Winner of the Orwell Youth Prize 2017 (Junior Prize)
When I was younger, I used to have this recurring dream; you know, one that comes back again and again, usually without being invited. I would be swimming in an ocean somewhere when suddenly, I began to sink – deeper, deeper, deeper. The water grew hands which grasped and grabbed at my flailing limbs, tugging and pulling me downwards into unknown depths. Deeper, deeper, deeper. I would feel an overwhelming sense of fear and would shut my eyes, tight. My whole body would tense in a meagre attempt to gain control over the situation, but it never helped. Ever. I became a miniscule being, unnoticeable in amongst a sea of darkness. Then the eyes would come. I would feel a million pairs of eyes staring at me, located anywhere and everywhere possible so that I couldn’t escape because I was always being watched. Watched, judged, analysed. Identified. Then I would wake up.
Choose a username the screen states as I open Instagram. I mean, come on, I’m 16 now, I can’t be known as ‘Katyloves1D’ anymore! People will think I’m childish. I change it to ‘KatyKxx’ because it’s casual but classy and that’s the image I’m going for. Choose a profile picture. Yes, I better change that too if I’m going to be noticed. I hop off my bed and skip to my wardrobe just to grimace at the contents; all my clothes are so boring! I sigh and head across the landing to my elder sister Tamara’s room. She isn’t home so I pull the wardrobe door open and pick out a tight black dress with a low neck. It’s crushed velvet! Casual but classy. I slip it on and decide I also need some colour on my lips. A deep red Mac lipstick should do. Perfect. Back in my room, I grab my phone and turn the camera to face me. I bring my lips together in a cute pout which the popular girls all seem to do: hold, hold, hold – done! The perfect selfie! I quickly upload it as my profile picture and slip the dress back over my head. I would never wear this in public, it’s so short! I scroll down my list of followers – only 120! I add about 30 boys that I’ve seen around school to boost the numbers (and boy to girl ratio). New age, new me.
At school, I show my best friend Casey my new and improved profile. She tells me I should upload some pictures of me in her running clothes, to appear sporty to my followers. People will be more interested if I have hobbies. Sure enough, the follower requests come rolling in when I check my phone after I leave her house that night; notification after notification. I like this new me. I have two new messages on Instagram from ‘Joshjones145’ and ‘smithmax77’ saying how cute I look in my profile picture. They think it’s cool that I’m into running. It’s strange, I’ve never run a race in my life – I hate sports!
I begin to feel a certain pressure to keep up my appearance so that my followers continue to take an interest in my life. I upload selfie after selfie, borrowing Tamara’s running gear because it makes me look cute and sporty; boys begin to smile at me when I see them in the canteen or corridors at school, but I never really talk to them. There’s no point, ‘KatyKxx’ can just message them online.
The great thing about social media is that you are in control of people’s perception of you. You can create an identity and be whoever you want. I am the girl who would never wear a black velvet mini-dress in public, but am very willing to for pictures so that I can appear sophisticated on my Instagram profile. I would never run a race in my life, but my followers don’t need to know that! If it keeps them interested in me, its fine to post pictures in Tamara’s clothes. Even though I wouldn’t have the confidence to talk to most boys in real life, my online self is the most confident person who ever existed. The thing is, there’s the problem. A screen is separating me from this identity because it only exists online. This is why 1.7 billion people use Facebook and 600 million use Instagram; they can be whoever they want to be. They, or should I say we, can become entirely different people online. That is, if we choose to. You shouldn’t choose to. You end up living two lives.
You see, when I was younger, I used to have this recurring dream. It doesn’t come anymore but that’s because I’m living it. The internet is my ocean. Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter all have hands which grasp and grab at me, pulling me into the screen and into my online world. Deeper, deeper, deeper. The difference from the dream is, I never shut my eyes or fight against their limbs because I don’t want it to stop: the feeling is addictive. The eyes still come; they always come because they never leave. I don’t want to escape from their watching because I crave their attention: the likes, comments, friend requests. I want their acceptance. With each follower comes another pair of eyes. They still judge and analyse, but they don’t identity me because online I can identify myself. I can be whoever I want to be. We invest so much time into these sites because we are investing time into our image and into what the eyes see, into their perception of us. When I used to wake up from my dream, the eyes would leave and the judgements disappear. But when I log off, the eyes are still there because they never leave. We desire their approval of our identity. We can be whoever we want to be, but we end up becoming what they want us to be.