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Living IRL with the imagined audience

By Pia Araneta

Featured in our fall 2019 issue

My phone is a second set of eyes. It sees mostly everything: the picturesque, Instagrammable moments, the stressful, late-night study sessions, and my face—a lot of my face. If I see anything even remotely interesting, I’m recording it on my iPhone. My boyfriend cooking me pad thai? Great. A guy who can’t parallel park? Sweet. A latte with some art? Gold, gold, and 


My reality transcends into my phone screen, flies upwards into oblivion and into the iCloud, and returns momentarily onto the screens of others—my friends, my audience, my validators. Giddy and gleaming, my friends become a reaffirming list of notifications stacked one on top of the other—a standing ovation for sharing such content. #blessed

The term “imaginary audience” refers to unconscious feelings that an individual might have of being watched and listened to eagerly, as though they are at the focus of other people’s attention. Psychologist David Elkind coined the term in 1967, characterizing it as an egotistical state that is mostly experienced in adolescence. But with iPhones and Instagram and the online constant “connectivity,” are we still imagining these audiences?  Have they been given life, named “friends” and “followers”? 

As I snap a perfectly angled photo of my eggs benedict at the breakfast spot I found on Instagram, I wonder to what extent I’ve done the things I’ve done ‘for the gram.’ With the ability to share and document everything I’ve experienced, I wonder if I ever truly feel alone anymore (the new, quasi-existential dread). For example, when I sit down to write creatively, I have difficulty constructing my sentences without thinking about the audience that might later be reading it. I’m no longer writing—I’m “creating content.” I mean for god sakes, my diary even has a disclaimer written inside in the event anyone ever finds it and decides to read it (and if you do, please let me know if it has any literary merit). 

Are we living IRL with the “imagined audience”?

Friends, followers, communities, fan-bases...the imagined audience can wield many forms. With enough audience engagement and interaction, perhaps you will even climb into the VIP section into someone’s finsta (fake Instagram account). And of course, nothing beats the exclusive dopamine rush of seeing the bright, green ring lining a friend’s profile at the top of your feed—a story shared for close friends. 

For 24-year-old fashion influencer, Natalie Alysa, she says she sometimes feels conscious of an audience when doing mundane things in public, wondering if a passerby may have seen photos she posted online. 

“Having a following here in Toronto, sometimes I question whether someone who follows me is in the same room,” Alysa says.“That feeling is a little weird to me at times, but also really cool.”

Alysa, a Ryerson University business graduate, began her career by posting her outfits on Instagram—a platform she regarded as a fun form of self-expression. With over 31K followers today, posting on instagram has become her full-time job, including getting paid to wear and promote brands. Social media had opened up new possibilities for Alysa, such as designing her own fashion label set to launch in January, as well as connecting her to an online community that wouldn’t have been possible without the platform. 

“I feel like those who follow me are ultimately my friends who also really love fashion and street-style,” Alysa says. “We’re a community.”

Although Alysa says there are anxiety and mental health issues that stem from social media platforms, she notes that creativity and community remind her what’s great about it. 

“It’s actually helped me find my true identity,” she says, adding that the perception that influencers are living “fake” lives can be unfair because she feels like her content represents her authentic self. “I feel like the line is so blurred as to where social media starts and ends for me since I am essentially sharing my real daily life.”

The algorithm of authenticity 

In an essay Tavi Gevinson wrote for New York Magazine titled “Who would I be without Instagram?” the writer, actress and founder of Rookie Mag pens her relationship with the social media platform, comparing it to a black hole. 

“Who would I be without Instagram?” she writes. “The fact that it’s impossible to parse its exact influence on me indicates that it runs deep. I can try to imagine an alternate universe where I’ve always roamed free and Instagram-less in pastures untouched by algorithm. But I can’t imagine who that person is inside.” 

Gevinson writes about the distrust Instagram created within herself, questioning the intentions of her posts—were they pure? Were they authentic? 

Authenticity is essentially what we all strive for when creating our own identity, our own brand. And that’s what our social media profiles have become—a representation of our own personal brands.

In our Western, neoliberalist culture, we are now expected to market ourselves not only as qualified individuals, but as well-versed, well-travelled and well-informed beings who have quantifiable personalities in the form of posts, likes and followers. “Hire me,” my bio reads. 

Gevinson posted a series of videos in March that she captioned: #myalgorithmjourney. She walked around Times Square in a humorous attempt to find Instagram’s algorithm—or what content would do best/show up on a person’s feed, theorizing the algorithm favoured pictures of faces over text. After posting these videos, she was invited to learn about the algorithm at Instagram’s office, where she was told by employees that users craved more candid, less polished photos over aspirational ones (which used to perform better). People wanted more authenticity. 

The existence of algorithms means that social networking sites, to an extent, curate our audiences. This begs the question of how one post is prioritized over another. How does an algorithm define authenticity? If I post one photo wearing lip-stick and glitter, is it ingenuine in comparison to a video of me shaving my armpits? 

To me, my @ is an extension of myself, another addition to the many personalities and realities I’ve created with each handle. And different versions of ourselves exist online, just as much as they do IRL. Twitter Pia wouldn’t show up to a business meeting just as LinkedIn Pia wouldn’t be dancing on the street at 4 a.m. Filters exist both online and offline. 

Instagram and Identity

Instagram and social media have helped me make sense of my own authenticity and identity. When I scroll down my feed, I can see the time capsule I’ve built for myself. I compare myself to the girl in the photo and I can reaffirm growth and change by our different circumstances and timelines. And though I like to look back and document this growth, this game of comparison can undoubtedly be the root of many mental health issues that stem from users who have #subscribed to our scrolling culture. Comparing one curated life to another becomes a vicious cycle, all pitted by the praises of our imagined audiences. 

For Rachel Becker, a second-year environment and urban sustainability student at Ryerson, having Instagram became more stressful than beneficial.

“Feeling that you have to have an audience for your life… it really takes you out of the moment of things,” Becker says. “Like, if you’re at a show or at an event, it's really hard to feel present and engaged in what you’re doing if you’re also thinking you have to be recording it.” 

Becker deleted her Instagram for numerous reasons, such as time consumption, the negative effects on her self-esteem, and an addictive personality that she says would lead her to over-using the app. After deleting it, she felt a sense of relief, but what also grew was a feeling of disconnect and FOMO (fear of missing out). 

“I definitely think it can be beneficial,” Becker says. “I just don’t have it because I don’t use it in a healthy way.” 

A 2019 study published by the Journal of the American Medical Association found that adolescents who spend more than three hours per day on social media may be at heightened risk for mental health problems. Although this comes as no surprise considering the complexity of online environments that includes cyberbullying, internet addiction and unrealistic beauty standards, the reality is that social media has become intrinsically woven into our lives. Some consider it a part of their identity. I myself am terrified to utilize the “screen time” feature on my iPhone—the update that forced me to look into my own soul, which probably looks something like the matrix, or all the boxes I’ve selected that have images of cars in them. I am not a Robot. Check. 

Becker said that she will probably get Instagram again one day, perhaps to display some of her artwork. But only if she maintains a controllable attitude towards the app. 

“You can curate a little piece of your identity through it,” Becker says, adding that it’s good to consider your identity and how you want people to view you, as long as the compulsion doesn’t become obsessive. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it being curated… Art is curated.” 

Despite the personal brand model that retains authenticity as a cement statue, we ourselves, skin, bones and IRL, are personalities that are not confined within the 1080px by 1080px dimensions of our Insta-posts. We are malleable and constantly changing. Maybe our profiles will grow with us. 

I peer behind the red curtains and watch the crowd fill from behind the stage. As the lights dim, I crop a video’s length to the one minute limit Instagram allows for one post. I hit send. The audience feels a collective vibration from their pockets. 

It’s a video of my cat in a burrito costume. 

And they love it. 


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