The Politics of Muting on Social Media

Is muting people rude, or is it the only way to healthily manage our social media personas?

In Cambridge’s fast-paced world, it can feel like people’s social media does nothing but sparkle. There’s been a lot written in Cambridge about imposter syndrome, to the extent that I’m almost tired of discussing it now – but it is true. Every day it feels like there’s another post about a play, or a society, or an academic achievement.

Sometimes, you just may not want to see those posts. You could unfollow them, but that would likely lead to highly fraught social situations – everyone takes offence at being unfollowed.

And that, my friends, is where muting comes in.

So what is it? I’m going to focus on Instagram here, not least because it’s interesting to consider what muting means in the context of other recent-ish innovations, like the Close Friends stories. You can choose to unfollow people on Facebook, but, honestly, who uses Facebook anymore? Instagram has taken the blue behemoth’s place as the internet’s diary, and it’s where I personally mute people, and where most people do. You press a button on their profile that makes their feed (their posts, their stories, or both) essentially disappear. No one knows they’ve been muted so, no hard feelings.

Why do we do it? Muting doesn’t happen for negative reasons alone. I’ve muted people because they post too much, or I flaked on a commitment and feel guilty when I see their posts. This is precisely why muting is interesting, psychologically. You can still love a person, but feel distanced from them, and not really want to see their content daily, or their 15 identical shots of dappled light hitting a river (guilty).

Muting people can be temporary, too, and temporary mutes can be motivated by jealousy. While I was still trying to sort out an internship mid-summer, I had to take some time out of seeing grad-scheme stories on people’s instagrams. It takes a while for me to mute someone, but not for everyone. One friend I asked for this column, joked, “I have a one strike rule…one dud post and they’re out”. Muting can be, then, a Mari Kondo-ing of your feed, if you feel your feed doesn’t spark the joy that Mark Zuckerberg intended it to.

It’s the same idea as Close Friends story – a way of exposing your truest and, sometimes, worst self. There you post a private side  to yourself, often of a confessional nature, featuring discussions about your sex life, ugly pictures, updates on mental health. It’s a side to you that you’re not necessarily comfortable exposing. Muting, however, is more often about keeping FOMO at bay, and controlling the amount and the quality of posts that stream our way. I think it’s born out of social media exhaustion – you know that feeling when you’ve scrolled a bit too long and you’re looking for something but you don’t know what? For me, it feels like eating something sweet for too long. It’s too many nice pictures – I get toothache from the saccharine smiles.

Do the different gradations of muting make a difference? What kind of relationship do you have with someone you only mute stories from, and not posts, or vice versa, or both?

Another friend, when asked, said it did make a difference. “Often I just mute stories. The main benefit for me is being able to keep the semblance of being on good terms with people at home (that I’ve drifted from), because actually unfollowing them would be too fractious”. Politeness often dictate that you can’t unfollow someone you have a fraught but civil relationship with, even if you’d rather not see their posts. To unfollow is tantamount to an official friendship end, and not everyone is ready for that.

What’s striking, then, is that these updates clearly go against what social media is allegedly about – keeping up with people. It’s a tacit understanding that we do want more private lives than our follower count may suggest. It’s funny – the internet can be characterised as some entity devoid of humanity, changing social norms, but I find it’s deeply run by unspoken codes of human interaction.

We’re moving towards a social media world where you can increasingly narrow your social circle, in apps built ostensibly for widening it to the entire world. There is a similar rationale behind private instagrams (‘finstas’ or ‘spams’). We’ve gone from anonymous chat rooms in the early 200s, to an emphasis everywhere on “curating” your online experience.

This all may seem microscopic in importance, but these apps do play a significant part in how we interact with each other in daily life, especially “millennials” and the generations below. Their effect on the etiquettes of managing human relationships are important to consider.

To conclude this ode to muting, it really does seem to allow us to manage relationships and our social media personas better in this digital age. Before Instagram and Facebook you could just drift apart and, I don’t know, not follow their MySpace anymore. But today’s internet is a far more constant onslaught of content. With friends from home, we may feel alienated from them, having changed so much at uni. Feeling cut off from people is painful, but we live in complex networks of friendships as the social animals we are. Unfollowing is a far more definite statement, when a silent, pacifying mute does the trick.

I read an article on i-D about close friends stories, that had a similar conclusion. One of the people spoken to said, “It gives me control over my digital self in a space where so much of me is exposed.” Letting go is great, but control (when it comes to social media) might be better.

‘MOODS and NOODS’ review: Exploring Millenial Nostalgia in Cambridge

By Atlanta Tsiaoukkas 

‘MOODS and NOODS’, an exhibition by PIN_COLLECTIVE, is at the new Motion Sickness gallery space, in the unlikely location of Lion Yard. The uninspiring streets of cafes and shops, in fact, makes the gallery space appear inviting to those who love anything millennial, with flashes of pink and a gaudy, cereal-topped waffle (EJ Montgomery) as the window display. The space is part of an ongoing project by Cambridge School of Art graduates, Arabella Hilfiker, Denise Kehoe and Eleanor Breeze to stimulate the currently quite dull art scene in Cambridge, allowing experimental, young artists to be celebrated in dedicated spaces. So far, this venture can be considered successful, as the ‘MOODS and NOODS’ exhibition has meant that, whilst many in Cambridge feel the need to get on a train to see new art, for a couple of weeks, it is only a short walk away. 

The exhibition clearly explored ‘millennialhood’, and if this concept can be defined by one feature it is nostalgia. News outlets regularly decry the younger generations for an ‘obsession’ with nostalgia, often with a further comment shaming us for missing the past when we have it so good now. With ‘MOODS and NOODS’, PIN_COLLECTIVE have fully embraced the millennial stereotype, with all artists touching on themes of nostalgia, whether it be paintings inspired by childhood cereals (EJ Montgomery), child-like collages (Lily Rankine), or a princess themed play tent (Holly Rose Jackson). However, unlike many artists who today work with nostalgia, the pieces fortunately did not feel trite, rather, there was a sense of pushing boundaries, exploring, perhaps, what is hidden behind young people’s love of nostalgia. In particular, this can be said of the larger-than-life paintings of cereal packaging, which, though taking such direct inspiration from advertising is relatively common in the art world at the moment, felt like an appropriate acknowledgement of a collective millennial childhood, tainted by excessively bright colours and capitalistic endeavours. 

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There was also an underlying sense of anxiety, evoked by the pieces themselves and the experience in the gallery space. Much of the work, such as the the various sculptures, were scattered throughout the floorspace of the gallery, risking being knocked by passersby, immediately creating a nervousness amongst viewers, especially as, usually, artwork is kept at a reverential distance. Considering the familiar content of many of these pieces, it feels only right that we almost slip on plastic bags from the corner shop and trip over abandoned cardboard boxes, just as we did as children. Even more anxiety-provoking was a specific sculpture by Gwen Senhui Chen, in which the piece dripped a cement-like substance directly on the floor – as the sculpture dripped, the floorspace reduced (it was much harder getting out of the gallery than getting in). These physical choices complemented the work brilliantly, such as Holly Rose Jackson’s film (found within the princess tent), which was described by one viewer as ‘American Headspace’, referencing the manic yet calmingly repetitive and meditative voice over. The exhibition was full of contrasts between millennial colourful childhood and the stress-inducing world we live in now. 

The nostalgia of this exhibition is seemingly both joyful and distressed. The ethos of PIN is ‘our interests include…pretty colours…mocking you…mocking ourselves.’, and this very much comes through in their self-referential and nervous composition. This is definitely not just an exhibition exploring nostalgia, but one which explores corrupted nostalgia. The work reminds you of when your innocence was questioned – when you accidentally saw a porn ad whilst trying to watch a cartoon; when you realised that cereal boxes were colourful and exciting purely to make you ask your mum to buy it. 

If just to support two young collectives, one with the aim to make Cambridge a great city for art, you should go to this exhibition. You should also attend regardless of your loyalty to the art world – it is a thought-provoking, stimulating exhibition which will keep you thinking long after you’ve visited. 

17th October – 3rd November 2019 

15 Petty Cury, Lion Yard, Cambridge CB2 3NE 

11am – 4pm, Friday to Sunday. 5pm – 8pm Wednesday 

Header artwork by Corinne Seymour

On Work Habits

I’d thought for a while on what to start off my Girl Talk column with – a deep dive into the Caroline Calloway scandal is always tempting, of course. But, seeing my newsfeeds covered in posts about Mental Health Awareness Day, I felt compelled to write about something which everyone in this university talks about constantly, it seems: work.

It’s a funny word to use, for our constant succession of deadlines, readings and worksheets, and can lead to confusion. If I use it at home, with friends not at university at the moment, they’re puzzled, and say they thought we weren’t allowed at part-time job at Cambridge. Oh no, I reassure them, this isn’t something you can clock out of, at the end of the day- there’s always something else you could be doing, another book to read or more essays to do. Term has just started and I already feel like I’m behind, fielding emails, ramming a summer’s worth of dissertation reading into a few days, all the while nurturing the friendships that keep me going.

Anxiety has been a part of my life at least since the age of 16, and it has always been connected to my academic performance. Receiving an email from a supervisor can leave me terrified to open Hermes, and the way my heart beats right before my history supervisions could probably power the Industrial Revolution. Work and mental health in Cambridge are inextricable, and it’s an even more pernicious issue when counselling and mental health adjustments are underfunded and inaccessible.

Now, a few caveats. I don’t mean for one second to imply it’s a harder life to be in my cushy (but expensive! #cuttherent) Medwards accommodation reading about the early Japanese state than working a full time job for minimum wage. Also, plenty of people here may have a perfectly healthy relationship with their work. In which case: keep on reading and shake your head in despair.

I realise I am by no means the first person to say Cambridge’s approach to academic work is unhealthy. It feels like fairly common knowledge – we’ve all seen people pull constant all nighters, work after a night out, and the atmosphere in college during exam term is, well, very particular.

The supervision system, I think, actually makes this worse – we find ourselves in fairly intense academic relationships with adults who frequently have no tact or sense of emotional intelligence. Stories about supervisors making people cry are a dime a dozen. I also feel that issues of cultural capital come into play here: if you’re used to the supervision system because your school had a similar level of one-to-one attention, you may not be as intimidated by the prospect of asking for an extension, for help, or just saying ‘no’ for one week. This will then be compounded for people of colour and otherwise marginalised students who don’t see themselves in the academics they’re supervised by. As women, we’re socialised also to please others, to be ‘polite’ and ‘nice’ and ask for, rather than state, our needs.

Here’s what I want to say: if you struggle completing all your work and you feel like an imposter – you’re not alone! The feeling of being crept up on by work is felt by everyone around you, I can assure you. I scalded myself quite badly with boiling tea three weeks ago so the start of my time in Cambridge was marked by A&E visits and some reduced mobility – especially frustrating when the things you have to do are far away.

Second, you really, genuinely, do not have to do as much work as they say. A tip for humanities students: not every essay has to be done, so be smart and figure out what topics you can avoid revising. Without meaning to sound like an HSPS student, deadlines are social constructs. I handed in my first essay here 6 hours late, which very much set the tone for my academic career in general. I think I’ve handed in two essays on time in my time here, and it literally does not matter. Prioritise yourself, your way of working and your mental health.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, what has really helped me is to think about self-care and leisure as deliberate acts. As Audre Lorde wrote in A Burst of Light and Other Essays “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence. It is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare”. It’s a beautiful phrase, as is all of Lorde’s writing. Of course, Lorde was writing as a black lesbian feminist in America, and her work is very much directed at the experience of black women. She expressed in her succinct prose something that’s at the heart of what I want to write about today. Caring for yourself in a world where mental health care has been slashed by cuts, where people wait for weeks for appointments at the University Counselling Service or the Disability Resource Centre, or never receive funding for private counselling their college offered them, and   creating spaces of care and community amongst your friends, in this space, does feel radical.

Basically, a message for everyone: you can take time for yourself. You’re not a productivity machine. Have little rebellions, and hold on to them when Week Five hits.

Solitude and bliss

This summer felt different from pretty much every summer I’ve had, mostly because I made the effort to spend time alone, and give myself space. Space to think, breathe and act. Not to paraphrase Virginia Woolf too much, but when you have that space for yourself, it turns out, the life epiphanies come thick and fast.

Summers are a tricky thing. At least for me, they’ve always been fraught with peaks and troughs of hope and disappointment – I’d start the summer willing this to be the year I return in September fitter, prettier, somehow cooler only to face the disappointment come late August that that’s not, in fact, how life works.

In comparison, summers as a child were almost violently joyful things. I lived in Spain until I was about 13, and the thing I most remember about my summers there are the colours. Blue, mainly, obviously. There’s something about that never-ending turquoise sky of mid-July when clouds seem an impossibility. But also the bleached white of long sleepy Augusts in Madrid, when everyone else who could had left the city. When we moved to a little village nestled in the Spanish sierra, my memories are coloured with the golden green and dark woods of the mountains. You’d wake up to the sound of a donkey braying, and there’d be nothing to do but swim and sunbathe.

That’s all fantastic when you’re 8 and anxiety hasn’t hit you like a ton of bricks yet, but once it does, I’ve always found too much solitude to be counterproductive. We still go back every summer since we moved to the UK, and I’ve spent a lot of my teenage summers simmering with stress over a vague sense of not doing things right. Not sure what things those were, but they were there and they were not being done right. Summers away from my Cambridge friends can be especially apprehensive, considering I’m surrounded by the loud presence of my 3 siblings, my parents, my maternal grandparents and whatever extended family wants to drop in that day.

So, I began to seek out quiet corners of my garden, or solitary walks under the shadow that the mountain range cast on the village once the sun began to set behind it. It sounds very basic, but for someone not used to consciously taking care of myself, those 20 minutes of yoga every morning began to be a little treasure. This also meant taking care of my body as a physical thing – sport! Exercise! A revelation! I stretched, I swam 20 laps a day, I downloaded a workout app. I’d always hated sports, but there’s an undeniable magic in scratching out time to Not Think. You feel the burn, the sweat, but your mind goes quiet. Maybe the #LiveLaughLove peddlers have a point.

Doing more activity meant I slept easier, and crucially, had more focus to sit down and read. I’d gone from reading voraciously, countless books every month, when I was 10, and then as academics hit hard during my teenage years, my reading had dwindled to a point where during my first year at Cambridge I read maybe one book all year. I read three just this summer, which was a big deal for me. These were a collection of Joan Didion essays, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, the Stephen King-esque Summer of Night by Dan Simmons, and Free Food for Millionaires by Min Jin Lee. Didion’s lush, verbose descriptions of her native, nostalgia infused Southern California are exactly what you need when you’re feeling morose on a summer evening, in case you were wondering.

At the end of the summer, I took my first trip to the USA, where my father is from, to do dissertation research in Richmond, Virginia. I was still reeling from the end of year-long relationship the week before, and felt cast away, tense and afraid, knowing where my anxiety could take me in stressful situations alone. It felt like a revelation to realise that I could bring the healthy, solitary habits I’d developed over the summer with me anywhere. After one stressful day at the freezing air-conditioned archives, I took myself to see a free exhibition at the Virginia Museum of Fine Art. I wandered around the 21st century art rooms – large rocks stuccoed to the wall, technicolour ribbons creeping from one wall the other, all meaning and form broken down- and planned the dinner I was going to have at a nearby Cuban restaurant. That was my first meal at a restaurant alone. It’s somehow taken me 21 years to realise there’s a real joy to be had in solitude, but I’m glad I got there.

A Tale of Two Cities

Last summer was supposed to be my summer of healing. Recovering from the last of a chronic illness that had plagued the majority of my first year, my overwhelming feeling was gratitude. I felt lucky because I was, for all intents and purposes, ‘cured’. It wasn’t until this summer that I realised what it feels like to actually heal.

Taking things day by day, I didn’t realise that I had spent the best part of 2018 living cautiously, half enjoying things, either preoccupied by pain or worried that I was over exerting myself. Even though by the time summer came the worst of this had gone, a part of my vivacity had gone with it. I felt lost – not having completed my exams, spending so much time at home alone, missing out on events with friends. Even though my pain and illness had gone away, it had taken a part of me with it. The result was a summer of feeling lost, anxious about going back to Cambridge and being behind, feeling like a disappointment for not Making The Most Of My Summer, withdrawing myself from friends and feeling guilty for even feeling these feelings in the first place.

This summer I healed when I didn’t know I needed to. I felt myself collecting up all the parts of myself that I didn’t realise had been sucked out of me. I’ve spent this summer between two cities that could not be more different, Delhi and Boston;  Delhi for six glorious weeks working for a women’s trade union, and four weeks in Harvard on an exchange program. Both cities pieced me back together in their own ways.

Delhi

Delhi,

You gave me back my love. 

You reminded me of the importance of platonic love, how wonderful my friends are, and how they never went anywhere, even when I did. You gave me new friends, some fleeting, some firm. You reminded me that being surrounded by the right people can turn the worst situations into the best stories.

You reinvigorated my love for women. You blessed me with the oasis of Women Only carriages on the metro and working in an office every day where the only male presence was the man who brought the tea. You surrounded me with the whole spectrum of womanhood; women who were CEOs, matriarchs, street vendors; ninety year old farmers who were fitter than me, and young girls deciding what kind of footprint they wanted to leave on the world. You reminded me that, as a woman in most places, it is often the case that to exist is to resist, and existing can be fucking exhausting.

You reminded me of my passion for the causes I believe in. Giving me the time and space to read, to learn from people I was surrounded with and the work that I was doing, you reignited a love that had been dulled by a bubble of self indulgent privilege.

boston

Boston,

I was afraid to visit you, far more than I was to visit Delhi, but you gave me back my courage.

You gave me the courage to step out of my comfort zone and meet new people, and the courage to not try and be someone that I’m not, regardless of whether it might be the easier option.

You gave me the courage to take up space. You reminded me that my opinion is valid and my voice matters, even (and especially) in an institution where it might be an unpopular one. You emboldened me to push back; whether it be against casual racialised remarks designed to make me feel small, or a white lecturer airbrushing history.

I was anxious to write this. I didn’t know where to start because I hadn’t spent my summer thinking about how everything I was doing was Making Me Feel and What Lessons I Was Learning. But sitting down to write this the first thing I mindlessly noted down was “feeling happy”. I have felt happy, and I have felt like me again, and that is enough.

Just Keep Swimming

Two years ago I had the worst summer of my life.

I was suffering from the most intense wave of anxiety I’d ever experienced and it was making it difficult to leave the house for long periods of time. One of the things that helped a lot was swimming.

Swimming didn’t cure my anxiety, that’s an ongoing process which has evolved as I’ve gotten older, but it helped me to gain a sense of control over a body that I felt disconnected from. Like a moving meditation, I used to repeat mantras to myself with each stroke to block out the thoughts and feelings which threatened to overwhelm me.

I heard the voice of my childhood swimming teacher:
Pull-and-breathe, kick-and-glide, pull-and-breathe, kick-and-glide

I replaced it with the words I needed to hear:
I am alive, I am alive, I-am-alive, I-am-alive

I am ok, I am ok, I-am-ok, I-am-ok

This will end, this will end, this-will-end, this-will-end

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I spent the last two summers in Berlin where I was working for my year abroad. I lived in a suburb in the south west, an easy train ride away from large lakes perfect for swimming. I took every opportunity to go, alone or with friends, to feel the cold water and the rhythm of a good swim.

When I moved last summer, I needed that calming feeling again. I needed to feel a sense of control after it felt like someone had pulled the rug out from under my entire life. People talk about how a year abroad is fun and life changing, but they forget it’s also terrifying and settling can take a long time. Swimming gave me the feeling, if only temporarily, that everything was normal again. For a few minutes I could be back at the pool with my mum, thinking about the coffees we were going to have when we got out. Or I could be nowhere at all, zoned out and trying desperately not to think about anything at all.

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This summer I’ve been back to the lakes more times than I can count. I waited all spring for the water to melt and for the temperature to rise enough to make swimming bearable. I am able to swim now just because I love it, rather than to escape my reality.

The lakes surrounding Berlin are deep, formed by glaciers, and as I swim out to the middle I like to think about the massive expanse which has opened up below me. I am floating above a chasm which I will never see the bottom of, made by something so huge and ancient. I sometimes find it hard to see what people find so interesting about pots and vases in museums, but when I am in the middle of the lake, I feel a deep sense of connection to the past. I imagine it is the same feeling they get when they look at objects made by humans long ago. I know that I am just a tiny slice of this lake’s history. I am a passer-by.

I am not a particularly good swimmer, but I love to swim, especially outside. There is something deeply satisfying about the feeling of pushing off into water. It feels like breathing out. There is nothing like the weightless glide and cold shiver of the first dive. I’ve been swimming so long that my movements are automatic and I can let my body take over. For the most part, all that runs through my head is the steady rhythm, pull-and-breathe, kick-and-glide. It is time to myself and to look after my body.

Looking towards the coming year, I want to keep prioritising looking after myself. This year away from Cambridge has been great for my mental health as I’ve taken more time for self-care and self-reflection. I want to keep my focus on my well-being and remember that personal success is more important than academic success. And of course, I’m planning to keep swimming when I can. Because at my worst I still need reminding: I am alive, I am ok, and this will end.

 

Image credit: pics_by_nics