I’d been pondering the consequences of modern self-chronicling when Facebook sent me its rendering of my life in 2014. If Facebook’s Year End Review is any indication, my life boils down to this: adorable dogs, skiing, trail running and mountain biking. Lots of mountain biking.
The scenes that Facebook selected as highlights certainly were fun times, and I wake up every day feeling fortunate to live the beautiful life that I do. I’ve lived through some dark times too, so when when I’m overcome with joy, I stop to cherish the feeling. And after that, I sometimes share it on social media.
As I look over my Facebook feed, I see that this disproportionate sharing of exuberance can create a skewed sense of my life. My posts generally fall into three categories: here’s something I wrote, here’s something I love or holy crap this experience I just had was awesome! After several friends told me how wonderful my life must be, because of all those pictures of me frolicking in the mountains, I started to worry that I was coming across as a show-off or a Chris Trager type. It’s absolutely true that I’m a frequent frolicker, but the things I share in public represent only one dimension of my life. Even the highlights are just a subset, as I seek sanctuary in experiences left ephemeral and unrecorded.
Meanwhile, the internet feeds on extremes. Some people post mundane details of everyday life, but the things that really take off are infuriating, LOL cute or mind-blowingly incredible. While writing this post, I looked up a particular YouTube video, and the next thing I knew, I was deep in the rabbit hole. The clip I was looking for was amazing, but the next one was even more so. Each video upped the ante. The mountain biker dropping off a cliff was cool, but this guy pops a back flip off a crazy jump. What once seemed impossible becomes mundane on the treadmill of escalating awesomeness.
Sure, this can make for incredible cinema, but it’s only a facsimile of the experience. When we focus on the rendering, something essential is lost. There’s a reason most of us don’t film ourselves having sex. Porn is created for the audience, not for the people on screen.
I went to college with Shane McConkey, who became a renowned extreme athlete, starring in films about skiing and base jumping and sometimes combinations of the two. He died in 2009, while filming a stunt off a 2,000 foot cliff. His death was a terrible accident that wasn’t the camera’s fault. Yet I can’t help wondering if the audience’s appetite for ever-more radical and risky feats contributed in some way.
McConkey was a paid performer, but anyone sharing themselves publicly can become swayed by audience demands. The constant camera threatens to transform our lives into performances. The moment you begin composing a tweet or Instagram photo of the thing that’s unfolding is the instant you separate yourself from the here and now. You’re no longer having an experience – you’ve become an actor in your own life.
It doesn’t have to be that way. I’ve taken a ridiculous number of mountain biking photos and what I’ve noticed is that my own impulse to film arises from a desire to share, not to show off. I post all those photos from Crested Butte’s 401 trail, because it feels so good to be alive in those moments that I can’t help singing my euphoria. For a taste of what I’m talking about, take a minute and 56 seconds to watch my favorite mountain bike ride paired with the words of Henry Thoreau.
Thoreau and the 401 trail are awesome, but they’re nothing compared to my all-time favorite YouTube video, which shows a 4-year-old kid riding a mountain bike track with his dad. As he steers his bike down a steep ramp, little Malcolm engages in a some self-talk. “I’m doing it! I did it Dad! I love this!”
The clip has an authenticity that can’t be faked. The glee in Malcolm’s voice captures a magical awakening. We are watching this kid discover his own capabilities in real time. This is the point-of-view camera at its best.
I can imagine Malcom 20 years from now, sitting in an office, stumbling upon that video on whatever YouTube has become by then, and remembering the joy of that day. I hope the video will inspire him to pull his dusty mountain bike out of the garage. Because the video can rekindle his wonder, but it can’t replicate the burn in his muscles or the wind against his face. I want that kid’s older self to pedal his bike out to the woods where there are no cameras watching him. I want him to feel like Evil Knievel and not worry about whether he looks more like Napoleon Dynamite.
This is Christie Aschwanden’s first essay for AJ, and we hope there will be many more. Aschwanden is the lead writer for science at FiveThirtyEight, a health columnist for The Washington Post, and a contributor to Runner’s World and Bicycling. This story first appeared on Last Word on Nothing, a non-commercial collective of science writers where you can find even more engaging thoughts and commentary.