To Be Young and Online

Sarah Shun-lien Bynum’s Likes captures the nuances of an 11-year-old girl’s emotions when posting on social media.

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In the title story of Sarah Shun-lien Bynum’s collection, Likes, Ivy, a sixth-grade student, struggles with a sudden, intense awareness of the space she takes up in the world and the anxiety that comes with this awareness. “You’re making me feel like I talk too much!” she whisper-shouts to her father at one point. “Do you think I cry too much?” she asks him at another.

The story is told from the perspective of Ivy’s father, who, in a sweet but futile effort to understand his daughter better, closely monitors her Instagram feed, dissecting each curated, pink-toned post. It’s the kind of cautious surveillance to be expected from a parent whose child is new to the internet, but it’s also his deeply personal attempt to translate and understand whatever his daughter is trying to communicate to her broader, more public audience. Although Ivy is often silent with her father, the reader perceives through bits of dialogue how jarring it is for her to find and use her own voice with her fellow tweens. The story builds on the irony that she can project this tentative, uncertain voice further than ever before with the help of social media. This is also an irony that we—especially the “we” who are timid young women on the internet—have learned to accept in our real lives.

It’s odd, in youth, to find your social life abruptly reoriented by pixels on a screen. Instagram, the app Ivy posts to throughout the story, came out in 2010, the same year I started middle school. I built an account poolside after my last day of seventh grade and set my birthday and a preferred nickname as my handle. Thrilled with all the connections at my fingertips, I posted two photos in succession. Immediately, the friend who’d supervised my account construction chastised me for disobeying unspoken etiquette and posting too frequently. I had a new set of rules to learn in order to correctly interact with my peers, as well as a larger audience, eager to share their approval—or lack thereof—through likes.

Over the next few weeks, I filtered and shared selfies and pictures I’d taken of inspirational quotes and pretty views. These were the breadcrumbs I left my hundreds of followers to convince them that I was happy, active, inspired. I fought with my parents about whether it was appropriate for me to post a photo of myself in a bathing suit. And I expanded and constricted my social circles (and my trust in friends) based on who was hanging out with whom on Instagram. The app, directed at young people before there was Snapchat or TikTok, made us feel more connected, yet, paradoxically, also more sharply alone, often accidental witnesses to our own social exclusion. (Meta—that is, Facebook—which owns Instagram, knew that the app was detrimental to the mental health of teenage girls long before the Wall Street Journal reported on it last year.)

These are the dynamics to which Ivy, at 11, is attuned: the nuances of conversations that turn into deep insults, a friend group that reorganizes itself and leaves a member behind. Seeing friends hanging out without you on social media is particularly biting because it feels careless, and the lack of care, the lack of friendship, is made public. The readers of Bynum’s short story aren’t privy to the interactions—digital and real-life—that upset Ivy, at least not in detail. Instead, they’re made intimate with her reactions and how those reactions affect her parents, the people closest to her.

Bynum adroitly portrays volatile, complicated, dangerous emotions, attending especially to those that women and girls feel. Our young friends are our first partners, the first relationships we build that feel as though they belong to us. Screens and social media apps—social networks, as they’re called—are created to mimic our desire to be included as well as our desire to be affirmed, to be “liked.” Implicit in “Likes” is the understanding that anxieties around self-construction are deepened on social media partly because the personal and the political are calibrated according to the same standard. In an eerie moment, Ivy, after the results of the 2016 election are announced, posts “not a photo of a black square but a photo of total blackness. As if the camera had misfired, or the film had been accidentally exposed.” Though “Likes” was first published before the summer of 2020, the square now reminds us of a specific social media moment, when Instagram users shared images of black screens to express their support for the Black Lives Matter movement. Intended as a show of solidarity, the posts were criticized for burying resources under performative activism.

In “Likes,” however, the black square indicates Ivy’s political compass, forming slowly and sharply, pointed in the same direction as her parents’. The grief expressed by stark blackness contrasts with the brightness of her usual salmon-toned aesthetic. It’s an unequivocal public statement: I am upset. Political loss, then, elicits the same reaction—tears, fear—as mean girls at school do. For all the careful, if mysterious, descriptions that readers receive of Ivy’s posts, as observed by her father, the story includes almost no details about what she sees on her feed and her digital response to it. Her performed happiness in posts doesn’t match the genuine sadness that she expresses to her father, especially when it comes to her friends.

Perhaps today, when children grow up with Instagram and Snapchat and TikTok and whichever other apps transition into fashion, navigating these dynamics is not as jarring and new as it was when I was a preteen. But as girls and young women gain greater power to communicate their views to others, they also face the overwhelming power of the internet to show them all the ways they do so incorrectly, to weaponize their gender and the details they share. Early threats of exclusion make ugly transitions into nonconsensual sexualization or targeted harassment, which disproportionately affects the lives and livelihoods of women of color. Your beliefs, your self, can be thrown back at you by strangers just as you’re defining them. It’s enough to make anyone question their voice. •

Join us on January 20 at 5 p.m., when Bynum will be in conversation with CBC host John Freeman and a special guest. In the meantime, visit the Alta Clubhouse to discuss Likes with your fellow California Book Club members.

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