverting in a corner and slathering on sunscreen if we went. (That one might have been a very specific-to-me example.)
We’re not stupid. We know it’s not entirely real.
But we, yes even we book-faced introverts tucked into corners, suffer just a touch of the FOMO. We feel just a bit (or maybe a lot) competitive. We humans (especially we Americans) are wired to strive for superiority. Survival of the fittest, smartest, shiniest, happiest, prettiest, bravest, most free. Most #winning.
We enter and leave this world with nothing but spend all the years between stuffing our eyes, our mouths, our hands full of things that matter only because they can be taken away.
And we want someone to see what we’ve accomplished in our time spinning around this blue ball. Want them to see what we’ve acquired—or maybe what we’ve consciously chosen to not acquire. We say we don’t give a shit what anybody thinks about us, but somehow we still want validation. Something to soothe our raging id. Something to prove we existed. We were here. We did things. We hope they mattered.
So we take a thousand pictures of our vacations and sit on the beach posting 700 of them to Instagram instead of staring out at the immediate horizon, breathing in the blue moment.
BTW, fellow GenX-ers (and, fine, all you Boomers too): Please treat yourselves to this spot-on bit with comedian Jen Brister talking about vacation photos in pre-internet times.
Listen, I’m not saying it’s all bad. Here I am posting words about my life on the internet for a bunch of strangers to see. I’m in this neck-deep.
As I said at the beginning, the internet can be a wonderful place. You find the most amazing stories here. And I’m a staunch believer in storytelling. I think that when we hear about other people’s lived experiences, we acquire more empathy and understanding. Stories have the power to open us up, to lead us down a path of transformation. Stories make a feel less alone, like we’re not the only weirdo in the universe.
And stories aren’t only told through words. A photo is worth a thousand, right?
Those Facebook posts of exhausted new immigrants with their piles of suitcases and their hopeful grins? Those photos are made of fierce hope and tenacious dreams.
Your friend’s photo from that beach in Kauai? Might be the first time they’ve been able to sit down and hear themself think for years.
I’m not here to say it’s all self-aggrandizing nonsense. I’m not here to quit the internet. I’m just here to ask if the choices we make when we’re posing for social media are the same choices we’d make if no one was looking?
How might our ideas of what life “should” look like change if we weren’t comparing the photos on our camera roll to the filtered performance of some stranger’s?
What if we put down our phones more often and just chose the outings, the friends, the beverages, the clothes, the photo ops that make us feel most like ourselves.
That’s the best measure of “doing it right,” I think. Not because it looks good or looks like everyone else’s version of success, but because we are being true to ourselves.
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Copyright © 2023 LaDonna Witmer