Viral When You Cry (On Main)
Posted by <Sarah Chekfa> on 2022-10-15
In her 2003 essay, Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag soliloquizes that “there is beauty in ruins.” In 2007, Sean Kingston releases “Beautiful Girls,” a self-deprecating lament upon the death drive that only the most ravishing of women can accelerate, bemoaning “all these beautiful girls” who “have [him] suicidal.” And “there’s nothing more beautiful than a woman in tears,” Anna Karina muses in Jean-Luc Godard’s 1961 romantic comedy, Une femme est une femme.
Crying is an exclusively human experience, a “natural response” to a spectrum of emotion, “from deep sadness and grief to extreme happiness and joy.” In the context of the recently trending crying selfie, the underlying emotion almost always alludes to the former. The phenomenon itself seems to be less than a decade old: in 2013, a particularly prophetic Thought Catalog opinion titled, “8 Photos You Don’t See on Instagram (But Probably Should)” ranked “Crying Selfie” as number 1: “We’ve all seen Lying on the Beach Selfie, Sexy Pouty Face Selfie and I’m Still in Bed But Somehow I Look Pretty Selfie, but what about the other moments you might not rush to share?...Crying Selfie…shows us that life isn’t all sexy pouts and sunglasses.”
A year later, in 2014, both the #Girlboss and the Sad Girl were born. The former: a neologism brought into vogue by Sophia Amoruso—founder of the fast fashion retailer Nasty Gal, in her 2014 autobiography #Girlboss—a term alluding to a woman “whose success is defined in opposition to the masculine business world in which she swims upstream.” The latter: an aesthetic manifesting largely on Tumblr, prominently associated with Lana del Rey, the crooning songstress who in June of that year released the songs Sad Girl and Pretty When You Cry on her album Ultraviolence—Audrey Wollen’s “Sad Girl Theory,” through which she theorizes upon “a whole generation of girls who endlessly repeat their own image” (see figure 1, attached)—Melissa Broder’s Twitter account @sosadtoday, through which she tweets laconic demoralizers such as “full of emptiness but it’s fine” and “oops, followed my heart” —and Effy Stonem, femme fatale of the U.K. television series Skins (see figure 2, attached):
Just two years later, in 2015, the “finsta” appeared, perhaps a subliminal retreat from the blinding glare of the stock ticker that so mesmerized the #Girlboss, into the comforting recesses of selective anonymity where the Sad Girl could feel safer. A portmanteau of the words “fake” and “Insta(gram),” in which crying selfies were commonplace (I can attest to that, from personal experience), the “finsta” was defined in Urban Dictionary, signifying the approximate emergence of the phenomenon in which, according to user rantmonster2319, “people post what they are too afraid to post on the[ir] real account.” “Usually a girl has a finsta and boys arent supposed to follow it,” user thewizardofwords corroborates (interestingly enough, this observation parallels the finding that women cry more than men). One study describes finstas as “intimate reconfigurations,” “at the intersection of the Instagram platform as technological artifact and users’ socially constructed expectations, norms, and values. In creating finsta, users have carved out smaller, more intimate spaces within a larger sociotechnical system to express an alternative self with a trusted group of close friends.”
The entrance of crying into the canon of the selfie tells us that we have succeeded in performing on the social media platform two of the basic oppositional emotions established by psychologist Paul Eckman in the 1970s as universally experienced throughout human culture: happiness, through the archetypical selfie—in 2017, Allure Magazine listed “smil[ing] like you mean it” as one of the top 5 tips on how to take a good selfie (interestingly enough, just one year after GQ reported on Hillary Clinton being criticized for smiling too much in the presidential debate, when, they point out, “she has spent much of her professional career being unfairly criticized for not smiling”)—and sadness, through crying selfies. An allegedly neutral middle ground is exemplified by the “dissociative pout,” a phenomenon that TikTok critic Rayne Fisher-Quann compares to the now-anachronistic duckface, caveating that it still “hasn’t left behind the material objectives of the self-conscious [duckface that came] before it,” realizing them instead via a superficial posturing of detached indifference.
The crying selfie continues to uphold this self-consciousness, perhaps even elevating it: to cry is to emote organically, to indulge in a languageless articulation of authentic sentiment in an age where, at least for Gen Z—the generation behind BeReal and the photo dump— “authenticity is the most important value.” “I'm frightened of real tears. In fact, I don't even know whether I've got the right to photograph them…That's the main reason why I escaped from documentaries,” Polish film director Krzysztof Kieślowski admits. Yet the authenticity inherent to “real tears” is antithetical to the inauthenticity inherent to the selfie. By definition, selfies are necessarily premeditated images wherein candidness is impossible: by donning the historically mutually exclusive roles of both photographer and subject, you capture an iteration of yourself on your own terms. Some academics view the act as “feminist,” a woman’s means of exacting agency by subverting the male gaze that has traditionally framed the female subject throughout history, supplanting it with “the female gaze,” a term coined in 1995 by theorist-artist Bracha L. Ettinger that has since been used to describe everything from the “dreamy, hyper-feminine aesthetic” of photographer Petra Collins to the ab-laden 2012 comedy-drama Magic Mike. This perspective challenges mainstream interpretations of the selfie, in which women who commit them are viewed as largely one-dimensional, a perspective reified by The Chainsmokers’ 2014 breakthrough song, #SELFIE, in which two women primping in a club bathroom seem to be intentionally portrayed as helplessly vapid (“Can you guys help me pick a filter? / I don't know if I should go with XX Pro or Valencia / I wanna look tan / What should my caption be? / I want it to be clever”), obsessively attention-seeking (“I only got 10 likes in the last 5 minutes / Do you think I should take it down?”), and perpetually vain (“But first, / Let me take another selfie”).
In 2010, a professor of cognitive psychology writing for the Harvard Business Review denounced multi-tasking, stating that it “does not exist, at least not as we think about it. We instead switch tasks. Our brain chooses which information to process.” This further calls into question the authenticity of the crying selfie, for it suggests that taking a selfie of yourself crying is actually impossible. At the very least for the duration of the time spent whipping out your phone, opening up the camera, angling it overtly towards your face, and snapping the photo, you are not focused on crying, but rather picture-taking. It is not that the crying itself was necessarily inauthentic. But the ease by which the brain substitutes the task of emotional expression and processing for that of the capture of a vestige of a private moment for an absent audience is concerning, suggesting that posturing the fact that you have suffered to the faceless masses is more desirable than privately deconstructing the reasons that led you to that place of suffering. Instead of searching for a shoulder to cry on, you search for a camera to cry for.
Last November, the crying selfie attained cultural climax when supermodel Bella Hadid posted a series of selfies of herself crying (see figure 3, attached). In the caption, she wrote that “This is pretty much my everyday , every night…For a few years now…Social media is not real…Sometimes all you’ve gotta hear is that you’re not alone. So from me to you, you’re not alone…Not sure why but it feels harder and harder to not share my truth on here.” Two months later, in an interview with WSJ Magazine, Hadid explained the photographs’ backstory: “I would have really depressive episodes and my mom or my doctor would ask how I was and instead of having to respond in text, I would just send them a photo…it was the easiest thing for me to do at the time because I was never able to explain how I was feeling.”
Hadid taps into a sentiment that Tom Lutz explores further in his 1999 book Crying: The Natural & Cultural History of Tears. “Tears are a kind of language, a primary, and often primal, form of communication...even those tears we cry when we are alone often have an imagined audience.” In the case of the crying selfie, the imagined audience comprises the totality of the photographer-subject’s followers, who are invited to witness the performance only after it has concluded. “Tears demand a reaction,” continues Lutz. “Our reactions to other people's tears are to some extent improvised." In the courtroom, tears of defendants are dismissed as crocodile tears, fake tears “met with much disapproval and adverse reactions.” Hadid received over two million likes on her post. While a “like” in this context ostensibly conveys support, there is a perverse disconnect in this connotation—it is disconcerting to witness the same “reaction” used to engage with Hadid’s crying selfie also used to engage with a photo of your best friend’s adorable new kitten, a stale Adam Levine meme, and the New York Times’ announcement that Roe v. Wade has been overturned (Facebook moved towards covering more of these emotional bases with Facebook Reactions in 2016, but Instagram and TikTok have not). And surveying the thousands of comments Hadid received on Instagram, a few stand out—I can’t help but imagine how I would feel if someone reacted to my crying IRL with “needed this sm” or “air signs are so sensitive too... I hear u.” In 1958, in The Undiscovered Self, psychoanalyst Carl Jung wrote that “the bigger the crowd, the more negligible the individual becomes.” A 2011 study in the Journal of Research in Personality appears to conclude that people are more likely to feel better if they cry alone or around one other person such as a close friend, and worse, or the same, if they do so around two or more people. When it comes to inadvertent exhibitions of incontrovertible vulnerability, there is danger in the numbers that an imagined digital audience portends.
Yet, somehow, practitioners of this mode of image-making swear by it:
Social presence theory may help explain why we are more confident online than in person, especially during the pandemic: 93% of communication is nonverbal, so our inability to access those cues online might be lowering our guard—so much so that we’ve become desensitized to crying online, even though crying IRL to that same collective audience might prove nauseating. “yes i like taking selfie after i cry. who cares,” influencer Emma Chamberlain captions a post-cry selfie, feigning nonchalance (see figure 5, attached). So the screen serves as a mediator between the subject of the crying selfie and her audience. For all our talk of privacy and surveillance capitalism, we conveniently forget to consider the ways in which we are inclined to open ourselves up to being surveilled by each other.
Hadid’s insistence that “social media is not real” in her Instagram caption is reminiscent of another time wherein we witnessed the ironic “sharing [of] a message through the very medium [we were being] warn[ed] against,” back in 2019, when model and influencer types such as Gigi Hadid, Hailey Bieber, Madison Beer, and Kaia Gerber began sporting a transparent phone case emblazoned with the words “Social media seriously harms your mental health.” Yet rather than accepting their posturing as “subversive,” Slate Magazine suggests that the cases are evidence of Instagram’s ability to “mutate to accommodate…skepticism.” The crying selfie is further evidence of the fact, beyond a reasonable doubt. For yes, those who post them may be sincerely aware of the expressions of inauthenticity that abound on the platform—they may be attempting to trick the system, to test its boundaries to determine how they might co-opt the underlying infrastructure—and they may naïvely believe they have succeeded in doing so.
Yet considering Susan Sontag’s collection of essays, On Photography, reveals the fallacy of that belief. Sontag suggests that “a photograph is not just the result of an encounter between an event and a photographer; picture-taking is an event in itself, and one with ever more peremptory rights.” I extend her theory to posting: to designate picture-taking as activity necessitates the designation of posting as such. Deciding to post necessarily must be followed by deciding what to post (Hadid herself mentions that her crying selfies were “part of a whole collection of her darker moments over the past three years”), when to post it, and what to caption it. The distinct tiers of decision-making involved make it impossible to post nonchalantly. The user interface forces you to confront yourself repeatedly via the multiple nested levers it presents you with, demanding at the very least your stunted self-awareness in exchange for validation.
If, as Sontag, posits, “to photograph someone is a subliminal murder,” then to photograph yourself is conscious suicide. And if to photograph someone is “to interfere with, to invade, or to ignore whatever is going on,” then photographing yourself crying is to interfere with the organic expression of the feelings that fester within you, to invade the sanctity of the solitude required to process your own suffering, and to ignore the message your subconscious is attempting to communicate to you regarding that suffering (preventing you from arriving at a “new understanding of the situation that led [you] to cry in the first place,” a phenomenon proven to make you feel better post-cry). So perhaps to post a photograph of yourself photographing yourself crying is to live-stream your own suicide and voyeuristically tune in to the online aftermath from the depths of purgatory.
Instagram’s release of the Close Friends feature at the end of 2018 was seen by some as an attempt to quell the creation of the finstas that cultivated the crying selfie in its infancy. In a press release, Instagram acknowledged that while they have created a place “to express yourself and share everyday moments…[the] community has grown and sometimes what you want to share isn’t for everyone. With Close Friends, you have the flexibility to share more personal moments with a smaller group that you choose.” In a comment for i-D Magazine, an individual by the name of H alludes to one of the reasons the feature may be resonating with users, explaining the “weird” feeling of “‘having loads of people [see] your stories but…only one or two…send you a message; it feels a bit like people are skipping past your life…When I use my close friends list, more people engage with me. I think there’s an element of ‘This person considers me close enough to witness this stuff so I feel comfortable enough to comment.’”
Posting to your story is one thing, but posting to “the grid” is another: there is no way to know who has actually seen your post unless they like or comment. “We are entering the age of the infinite examination and of compulsory objectification,” philosopher Michel Foucault declared in his 1975 book, Discipline and Punish. Posting crying selfies on main may resuscitate the “weird” feeling H had of “having loads of people” see their story, but only a couple respond. Even if they simply haven’t seen the selfie yet—Instagram, particularly, is notorious for playing around with the logic of the algorithm populating their feed —the feeling of “people…skipping past your life” is almost inevitable when you’ve trained yourself—or rather, covertly been trained by the platform-as-panopticon—to feel “constantly seen.” “Visibility is a trap,” Foucault suggests.
There is nothing wrong with reassuring people that they’re not alone. But to bestow upon your followers a selfie of yourself crying as verification of the fact, via the ill-conceived notion that they need to witness you crying to accept this, and to understand that you have felt the same way—that somehow, the feeling of alone-ness is effectively dismantled upon witnessing another’s submission to tears—feels uncanny. “Photographs furnish evidence. Something we hear about, but doubt, seems proven when we’re shown a photograph of it,” Sontag opines. What makes so many doubt that, because they are not provided photographic evidence of someone crying, that they never experience pain? Object permanence—the idea that things can still exist, even when you can’t see or hear them—is an understanding that babies acquire at the age of eight months. And if the religious can find a way to believe in a just God in defiance of our destabilized world, surely we can find a way to accept the capacity for sadness as an unconditional figuration of the human experience.
Further evidence of the inauthenticity of the crying selfie and the aforecited mutability of the social media platform manifests when one considers the way the crying selfie has been monetized, or rather, weaponized: Connor Blakley, the founder of Youthlogic, a marketing agency that helps brands connect with Gen Z, says the crying selfie interests brands because if an “influencer can be that vulnerable with their audience, then they will have an easier time selling a brand’s products. ‘That’s how you create real fans…if someone is doing that, odds are they have real relationships with their fans in an era of fake followers and engagement and all of that bullshit.’ When a group of people sees you crying, it’s embarrassing. When you tell a group of people you cried, it’s empowering.” A case study of the ability of tear ducts to move product was reported by the New York Times in 2021 on #BookTok, a subcommunity on TikTok centered on literature. Creators are “unafraid to be open and emotional about the books that make them cry and sob or scream or become so angry they throw it across the room, and it becomes this very emotional 45-second video that people immediately connect with,” says Shannon DeVito, director of books at Barnes & Noble. “We haven’t seen these types of crazy sales — I mean tens of thousands of copies a month — with other social media formats.” Publishers now pay these TikTokers to create videos and send them free books to post about before they hit the market.
If history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce, then perhaps farce arrived here in two parts. In May of this year, a crying filter originating on Snapchat went viral, accruing over 1 billion engagements and eventually making its way to TikTok and Instagram. “Nearly overnight, the hottest new look on social media became an extremely exaggerated look of emotion,” Bustle reported (see figure 6, attached). While the debasement of raw human emotion into intentionally memetic virality does not shock, the hyperextremetization in the form of a filter is ironic, for it reveals the crying selfie for what it is: a performance (“It’s actually really nice crying on stage. I always know it’s coming,” FKA twigs once remarked.) A month later, a CEO fired two employees and posted a crying selfie on LinkedIn, saying it was the “toughest thing” he’s ever had to do (see figure 7, attached). Naturally, he was mocked as “out of touch” and “cringe-worthy.” Aren’t we all?