What I Learned About My Online Persona from An Indian Movie Tweet

This week marked 20 years since the release of Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (#20YearsOfDDLJ). If that doesn't make any sense, think of it like this - it's the desi equivalent of celebrating the 20th anniversary of Return of the Jedi. I posted the following on both Twitter and Facebook.


One reply to the tweet said - "lol. The one person I didn't expect this tweet from 😛"

On Facebook - "im very humored that you shared this haha." I also received a few other comments that degenerated into a video titled 'Punjabi Song by White Guy' being shared but that's a different story.

Ironically, had I posted the trailer to the new Star Wars movie, I don't think I would have gotten these replies. So it got me to thinking - what is it about a person's online persona that makes people expect certain types of posts instead of others?

It is of course no surprise that we carefully craft our online personas to convey a certain image. But where do we draw the limits? In this case, it prompted an internal debate about whether the way I represent myself online is authentic or not. Has it been crafted in such a way that even a tongue in cheek post about DDLJ confuses people?

The funny thing is my wife was confused about the post as well. This is a movie we have watched together so she shouldn't have been that surprised - but she said it just wasn't the kind of thing I normally post online.


What is the Gap Between Our Online and Offline Personas? 

When social media first started becoming prevalent some years back, there was a huge dichotomy between the two. This was due more to the fact that the two lives had not yet merged. People had their "real life" friends and their "online" friends. People rarely represented their real identities online. Everything was posted with screen names. No one ever had their real photo as an avatar.

Our online activities were disconnected with our real life activities. There was no overlap. In fact, it would sometimes be embarrassing if someone in real life uncovered your online identity. It was treated as two completely different spaces and we never wanted the two worlds to collide.


Slowly, over time, the two began to merge. We opened Facebook accounts under our real names. We shifted to email addresses that contained our real names instead of pseudonyms like bhangradancer786@hotmail.com. In short, there was more harmonization between our "real life" and "online" activities.

That harmonization grew to such an extent that everything about our lives was documented and put up online. Consequentially, we learned that this started creating felings of envy in people because everyone's online persona now looked like a highlight reel.

But now it's not just about the highlight reel. Women's magazines have long been criticized for presenting photoshopped models as a false ideal of beauty everyone should aim to achieve. Carefully crafted online personas do the same.

There are 80 million photos posted in Instagram a day. Facebook has 1.49 billion active users per month. Twitter has 316 million active accounts; Tumblr 230 million. Pinterest has 47.66 million unique visitors from the US alone and is the fastest-growing independent site in history.

Increasingly, most of us are living two lives: one online, one off. ...

In 2013, scientists at two German universities monitored 584 Facebook users and found one out of three would feel worse after checking what their friends were up to — especially if those friends had just posted vacation photos.

Even smaller details had the same effect.

“Overall,” wrote the study’s authors, “shared content does not have to be ‘explicitly boastful’ for feelings of envy to emerge. In fact, a lonely user might envy numerous birthday wishes his more sociable peer receives on his Facebook wall. Equally, a friend’s change in the relationship status from ‘single’ to ‘in a relationship’ might cause emotional havoc for someone undergoing a breakup.”

A 2014 survey conducted by the Manhattan-based marketing agency Current found 61 percent of millennial moms were rattled by the pressures of social media.

“There is an anti-social media movement on the horizon,” Current executive Amy Colton told Adweek. “Moms, especially young moms, are feeling pressured to present a perfect life . . . and starting to feel overwhelmed and annoyed.”

“The idea came to me when my little sister, who was 16, wasn’t invited to a school dance,” Steers, 38, tells The Post. “She told me about logging on to Facebook the very next day and seeing all these pictures of her friends at the dance, and that actually made her feel worse than not being invited” (New York Post).

Now the pressure is on to craft your online persona to convey what you want it to convey. You can pick any persona and make your online postings fit it.

The article goes on to mention a new fad of having a rinstagram and a finstagram. The 'r'eal instagram is actually the manufactured one the public sees, while the 'f'ake instagram is the real and unfiltered one shown only to close friends.

The Prophet (s) said,

"One of the most evil of people is the two-faced person who shows one face to these people and another face to those people (Mālik)."

This story of a woman who admitted to running up credit card debt to maintain her online image sums it perfectly.

“I’m one of those girls with a pretty Instagram. It’s not technically my job ... but I pride myself on having an Instagram that is pretty to look at and shows the best parts of my life. I’ve managed to get almost 5,000 followers from beautiful pictures of my city (Miami)...

My “real” life is actually pretty boring. I work as an administrator in the performing arts, which sounds cool (and puts you near a lot of cool things), but in practice is just as boring as most administrative jobs. ... My Instagram is where I have followers I mostly don’t know, who think I live this beautiful, perfect life. And I share all the posts to Facebook where I have almost all people I actually know, and I admit that it gives me a little rush to see that they are seeing this life. My collections of beautiful patterned maxi dresses and bright flowers on my brunch tables make me feel successful, especially when I think about people from high school or whatever looking at them. This is absolutely insane, I know!

... I have come to love Miami, but it’s not my dream city. But I base my internet persona in many ways on being the quintessential Miami girl. I never had a tan really before I came here, now I have deep(ish) olive skin and my formerly-dirty blonde hair is now dark, long, and straight. I admit that I like this version of myself, with little gold bangles around my wrists and ankles, and slightly glowy moisturizer on my chest and shoulders.

This isn’t me, though. My real life is just like anyone else’s, doing the laundry and paying the bills and going grocery shopping. But I get caught up in it sometimes. ... I don’t know if I’m “that girl,” but I am addicted to trying to be her. I stop my friends before they can touch their brunch plates, and I take a million hotdog-leg pictures to make sure I have the perfectly right one. I have a side of my apartment that I photograph, and it’s perfect. The other side is always a mess.

And I buy a lot of things to maintain my image. I pay for meals out, new bikinis (I’ve never photographed the same one twice), beautiful printed dresses nearly once a week, fresh flowers religiously once a week, etc etc etc. I even consider it important to always have a fridge full of La Croix and coconut water for my pictures. Writing this makes me realize just how insane it all is, but the truth is that I already knew. I spend money to make my life look a certain way, and I get a rush from looking that way, but my credit cards do not share my enthusiasm.

Over the past year, I’ve started accumulating a little bit of credit card debt each month, and it gets worse bit bit bit. I reassure myself by saying that this is an investment in something that will come together from the following I’m gathering and the “very small” amount of free stuff/attention I’m getting. Right now I have about 3,400 that I cannot pay on my cards, and I’ve slipped into paying the minimum. And as I’m writing this, I’m eating the sushi I bought on my way home, photographed fifty times, posted, and got 231 likes on so far. I plan on telling my parents about this when I go home next weekend so they can yell at me and force me to stop, because I know they’ll absolutely freak out. I know exactly how stupid what I’m doing is, but I just need someone to tell me, I guess.

That’s my life.

This viral video shows the depths some people go to to project a certain image.


The ultimate question here - as always - boils down to intention. Why do you want to be portrayed a certain way? Who are you hoping to show this version of yourself to? What do you get from doing this?

There are no easy answers to these questions. Oftentimes it also boils down to good ole peer pressure. The same way we were taught in elementary school to say no to the peer pressure of drugs, we have to be aware of the peer pressure put on us about the lives we live.

What Should Be Done? 

The gut reaction is to say we should stop posting all together, but that's not going to happen. Try deactivating all your social accounts and see how long before you reactivate them.

Be authentic. The difficulty here lies in posting something imperfect in a world where everyone else portrays perfection. To be authentic means to create your own safe space online. This might mean increasing the privacy levels on your accounts, or simply blocking people with reckless abandon. It also means that we need to stop taking ourselves and our opinions so seriously all the time.

Stop posting to attract a following. I've heard people say that it was easier to post on Twitter and Facebook when they only had a few followers. Once the numbers increased, so did the entitlement of their followers. Don't let the people following you dictate what you post (especially when they're anonymous strangers). Block them.

Incidentally, I believe this is one reason apps like Snapchat are gaining in popularity. Compared to other networks it is more closed off, and the content is not readily archived. It makes for a safer space to share moments - and without the expectation of perfection.

Lastly, when going through your social feeds, view everything with a personal filter. Realize that no one has a perfect life, and no one has a life as good as what they portray online. When you see it, all you can do is make dua for them.



Takathur, Documenting, and Experiencing


Seeing a dolphin jump out of the water is amazing to see in real life. It's why thousands of families flock to places like Sea World. It's why I took my kids to Sea World as well. As we settled in to watch the show, I looked around and realized something. The kids in the crowd were all sitting in anticipation, waiting to see the dolphins perform these amazing feats. The parents were readying their phones. As the show started, the kids were mesmerized, and the parents were mesmerized by their phones. The kids were ooh'ing and aah'ing, trying to get splashed but not get splashed at the same time. The parents? Pinching, zooming, and adjusting for a better angle as they tried to grab amateur footage of the dolphins and their kids' reactions.

At some point in the past couple of years we have reached a tipping point where we are more concerned with documenting an event than experiencing it. Think about the last wedding you went to, or take a look across the crowd at an important moment at a sporting event. At each moment, there are phones everywhere recording away. In fact, it is impossible to host any kind of Islamic event without getting inundated with requests to record it, post it, and so on.

Harvard Business Review ran an article by Daniel Gulati entitled, "Stop Documenting, Start Experiencing" - this is an article I've come back to dozens of times and quoted in various khutbahs. One of the points raised in the article is that of psychological hoarding which I found incredibly fascinating in light of Surah Takathur.

Gulati contends that we must choose between documenting and experiencing an event. And that with the advent of social media (likes, followers, and so on) and smartphones, that people are now more apt to want to show off the accumulation of what they have 'done' - it's almost as if there is more enjoyment in posting a picture of yourself at Niagara Falls and getting 20 likes than there is to simply stand there and viscerally enjoy it.

Competition in [worldly] increase diverts you, until you visit the graveyeards [Surah Takathur].

This ayah is traditionally understood in regards to wealth, but it has general application. It can be competing with others in status or even kids competing with each other over who has a nicer toy. Social media has enabled a competition of experience. We want to post our highlights and show off what we have done. At a certain point we're sometimes less concerned with how much our kids may be enjoying something as opposed to being able to point at a photo many years down the road and say - "See! You had fun as a kid thanks to me!"

When I went to Disney World as a kid, we stopped and took a few photos, and went about enjoying the park. Now a trip to Disney involves photos at the entrance to every ride, a Vine video while on the ride, and hundreds of photos in between. It's almost as if the vacation is interrupting the photo-ops rather than the other way around.

I've come across a number of articles recently - like this one on Medium - that decry the materialist ambitions of society to seek happiness through things like nicer cars. Their contention is that money should be spent investing on experiences as a means toward true happiness.

We have to stop thinking of experiences as a notch in the belt. Another imaginary internet point. Another highlight for others to like.

True memories aren't made with an Instagram filter. They're made with a sentiment that comes from the emotion of an actual experience. It is those moments that you think about from a long time ago that make you smile.

Have you felt uncomfortable at an event from excessive documenting by others? Have you struggled with it yourself?