Social media and Joan Didion’s California

Was there ever in anyone’s life span a point free in time, devoid of memory, a point when choice was any more than sum of all the choices gone before?” 
― Joan Didion, Run, River

I point the phone in front of his face. I’m flicking through the Instagram stories of a girl who lives in New York. She poses for photos: there she is practicing yoga, and walking her dog. She deadlifts and shops vintage. Every fifth or sixth photo is of the New York skyline and a comment on just how awestruck she is. How I pine for her life, her carefully curated portrayal of the bounty of her hard work.

Stewart looks at the Instagram profile for a split second and then looks at me incredulously. ‘What are you doing?’ He asks. ‘Why are you doing this?’

It’s hard to explain my actions; even to me they seem strange. After all, to attend to the life and times of a stranger online is a bit obsessive.  But I’ve “known” her since her blog days, I tell him, trying to rationalise my behaviour. For maybe five years now. I’ve read her blog, and then after moving to Instagram, I found her again and followed her there. And now I watch her life in real time via Moments, or stories, whatever it is called.

Even reading over this, I feel as though my actions are ominous. Even without the internet I have always had a bizarre ability to remember and pay attention to the details of the lives of other people — even people I’ve never met. Laden with my own version of mental illness and grief, I once used the online world as a way to make friends. I watched the lives of influencers and social media stars with envy. How the tables have turned as digital popularity alters social dynamics in offline interactions.

In Ingrid Goes West, a recovering mental patient, Ingrid, loses her mother and, in a grief-hallowed bout of obsession, becomes emotionally and mentally consumed with the life of LA blonde, hippy-clad influencer Taylor Sloan via her Instagram. She ends up spending her life savings to move to the West Coast and then proceeds to stalk and befriend Taylor, who she sees living the ultimate life of perfection and joy. I saw so much of myself in Ingrid; I felt less crazy.

Ingrid’s obsession with Taylor is symptomatic of a larger cultural phenomenon: a passive consumption of other people’s lives inspiring self-reflection. The image-driven culture of Instagram gets us to put a mirror up in front of us, causing us to pause and look at our bouts of unhappiness and dissatisfaction. And getting obsessive, compulsive and besotted with the lives of other girls seems abnormal when you’re in the bouts of despair –– you’re not supposed to turn to social networks when you feel this way, you’re supposed to log off. With Instagram, my interest might appear superficial and hollow, but the obsession stretches to more than just the person: it’s the mythology of what they’ve built themselves up to be. More than that: Instagrammers show me how life can be rich with experiences, with expensive toys and clothes and food, and that I’m simply doing it wrong. I fall into the trap of admiring a curious curation of capitalism. ‘I’m not a psychopath!’ Ingrid screams at Taylor. I too say this to Stewart: I’m normal, I promise. I just want something more for myself. And maybe I want Instagram to publicly validate that.

One of Taylor’s prized possessions and favourite books is The White Album by Joan Didion, or so she professes via an Instagram post. Though Ingrid devours it, she eventually comes to question whether Taylor has even read the famed book. The White Album is most emblematic of all Didion books, an archetypal novel of New Journalism. In a review of the novel, former book critic Michiko Kakutani says, the “Didion woman” is “becoming a recognizable literary figure”. Kakutani’s basis for this assessment is partly due to Didion’s self-effacing style and self-referential essays, featuring the same subject matter (herself) and use of lens. Part of the process involves “exposing yourself”, a “relentless self-scrutiny’ that is controlled and deliberate, giving parts of yourself to an audience that you yourself have already assessed. This idea of self translates itself well to the selfie culture of today. Women, especially, have a new source of emotional power. In The Last Love Song (2015), the only biography of Didion to date, Tracy Duagherty says that Didion portrays “emotional fragility as actually something of a matrilineal trait”.

Joan Didion gets used in Ingrid Goes West to exude the essence of ‘coolness’ that is done by exhibiting one’s personal life publicly. Which is frankly odd considering she was named the face of luxury French fashion house Celine in 2016. Even though Didion’s other books aren’t mentioned, and Ingrid exclusively focuses on The White Album, her other texts are just as pivotal when talking auras of ‘coolness’ and American mythologies. Because she writes about California as “the reward for escaping the past” (in Where I Was From), a mystic concoction of nostalgia mixed with promise. A land of reinvention. Kakutani writes that California is ‘a place defined…by what her memory cannot let go’. She is writing about dispelling a myth that was planted in her mind by stories, a construction of California that never existed. This is the story of Taylor, a token of old California, using memories through photographs to construct the vision of a shadow of herself. And Ingrid, like so many of us, fall into the trap of following her.

Being vulnerable to the extent necessary to be authentic extends to the online world. People are attracted to vulnerability. Public vulnerability is a display, a choice that’s made in exchange for likes and popularity. It’s the equivalent of Jennifer Lawrence expressing that she eats (!) pizza or other junk. Vulnerability is warmth coddled in camaraderie, but it’s an imagined affinity that can, at the end of the day, lead you into despair. Vulnerability to align yourself with others can be powerful — at other times, vulnerability as a weapon can make you seem approachable, “just like you” as they too admit to eating bucket loads of salty fries with ketchup smeared over their faces. Vulnerability is performative, but whether it is insincere or genuine is up for debate.

There’s a part in the film where Taylor opts out of a party with Ingrid to spend time with a new friend who possesses more followers on Instagram. Ingrid is a girl full of spite and bitterness, however disguised she tries to be: once she discovers her so-called friendship is a sham, built on a digital currency more fragile than a sandcastle, she self-destructs her persona and her false friendship with the Instagram influencer. She chooses a reality that is free from memory and nostalgia –– no more crutches on the past. This reality doesn’t have to be devoid of devices and Instagram though, and Ingrid still retreats to the internet and her crafted persona, albeit unfiltered.

There is a lot more to life than Instagramming breakfasts and skylines, I’m aware of that. But expressing wonder and delight at an experience should be revelled in. Public vulnerability is fucking beautiful. It’s the insidiousness of profiles, of a schematic social currency that people try to accumulate, that makes the process devastating.

Image: Toni Hukkanen


Marta Skrabacz is a Melbourne-based writer and producer. She was the Digital Producer for Noted Festival 2017. She tweets @grrlmarta

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