The Season for Social-Media Self-Loathing

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Photo: macdubs/Reddit

One of the funniest items to wash up on the shores of my social-media beaches over the last week was the case of Bridget and her hostile Christmas cards. “Bridget,” one of four sisters, used to appear regularly on her parents’ traditional holiday card — well into adulthood. But then, according to the accounts I read, her siblings got married, had children, and began producing offspring — and Christmas cards — of their own. Still single, Bridget became a holiday-card exile. “My parents decided it would be awkward to have a Christmas card with just one daughter in it, so they cut Bridget out,” wrote one of the sisters, who posted four years of Bridget’s cards online. Those cards were Bridget’s comic revenge on her family, on the entire merry, jolly business of Christmas, and indeed on the merry, jolly business of living out your life on social media. They completely exploded online.

“Merry fucking Christmas from me to your fucking perfect family,” reads my favorite, depicting Bridget herself, passed out in the woods, wearing PJs and a Santa hat. “Happy Holidays, love Bridget. Just Bridget,” says another, showing Bridget by a cold, dark hearth, the contents of a liquor cabinet arrayed beside her. The cards remind me of the decades I spent celebrating holidays as a single person, in which I would dress up, compliment my hosts on their centerpieces and table settings, play with other people’s dogs and children, all the while quietly shrieking inside, quelling my impulse to get drunk or naked or start a fight. Bridget was not so polite. Go, Bridget! I thought. The cojones on her made me laugh out loud.

It’s hard to even know whether Bridget’s cards are actually real, and not some performative social-media gag. But they are irreverent and funny, absolutely. They went viral, though, I think, because on some meta level, they channel the whole dynamic of social media, which is not just positivity everywhere but repressed negativity when confronted with it (which is itself a little bit like a big, huge happy-horrible family gathering). Bridget’s cards say the things we want to say on social media but usually don’t, repressed as we are by the assumption that everyone else on Facebook is biting their tongues, too. Isn’t that a whole lot like Christmas dinner? Submitting to social constraints and then raging at the suppression of one’s own true self is an especially familiar and acute feeling around the holidays, which bring family dysfunction into high relief. As nearly everyone at least intuits at this point, Facebook encourages each of its tribes to operate within a set of confining social strictures, the kind of superficial conformity one associates with mid-century WASP clans or the French bourgeoisie.

But as any good Victorian can tell you, a repressive social code doesn’t just exclude the outliers; it makes everyone feel like a misfit, which in turn makes everyone want to lash out (hello, Bridget!) in an effort to be seen and heard. On Facebook, everybody feels that but nobody acts on it, which just raises the repression stakes. On my feed, one sees cute babies with messy faces; children dressed up in their holiday best; vacation shots of palm trees and ancient cities; and dogs, dogs, dogs, dogs, dogs. People post when they (or their spouse) have won a prize or received a promotion; when their children have won a prize or a trophy or been admitted early decision to the college of their choice. Whose life looks like this? No one’s, as I’m not the first to observe. We all understand that this happiness and Epicureanism is a charade and we all tacitly agree not to discuss it — most of the time.

But our envy and competitiveness is more constant and closer to the surface than any of us cares to admit and it lurks there even as we’re chirpily "liking" one status update after another (wondering all the while how these friends of ours can be so damn chirpy and superficial). Misfortune, humiliation, failure, disappointment, loneliness, unpopular points of view — these are not, generally speaking, appropriate topics for a certain kind of family dinner or for Facebook, unless the failure comes in the form of a cute, misspelled note from an unseen 5-year-old to Santa or the tooth fairy.

Bridget’s cards won their internet moment not just because they’re clever and funny, but because they articulate that thought and the way it can become so explosive during the holidays: All this jollity rings false to me. Everyone, no matter what their relationship status, feels a little like Bridget this time of year — outcast, exiled, discontent; her cards capture a sentiment heartfelt enough to catch the attention of millions of newsfeed browsers but also noncontroversial enough to bypass the conformity threshold. Hark! Bridget has tapped our inner misfit, which emerges in a guffaw like a genie from a bottle. Isn’t that a gas?

Of course, no matter how fun it is to tap into the crowd’s not-so-private fury over the inanity of Christmas cheer in particular and the decorum of Facebook culture in general, there’s still a whole lot of stuff that feels genuinely off-limits — like an actual display of genuine, ugly feelings, without the shield of deft humor or snark. This was the lesson of Ayelet Waldman’s posts on Twitter earlier this month, in which she expressed real, naked bitterness when her novel Love and Treasure was not selected as one of the New York Times notable books of the year. “Love & Treasure is a fucking great novel,” she tweeted. And then, ten minutes later: “there are MANY books on that notable list with reviews that were NOWHERE as good as mine.” And then, one minute later: “What do they mean by 'notable'?”

One learns as a child to suppress all that ego and “be a good sport,” a convention that extends to the workplace and, obviously, to Facebook, where posting about the prizes one wishes had been won or the promotions one believes were deserved or the grades one imagines one’s child should have received is entirely verboten — no matter how ordinary and frequent those thoughts are in fact. The social-media censors came out with their knives, attacking Waldman for her clueless sense of entitlement. “When will literature’s movers and shakers do the right thing and bestow all arbitrary seasonal accolades on well-known writers who truly, madly, deeply believe they deserve them?” huffed the Daily Dot. Waldman’s posts gained viral status for the opposite reason that Bridget’s cards did. We “like” Bridget because she’s just like us. But Waldman crossed a line, and the herd mind had no tolerance for it; what we “liked,” in this case, was the outrage of our friends.