Maya Man Is Escaping The Instagram Identity Crisis
The artist on being perceived and burying her past self online.
At my first job out of college, I engaged in the forbidden and began dating my coworker. We worked at the small and mysterious “creative” arm of a large technology company. Terrified of the gossip it might spur amidst our open office plan, he and I kept it a secret. The classic tactics: different names for each other in our phones, staggered arrivals through the office door, and of course, no posts on Instagram, not even a surreptitious soft launch. At first, this seemed like a necessary precaution. What if everyone found out we were seeing each other just for everyone to find out, weeks later, that we broke up? But even as the relationship became more serious, we kept it classified. In an office culture that boasted a friendly, everyone shares their weekend plans kind of energy, I became aloof, never revealing a single detail about my love life. I desired everyone to see me as a young, promising professional rather than someone else’s 22-year-old girlfriend.
Although we tried to be careful, at times we were sloppy. One weekday morning after spending the night at his apartment, we boarded the C train together. Our gloved hands touched as we gripped the metal pole in the train car, we exchanged remnants of last night’s dreams. “But do you remember if he was someone you actually knew or if he was a stranger?” I asked. Suddenly, his eyes widened. “Jake,” he whispered. I turned around and I see him too, our coworker steps away. We sprang apart. I quickly shuffled to the opposite end of the car and buried myself in a book, unable to actually read anything over the pound of my heart beat. At the next stop, I bolted out, switching to the car ahead. Did he see us? Would he tell? I longed to erase the incident from his mind and my own. We never rode in the same train car to the office again.
This moment of panic stemmed from a fear of being seen–of having precious details of my personal life revealed to a person who I did not wish to grant access to myself so up close. This tension weighed heavily on the early days of our office crush escapades. We barely spoke to each other in the office because it became impossible to act like acquaintances. During every conversation I pictured being my boss and walking by and catching a detail that might make him suspicious. This feeling of being on edge, constantly being watched, was not new to me. Instead, the constant self-surveillance felt tiresome and familiar. It felt just like being a person who posts online.
From an early age, I practiced imagining I was seeing myself from another person’s point of view. I grew up a girl and a dancer, always training for a potential future audience. Being on the internet exacerbated my sense of vigilant self-supervision, a phenomenon TikTok star Quen Blackwell sums up with an offhand comment on The D'Amelio Show: “It’s this third person that’s not existed to any other generation [...] It’s in your head all the time.” For as long as I can remember, I have felt a hyper sense of awareness of who might be watching and what they might be thinking. There was no particular moment when I started to feel this way. Instead, working to always watch myself from an outside perspective feels like a precondition of being inside of my own mind.
Being on Instagram naturally extended this feeling. I could quickly let hundreds and then thousands of people immediately know about a new relationship, success, or experience. Others’ experience of my identity became mine to design. I felt like a god, being able to control people’s perceptions of myself in this way. Like Natasha Stagg’s protagonist in Surveys, who admits, “When I'm on a roll, I feel like I'm DJing the Internet.” It was thrilling, and it was hell.
But as quickly as I could reveal information, I could easily take it away. Contrary to the “everything online is forever” maxim drilled into my mind by my high school auditorium presenters intent on discouraging Snapchat nudes, everything less sensational on the internet is actually highly mutable. Although I could not “command-Z” a slip-up on the C train, I could delete every picture of an ex-boyfriend from my Instagram profile to guard against future followers’ access to my past. When every insignificant, small-talk party conversation ends with an inevitable “Can I get your Instagram?” maintaining a personal profile feels like upkeeping a perpetual first impression–one that constantly demands edits for clarity.
Much has been written about constructing your online persona, but it’s often acknowledged as additive. Cultivating an online presence connotes posting–a loud and proud act. Rarely do we talk about deleting. In contrast, the act of deletion comes from a palace of panic and shame. “this is where I post from” girls on the internet tweet, sharing photos of tall castle towers or forest gardens. Where I “delete from,” in my mind, manifests as an opposing scene. If I had to illustrate, it might look like dark solitary confinement with no screen time restrictions. A place that made it impossible to hide from my self-constructed digital double.
Nothing tells me more about how I have changed than the traces of myself that I have removed. I feel grateful that Instagram introduced the archive feature that allows you to “delete” a post from the public, but preserve access to it for yourself. Deep in my Instagram post archive lives a “destroy the patriarchy not the planet” graphic (too basic), a photo of the Hong Kong skyline from my spring studying abroad (too earnest), a photo of myself riding a bike around Silicon Valley as a software engineering summer intern (too corporate), and countless dance videos (all, at some point, decidedly too imperfect). This graveyard of previous public posts reminds me of my past self, who carefully evaluated each of those images and decided they passed the test at the time before pressing “post.”
As an artist making work about the internet, I now treasure the ability to access digital files I produced throughout various phases of my life. I wish I could go back and tell myself not to wipe every embarrassing teen bedroom PhotoBooth picture I uploaded with my friends to my Facebook. I have lost countless pieces of platform-hosted content to a heated moment of feeling “cringe,” and I wish I could unearth them from the digital ether. Desperation and shame are two of the emotions I am most invested in uncovering in my work, and both hang in the air every time I press delete. I love imagining what secret image someone else has quietly removed. Not something cancelable or overtly inappropriate, but something that no longer aligns with how they wish to appear. Like a once favorite sweater that, when worn now, no longer feels quite right.
Just a few days ago, Merriam-Webster named “authenticity” the Word of the Year for 2023. Authenticity is a concept that I am particularly haunted by and one that I have evolved to disavow. We can upload and redact our little collection of self-representing files as much as we want, but no single state of our online profile ever represents The Truth. Instead, the truest version of ourselves is embedded in the content we let fall through the cracks. Being online is a perpetual dance between who you were, who you want to be, and what you wish to allow others to see. In her book Girl Online, Joanna Walsh writes, “A girl must be somewhere secrets are kept.” Social media is an open office plan. Delete, delete, delete. Some pieces of myself feel safer hidden underneath my desk.
Photography: Anna Koblish
Makeup: Cyler Says
Styling: Megan O'Sullivan, supported by Lindsey Media
Movement Direction: Cyler Says
Photo Assistant: Michael Harrison
Studio: Werk Studios