Self-deprecation on social media: for expression or for likes?

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Where’s the line between celebrating imperfection and using it for approval?

In an article focusing on a demographic of young and educated people, The Globe and Mail’s Eric Andrew-Gee explores a current cultural phenomenon among millennials to find freedom or satisfaction in self-humiliation. 

He calls it “competitive abjection” — the pattern of young people “putting on display sordid or pathetic aspects of one’s life with a kind of abashed defiance, to pre-empt feelings of embarrassment.” 

On a larger scale, Andrew-Gee’s article is one of many that tries to analyze and deconstruct the cultural phenomena of the millennial generation.

The difference in this one is a refreshing perspective — it engages with the subject matter but doesn’t make sweeping generalizations or belittle popular culture. It’s a genuine analysis without dismissing the experience of an entire generation, like, for example, Time Magazine’s cover story “Millennials: The Me Me Me Generation”. 

On a smaller scale, the social media posts that come out of this culture of “competitive abjection”, which Andrew-Gee suggests can reach closer to lived experience by freeing the individual from the appearance of perfection, still carry an underlying façade. 

If you scroll through Instagram, it often seems as though the same photo is recreated over and over. Maybe it’s a photo of someone’s coffee balanced perfectly on top of their homework, with a caption complaining about the all-nighters and coffee addictions that come with millennial life. 

On the one hand, perhaps this cultural phenomenon isn’t as negative as it seems. This kind of self-deprecating humour celebrates imperfections rather than belittling them and is a way for young people to reach out to others in an online comradery, bridged by the acceptance of our flaws. 

But even these posts, part of a pattern of admitting one’s flaws and posting them for the world to see, can be contrived or obligatory. 

While this phenomenon of self-humiliation stems from a reaction to the idealized version of reality we’re so often confronted with — the reality in which all 20-somethings have their lives together — it can also be part of a competition. 

Sometimes, posting our culturally-acceptable imperfections of overwork or binge-TV watching is a silent competition to be more upfront and honest about our lives — a project always doomed to fail considering the act of posting something on social media is by nature selective in what is shared. 

However, this same acceptance can be exclusionary as well. For instance, social media accounts are often created in the hopes of championing self-love and body acceptance, but only feature photographs of people with a single body type, like an Instagram account about body acceptance showcasing posts of conventionally thin girls sitting in front of fast food but not actually eating it.

How valuable is this culture of genuineness on social media when this genuineness can also be exclusionary?  

Social media wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for the ability to collect ‘likes’ or followers. It’s worth considering, then, how much of this self-humiliating honesty is actually honest and not a way to use relatability to gain approval. 

Journal Editorial Board 

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