BY JANE BRADSHAW

You only live once.

It’s a cliché coined before we were born; a motto re-popularized by Drake in 2011. Four words meant to encourage spontaneity, fearlessness, novelty – and perhaps pressure us into an action-based mentality, to motivate us to claim what we want in life. 

However, we are the first generation where this phrase isn’t necessarily true. For us, we live twice: once in the physical world, and once online. We experience these lives simultaneously, both so intertwined with one another that it’s hard to separate between the two realities. 

We are given the opportunity to curate, package, and present ourselves through a medium that is as permanent as it is pixelated. It becomes a public first impression, something people can familiarize themselves with prior to even meeting you. It serves as a wall, with its building blocks made of a code of zeros and ones, that mask our reality through a series of images and words that have been cropped, edited, filtered and polished. It’s a modern mechanism of protection. 

The digital age is still in its genesis. It is constantly evolving, expanding and progressing at exponential rates. We have no guarantee that we’re going to use Facebook in five years or if “influencer” will be a legitimate career path. But we have become so dependent on it. It is a tool, whether it be for connection, exploration, growth or imagination, all amalgamating into a creation of our own public persona.

But what does this digital fortress that we’ve built shield us from?

Nothing, really. In actuality, we are exposed.

We have opened ourselves to a constant state of feedback. If we read a message, the sender is notified. Our location is broadcasted through Find My Friends or Snap Map. The more we click on someone’s profile, view their content or like their posts on Instagram, the higher we are ranked in their Stories’ “viewers” list. We have become conditioned to place value in digital engagement, associate likes with popularity and followers with success. 

The reason our generation is often seen as one that had to grow up too fast is because we have been tasked in our formative years with navigating intricate social expectations of two connected but vastly different worlds. We’re trying to find ourselves while having to fabricate a version of who we are for our online profiles.

There’s an overwhelming expectation to initiate contact virtually as soon as they happen in reality, instead of waiting for the friendship or relationship to come to fruition naturally. For many, an unspoken belief exists that if friendships aren’t certified on Facebook or the person you are interested in isn’t snapchatting you, whatever relationship you think you have – no matter if it’s casual or extremely intimate – is all in your head. It doesn’t exist without an electronic paper trail. On the other hand, our reliance on our phones presents the problem that our constant connection through apps allude to something of substance, but unless it carries over to a physical world context, any meaning it may have shuts off when our devices do.

It’s hard to encapsulate our existence into a single profile. Without realizing it, we are so many people. Our perception of ourselves differs from what our best friends, family, or random acquaintances might think of us. Who we are changes depending on the other personalities present, and the situations we are in. Who we are changes in how we are living in each moment, but that sense of life is hard to gauge when we are constantly trying to curate what we look like online. 

We seek a sense of genuine happiness – feelings of pure elation that you get from laughing until your ribs get tight– that feels as uncommon as going to the Goodes Starbucks without waiting in a line.  There are times where I think I am hanging out with friends, but in hindsight we are just sitting together on our phones. We spend many a conversation consulting each other on the perfect response to a boy who has eventually just ghosted us, but still stops to chat at a party. It’s hard to understand where you stand – or who you are even talking to – when everyone has this second life, one that receives the input of those who surround them, where they may behave or pretend to be different than they appear in real life. 

So, as we enter another school year, where we are given the chance to better ourselves, meet new friends, and mature into the person we are going to become, be confident in who you choose to be in both lives that you live. But remember, no matter how many streams may converge into our digital profiles, or how much importance we place on online activity, there is a world that exists exterior to our screens, and that is where you’ll find humanity.