We carefully present our lives on Facebook/Instagram/Twitter and edit certain aspects of it to add a little sparkle, and we occasionally take it a step further by sharing a photo of a stranger’s car as our own. Maybe that’s not you, but you probably know someone who’s been dragged on social media for doing something like that.
But I’m not convinced that showing off with what you don’t have really deserves the scorn heaped on it.
I say that because the apparent deceit we sneer at points to something else: that we turn to these digital tools to complete ourselves because some of us run out of patience waiting for the affluence we’re constantly told will complete us.
As we pull out receipts to expose the trickery, there seems to be a failure to recognise the implications of this impatience or to dig deeper to identify its roots.
We’re expected to transcend the pressures of conspicuous consumption, but we relentlessly relay the message over and over again that you have to be something, carry a title – or at least own something that suggests a title – to be someone.
Then we expect everyone to transcend our materialistic culture, which simply won’t happen as long as we set standards that are beyond the grasp of most South Africans. And the standards will be unattainable for as long as wealth – and thus social esteem – belongs to only a few.
Some express this impatience by shouting Marxist slogans so we can all have nice things, but others simply pose next to a house they wish they owned and post that photo on Instagram for ‘likes’ they otherwise would not have received without the boost of luxury.
People who have never felt the need to project an embellished, even if slightly enhanced, image to the world should perhaps question what it is they already possess that makes the world value them over others who don’t.
Their moral stance presents a case worthy of scrutiny we subject “posers” to, because this particular brand of “authenticity” is as suspicious as wealthy people who are so comfortable in the worth the world accords them that they hardly have to put their riches on display. Have you seen how much admiration billionaires get because they are not blinged up? Why? Because they let us momentarily forget they are hogging an absurd amount of the world’s resources?
We glorify an “authentic” online persona at the cost of understanding why some people are impatient for the world to value them when the material possessions required for that aren’t forthcoming.
Sure, there is a limit to my “understanding” of digital window dressing when, for instance, Robert Mugabe Jr, already rich, has to stunt about being in Italy when he’s merely taking a photo at Montecasino in Fourways (but I do adore Kenyan Sevelyn Gat, who went viral for indulging in her travel fantasies and photoshopping herself on to The Great Wall of China).
But the ease with which I can be an owner of a mansion by simply posting a photo I stole on Google Images is rivalled only by our kneejerk assessment of people according to social class, and how we immediately force them into their assigned lanes.
And if we ever feel tricked by people who flaunt possessions they don’t have, it also means we care immensely about the facts of what they really own (or don’t), and implicitly acknowledge that someone’s net worth matters to us.
All this brings me to another, somewhat similar, matter: do we honestly believe that Walter Sisulu University (WSU) student Sibongile Mani, 27, was prepared to make the “right choice” in a world where, even if two “wrongs” don’t exactly make a right, one dwarfs the other because of our hang-ups with people staying in their lanes?
My impatience is with the inequality that makes it even necessary for us to create side-by-side screenshots to expose photoshopped prosperity, and until the wealth gap is considerably reduced, certain moral judgments against people who flaunt what they don’t have on social media stand on shaky ground.
No one’s self-worth comes entirely from them alone, and so while we rely on a portion of that from the outside, some people – that’s most of us, to be honest – use our agency to reroute the flow of affirmation or maybe to speed it up a bit.
In the meantime, the world could try to sort itself out and find an egalitarian way to value the people in it.