Spotlight: A meditation on this Pageantry of Vanity

Yes, as everyone knows, meditation and water are wedded forever” ­─Herman Melville, Moby Dick.

The eyes look down below─ At the ever-trembling water surface, that metastasizes into suicidal waves, and explode into this reef; into perfectly suspended droplets, arrowed down by the golden sunrays─ I note the strength and vividness of my feelings in that perishable instant which suddenly break and foam away. My thoughts, like fireflies, spark, and then go out. They recede like tides, overwhelming me with a taste for words, ever-present like a fragrance. I manufacture ideas like a diligent spider, hearing them like remote bells deafly drowned, and try to map them like stars above but the right words always seem to escape me. Still, I write, because I so deeply want to speak.

I’ve done my fair share of time serving in the “elite” circles of volunteerism in Mombasa. You know, the underdogs who swear they bleed community service, the self-proclaimed youth leaders in servitude of everyone but themselves. The preachers of pure intentions and focusing on private victory before a public one. I swear to you, I never have been in much nobler company who inspired me to want more from this life than just growing old into a safe job. For just a moment, I was lucky enough to brush shoulders and be tangled up in this circle of eccentrics; in the best of their days, before they invested in DSLR cameras.

We have this inherent need as human beings to be fully present, at each and every unfolding of our lives. As if that’s not enough, being social creatures, we also feel the need to share these moments with the people around us. Those are the foundations social media was built on.

We happen to be the first generation to have this luxury of leading double-lives. An unpredictable one in the physical world, which welcomes anything unprecedented, and the other, simulated on our devices, curated according to our tastes and preferences which results in something slightly less chaotic unless it’s twitter.

Now, we have this need to lead both these lives simultaneously. And in most cases, the people we are in these two parallels differ. We crave order and since we cannot live in duality; both these lives at the same time, we’re more inclined to sacrifice one of our lives for the more interesting one.

We all know by now; the human mind can’t multitask. Multitasking just means rapidly switching between two things over and over which is honestly draining and results in having things done in more time that would have been if the tasks were taken one at a time. You’re with me, right? So, hold that thought as we bristle through Luigi Pirandello’s book: One, No One, One Hundred Thousand.

It’s about a man on the search for who he is when he realises that no one, not even his wife, sees him the way he sees himself. Even more, none of the people see him the same way, and he notices he unconsciously acts differently around all the different people. He finds out that all this was built upon the perception people had of him the first time they met and he’d been building on that ever since, resuming a role depending on who the audience was.

But Hassan, you say, that’s about other people, right? The real you is the one you see through the lens of self; the person you are when nobody’s watching. Right?

Well, NO. The way people see you is more accurate than the way you see yourself.

Confusing, isn’t it? If I am not who I think I am, and everyone sees me differently from everyone else. Then who am I? Well, you’re partly one; the glimpses of yourself in your own consciousness, partly no one, and you can always decide not to be held hostage by your past experiences and just build yourself anew(Weird how not many people know this), and partly one hundred thousand; these pre-conceived versions of self you’ve built in people’s heads and are forever doomed to be that version around them hence the title of the book ‘One, No One, One Hundred Thousand. Anyways, the book ends with Pirandello going mad and that being the first time he felt free. It’s quite a ride.

What is the point of this? I’m glad you asked. With our need to be present fully in both our real and digital lives, we’re rapidly switching between all these different versions of ourselves and no time is that frequency higher than when we are online. I’m going to give an example Pirandello gives when a person he works with and his wife wanted to meet him in his home at the very same time due to a certain concern. He says, the most logical thing we do and subconsciously must do is to send one person away because if not, the conversation will be partaken by your wife, your workmate, and two varying versions of you. And somewhere in between, depending on the dominant you in that conversation, the other person who has never seen that side of you is bound to look at you rather perplexed, like who is this guy?

That all being said, when you’re scrolling innocently through your feed, and you come across a post you want to comment on, the first thing you subconsciously do is mainstream yourself, beating yourself down to this one air-brushed version that anyone who sees that comment would not raise an eyebrow. Social media cuts down our flexibility of constantly trying these different selves which is the essence of our existence and free will. You’re asserting dominance on this airbrushed version of you and trying to convince everyone, including yourself that that is who you are. Even worse, after some time, this becomes the version you wear in the world outside and that rigidity, that inflexibility of not becoming someone else is the root of our anxieties. We were not meant to be just one.

I read an article on the Washington Post in this past month on why some of the early developers of Instagram quit the app. Now, it’s not news when just anybody leaves the platform. In fact, it’s cool to leave social media these days. But when the creator abandons his own creation, then you know there’s a problem.

She said, in the beginning, they built Instagram as this celebration of art and artists, to increase their visibility, get their work out there, network, and collaborate with other artists from all around the world. That was Instagram in the essence and why we all flocked there. But when Zuckerberg bought the platform, the focus shifted from that artistic vibe to more of “celebrity”, turning Instagram into the valley of the influencers.

In the quest for our attention and in search of more ways to keep us online longer, the new algorithm was introduced and disconnected us from friends, pushing for more “influencer” content; the guys with the most, and that rippled into our self-worth becoming synonymous with the number of followers and the number of likes you had.

Sadly, that wasn’t just an abroad phenomenon but an idea that became perpetrated in our society. And nowhere is it more predominant and prevalent than among my peers.

In Mombasa, as controversial as this may sound, the ones in the community spaces mostly, do things for the gram than they do for their community. They’ve fallen for this trap of social media, which is now this pyramid scheme of validation. At the top of the chain are these “influencers” with the subtle systems of reciprocity they’ve put in place. “Post my photo to your story and I’ll post on my story that you put me in your story.” WE REPOST REPOSTED STORIES ON PEOPLE WHO REPOSTED OUR STORIES. That’s just weird.

This constant need for validation and to be seen will make us invisible in this world. Cause it’s no longer about creative expression and inspiring more people, it’s now a legitimate way to beg for relevance and attention. I’m walking on a tightrope right now but why else do we do it. If not for the pursuit of vanity. Chasing notoriety.

Drastic changes need to happen if social media is to be made homely, however radical. Sadly, I don’t know what. One thing I know for sure though is “always start with water.” A thorough cleansing; a constant renewal of intentions, not forgetting ‘why’ we started in the first place, cleaning the people you follow, eliminating everyone with even the smallest degree of fakeness(Trust me, however popular, you aren’t missing out on anything), and unfollowing anyone bad for your mental health. We’re the ones who make “influencers” relevant and we have the power in us to take that back.

I usually tell myself (that’s what you do when you don’t talk to people) that for most people, when you log out of social media it’s almost like suffocating yourself. That’s your life you’re suspending in a sort of disbelief. You might think you’re okay but you yearn for it, subconsciously, and somehow pushed to this constant depression. You’ve pulled yourself from a life you enjoy to this other one which is meh! And can’t wait to get back.

A caged bird somehow thinks that flying is a disease and until you don’t recognize you live in chains; you’ll always be fine with how things are.

I don’t preach. At all. But I must say, to start living a wholesome life, as wholly as possible, like this article, start with water. Unbind yourself from the social constructs and your projections of disillusionment. Lean away from the caricatures construed or perhaps misconstrued by the distorted image you see befitting to upkeep, to maintain your position in the status quo.

Matter of fact, we’re all impressionable. Yet we realize that too late.

*

By this point, I’ve given up on the idea that my thoughts will ever have a pattern or coherence to them. I pursue one halfway and always end up with another and say to myself I’ll come to it another day. So, bear with me.

As I lose myself in the convulsing waves of the ocean, going down this rabbit hole, I pull myself back as I realise, it is not upon me to fix the dents in the universe. I whip my phone out and jack the earphones in which are now as tangled as my thoughts. Perhaps a podcast will stop me from thinking.

***

Two things happened as I was writing this, I deactivated my social media then came back and deleted it. Actually, three things: I just opened another account(You can’t see me but I’m laughing). Maybe it’s because I realised quitting is not the solution or maybe, addiction. Who knows. Anyways, for my people who like carrying on the conversations, here’s my new insta: @hasaan.kassim

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Instagram, mental health, Social Media


Hassan Kassim

Hassan Kassim is a Mombasa-based Creative non-fiction writer, recently longlisted for the Toyin Falola prize, blogger and translator of Kiswahili work. A beneficiary of the Penpen program by African Writers Development Trust(AWDT) commissioned by Culture at Work Africa and the European Union(E.U), and holds his Bachelor’s degree in Maritime Management. Hassan writes about the ill-documented Communities of Coastal Kenya. His work has appeared in Writers Space Africa; his 2 non-fiction stories published in the anthology 'Twaweza,' a collaborative effort of 12 African writers on the African identity and set to appear in the forthcoming anthology for the Toyin Falola prize.

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