Do You Sanitize?

sanitizedTrigger Warning: This post contains mention of suicide.
The other day, I was at a dinner with a group of old schoolmates when the topic of “sanitizing” social media came up.
According to the online dictionary that pops up on Google, to Sanitize is “to make clean and hygienic.” or “(Derogatory) to alter something regarded as unacceptable in order to make it more palatable.”

According to the definition that arose during our discussion, to sanitize your social media is to be very careful that what goes up on your various profiles does not send out a message about you that might mislead people about your belief systems.

The situation:  someone– let’s call him A– requested that a picture with him be staged and taken afresh. Why? A, who is a teetotaler (and a youth leader in his church) was sitting next to B, who is not a teetotaler and who was drinking a bottle of Tusker. In the original picture, the bottle of Tusker was visible and it wasn’t immediately clear that the bottle belonged to B and not to A. So the beer was taken out and the photo taken without it.

Before our lengthy conversation veered into very philosophical questions of religion and morality and how the violence of colonialism was implemented through religion (because this is how casual dinner conversations play out when you’re surrounded by major geeks), the question of how people “sanitize” their public presentation in various contexts came up. We all do this to some extent; there are things you don’t want to share with random acquaintances and strangers listening in on your feed. In the case of A, there was also the question of how much you can control for the conversation; for instance, being able to talk about alcohol to his “parishioners” (is that the right word? umm…) is completely different from having them see a picture with no context and open to diverse interpretations. But on the flip side, it made me wonder whether there was something inherently deceptive about this. In fact, is there something inherently deceptive about our social media activity?
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A slight tangent, and a very heavy one at that– a few months ago, a student at the University of Pennsylvania, Madison Holleran, committed suicide by jumping off a building. This ESPN piece “Split Image” discusses the disconnect between her social media activity, her picture perfect Instagram, and the struggles that she was facing in her life:

“No image captures the paradoxes of Madison’s Instagram account more than the one she posted just an hour before jumping off the parking garage. Holiday lights are twinkling in the trees of Rittenhouse Square, and Madison put a filter on the image that produced an ethereal quality, almost as if the night is underwater.”

And this is what worries me. In sanitizing what we put out there, we’re creating images of ourselves that are flawless and shiny and filtered and that conceal the struggles that we are actually going through. And then social media becomes a collective, snowballing deception. If we’re struggling and we hide it, then the people in our networks can’t know that we might need help. But on the flip side, then we all feel like we’re alone in the struggle because everybody else’s Instagram/Facebook/Twitter/Snapchat looks like their lives are #flawless.
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I know it’s different kind of sanitization to have a social profile that looks happier than you really are, and to have a social media profile that aligns with your belief system. But I also think that there’s a similar impulse behind it. Some conversations are hard to have on the internet, and sometimes we feel it might be better to do so in contexts where we have more control over the discussion. But what worries me is that that’s not what’s happening. That’s it’s not that we’re not talking about these things on the internet so that we can talk about it in person. Rather, perhaps we’re not talking about these things on the internet and we’re not talking about them at all. That’s the scary thing.

So in summary, I have three thoughts: 1. I understand and agree that context matters.  2. I think that we should try as much as possible to be authentic 3. How do we draw a balance between the two?

Or maybe this: we probably shouldn’t look to social media to tell us the truth about a person. At least not the whole truth. And we should resign ourselves to the fact that everybody sanitizes to some degree, and not take them on face value. And still ask people how they are even if everything on Facebook looks perfect?
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If you’re reading this, what do you think? First, is sanitizing too strong a word? (I think it is) And have you ever “sanitized” or do you “sanitize” your Facebook/Twitter/Instagram etc? Is it insincere? Or are we merely curating the content of our life in precisely the way that social media and the internet should allow us to, to ensure propriety and to avoid unnecessary drama and misunderstanding?

And A, if you’re reading this, here’s the blog post you suggested.