When I was in high school, my favorite class was AP English. It allowed me to simultaneously feel smart and artsy, which rarely went together. In this class I was assigned to write an essay, the subject of which was “I Wore a Mask, And My Face Grew to Fit It.”
(Side note: A quick Google search shows that this essay topic is still handed out to the chagrin of high school students everywhere.)
I was reminded of this piece recently when I was having a discussion with a friend about Internet personalities. She was saying that some people try too hard to fit a certain image online; to craft exactly what they want people to think about them. They’re trying too hard, and it comes off as inauthentic, she argued.
I asked a counter question: if you work really hard at not being one of those people, aren’t you doing the same thing? It takes the same amount of effort. If you care so much about what people think that you are willing to say yes or no to something based solely on the opinions of others, aren’t you just as guilty of being a poser?
I love the Internet. It’s a fantastic medium for meeting new people, learning, being inspired. Hell, it’s my livelihood. I feed off of the free exchange of ideas.
But those ideas can also be small and petty, as can be the people you meet. With the Internet being a microcosm (or macrocosm?) of the human experience, the idea milieu often deteriorates into name calling, worrying about social status, confusing arrogance with confidence. High school bullshit of the highest order.
Back in high school, writing my essay, I looked around at my classmates and realized we were all wearing masks. Whether or not those masks were the result of peer pressure, or parental expectations, or rebellion, they were all masks of our choosing. We were trying to define our images by what we were for and what we were against.
And here we are on the Internet, years later, trying to do the same thing. My how we’ve grown.
The truth that I know now, that I was trying to communicate to my friend, that I wish I could travel back in time and tell the younger, less-grey version of myself: there is no avoiding the mask. Not completely. We all put one on the minute we step into any kind of social setting. The only question is which one it will be.
They can serve a noble purpose. The masks we wear prevent us from telling the annoying person across the train to shut up, we’ve had a long day. They allow us to pretend that we have a shred of human decency, even when we feel like yelling at our kids or telling them to make their own damn dinners. They can also push us to help people, or encourage people, even the strangers we meet online. They can give us an ounce of bravery when inside we feel none.
So my humble advice: stop worrying about wearing your mask, online or off. And care more about which one you’re putting on. The masks we wear, if we want them to, can make us better versions of ourselves.
And if we’re lucky, our faces will grow to fit them.