As someone who is almost constantly traveling through busy streets and subway cars on a day-to-day basis, I always make a mental note of the people around me. Noting what they’re wearing and what they look like, I am the type of person who enjoys people watching. Within these crowds of commuters, I see people around my age, the majority of them occupied with their phones. I use social media a lot myself, so it comes as no surprise to see hoards of Gen Z-ers and millennials scrolling mindlessly through Instagram and Twitter, or watching videos on YouTube and other streaming platforms.
The pandemic has shifted people’s perspectives on social media in paradoxical ways, particularly younger generations who are more prevalent on these platforms. It encourages more intentional, nostalgic content on platforms like Instagram, while simultaneously pushing for more trendy content to cater to audiences on outlets such as YouTube. People want relatable content, which relieves creators of stress to capture the perfect photo. But in terms of video content, this is a more difficult standard to achieve, as it also must be fabricated for trends, such as the “that girl” morning routine, which depicts a strict schedule of an early wake-up time, a workout, mindfulness practice, and a healthy breakfast. Social media has taken a turning point and the last year and a half has changed our perspectives on how we use it.
The pressure of catering to an audience with flawlessly Facetuned photos is out of date, as people now have opportunities to explore themselves in deeper ways with all of this time spent in isolation. This also corresponds to ideas such as the “cottagecore” aesthetic, which emphasizes living nonchalantly among nature and finding purpose in everyday life as opposed to being bound to standard work schedules. On the other hand, people also begin to see spaces like YouTube as a chance for financial prosperity instead of a mere hobby or a way to express their creativity.
Capitalistic structures and goals have simultaneously become more and less important, and this contradictory shift is due to the pandemic. People are more motivated to find side-hustles, yet at the same time, many are discovering that money is not their top priority anymore, as love and care take the spotlight. The economy, particularly in America, has been suffering and people have been radicalized to understand that they are being paid unfair wages, to name an example of why a side-hustle would even be necessary. In addition, the philosophy of self-care has become more popular, thus people want to prioritize their well-being as opposed to just being cogs in the machine of their workplace. It is hard to imagine that these two ideas can co-exist, but the concept of functioning independently without a conventional job is what makes it work.
Circling back to YouTube, there was a big boost in the early 2010s where people experimented and began broadcasting their lives for views and monetary gain. More modern uses of the platform have been to inspire and educate people in addition to these “day in the life” type of vlogs. An example of a YouTuber who balances both of these concepts is Amanda Maryanna. She has shown pieces of her life as a college student in videos like “trying to cure my phone addiction (a digital detox)”, and social commentary, such as her video, “the instagram infographic industrial complex.” She uses her platform as a thought-provoking activist and simultaneously to express herself in a casual and fun manner.
I feel it is also important to note that while money provides a sense of security for people, we have been focused on finding a better balance between our jobs and harnessing our creative passions. The monetization of these passions, such as selling artwork or being a YouTuber full time, is a paradox in itself as well because while we now have more outlets for creative freedom, we also have to consider the practicality of making money for survival.
Conventional jobs, especially in-person positions, now bring a sense of discomfort now that people have adapted to working from home and found new outlets and side-hustles.
NBC reported earlier this year that, “49 percent of adults feel uneasy about returning to in-person interactions once the pandemic is over. Vaccination status did not affect that: 48 percent of those who have already been vaccinated say they, too, feel uncomfortable with in-person interactions.”
But what does this have to do with social media? People are looking for new ways to work from home and generate an income in an independent way without risking their safety. YouTuber Kaiti Yoo released a video this past January about how she was able to gain over 100K subscribers in her first six months on the platform. Personally, as someone who also has aspirations to grow their own platform, I enjoy videos like these to see how people can become successful content creators. However, it is also revelatory of how YouTube’s purpose has evolved and now caters to young go-getters trying to make a living outside of structural systems of employment. YouTube used to be a place where people solely posted content like Vines and other purely funny and entertaining content as opposed to well-thought-out video essays and vlogs.
Instagram, however, appears to be taking a different course of action. Aesthetically pleasing feeds and trends are no longer as favored as candids and raw footage full of memories and smiles which have been hard to find in the last year and a half. “Photo dumping” is a way to channel this relaxed energy–this is when people post “random” photos of a certain time period or day to commemorate their joy. These photos can be blurry or underexposed or, aesthetically speaking, flawed in some way based on previous Instagram trends. However, it is their character and the nostalgia they evoke which grabs our attention as we scroll through our feeds. Ashley, a.k.a. Best Dressed, a popular YouTuber and social media personality, has given us content in this style recently, with her post from June 27th, depicting her from multiple angles, each photo blurrier than the last. She comes off as carefree and relatable, especially with the caption: “you can feel me getting more drunk in every pic lmao.” Many other people have taken on this trend as well, with photo dumps featuring flics from their past semester or year of college. These images serve us comfort and the knowledge that we can still have fun and live somewhat normal lives, even under the circumstances of the pandemic.
Aside from yearning for independence and individuality as a result of the pandemic, people are also in need of reminders that better times always provide a shoulder to lean on. Seeing people happy and with their friends on my feed, even with the most unflattering and candid photos, always made me feel refreshed–I had reassurance that there was still goodness out there even during the pain.
Overall, it appears that social media during this time of crisis has brought out our independent spirits and our need for expression in new and innovative ways. It’s interesting how YouTube is thought to be a serious undertaking as opposed to Instagram, which is changing toward a more casual and fun environment for posting. Both are valid, and I commend anyone who actively creates video content and/or posts pictures that make them happy. Contentment is the bridge between these two purposes, and maybe it took a turn for the worse to bring out our values and a new form of creative expression. The missing piece is this paradox of how social media dictates how we use the respective platforms, as they simultaneously encourage pursuing a side-hustle while also creating an open space for sharing.
The question to answer is: are we still catering to capitalistic structures by using creative outlets online, or are we breaking free from the system by following our passions?
About the Author
Lola is a Latin American student based in New York City attending Smith College who loves to write about a variety of subjects. You can find their work in The Sophian, which is Smith’s newspaper, and Citrus, Smith’s fashion magazine. She loves to read as well, and currently loves memoirs like Broken by Jenny Lawson and Hunger by Roxane Gay. They are passionate about art history too, and are pursuing a bachelor’s degree double majoring in english and art history. She loves hugs, early mornings, YouTube binges, and fruit salads. Someday they want to publish their own book and you can always find them wandering around a museum in the city.