A few weeks ago, I was scrolling through the Instagram account of a beautiful young woman I know, and something strange caught my eye. The photos of this smiling blonde — being kissed by a young man, holding hands by the sea, exploring a new city together — had been re-captioned with wry wit. The caption last month read something like, “Love this guy!” and now it states, “Before I knew he was a #jerk.” Instead of “So in love!” during this outing last season, now “Why did I let him kiss my face? #cheater” is in its place.
The captions used to reflect a real or portrayed love, and now it reflects a fresh breakup. This young woman had been betrayed and rather than completely remove the photographs, she was able to subtly document her personal metamorphosis on her account. What I witnessed was something incredibly powerful and cathartic happening in the captions of some of her photos.
As social media gives us the opportunity to document and share our lives in an intimate and immediate way, it also chronicles our missteps, our blunders and the lows that come before the highs. This public canonization can be painful and leaves few options for a person traveling the sometimes stormy seas of relationships, life choices and their publication on social media.
This seems entirely different than a rant on Facebook or Twitter for several reasons. As re-captioning the photos sends no notification to her followers, her actions went largely unnoticed. It didn’t appear on any feed or timeline, and I wasn’t alerted to the changes. I truly happened upon them by chance. Despite having no notification going out to her followers, she was able to say, in a whisper, “Hey, this painful thing happened to me,” and a viewer can whisper in reply, “I’ve been there too, girl.”
That is exactly what I thought when I saw these new captions. I groaned with her, I rolled my eyes at the fool who cheated the both of them, and I marveled at her bravery. To remove the photographs entirely seems to say that this part of life didn’t happen, that the owner wasn’t vulnerable or taken advantage of, but to re-caption the photos seems to own the experience, to reflect and to move on.
At 20 years old, I don’t know if I would have been brave enough to say, even in a re-captioned whisper, that I’d been cheated, dumped or left out in the cold. At 30 years old I’m afraid to admit I still may not be brave enough. I have always been a head-in-the-sand kind of girl, and, at gut level, I prefer my real or metaphorical followers to be the same.
Social media natives are traveling in totally uncharted territory. Forget that a gal’s parents didn’t have an Instagram account to worry about; her older sibling probably didn’t have one either. The documentation of every weekend, every relationship and every outfit is happening at warp speed, and for a person to take a moment to look back, literally and figuratively, takes great effort.
To return to photographs that potentially bring about painful memories, still on display for the world to see, and to rewrite history is a powerful statement of maturity and acceptance. I am heartened and impressed by the step this young woman made to be re-caption her photos. She did it for herself, first and foremost, or she would have taken to the tired and classless social media rant that we all read with horror or promptly unfollow.
The significance of this re-captioning is far greater than one girl, one broken relationship and one Instagram account. As a teacher, I have read article after article decrying the use of social media by young people, claiming that users of such media are practically roadkill because of its lightening fast pace. It is true that users are often under the relentless criticism of those followers or “friends” hiding behind their smartphone screens, choosing to “like” a particular post, sometimes the very heart of the account holder under their pointer finger. Skeptics, many parents of teens and great numbers of teachers have stated that social media is a road to the destruction of self esteem, and I can’t tell you how many research papers I’ve read at the junior college level about how social media and image editing in the almighty selfie alters our self image in a negative way.
The evidence of re-captioning tells me that while the above may be true, the generation traversing this type of social media as pioneers is not lost. They are navigating just fine, employing all types of strategies to own their online experience rather than simply letting it devour them, re-captioning being only one of them. The gal in my example took control in this little app and within its rather limited capabilities, rewrote her social media history. Re-captioning demonstrates creativity and autonomy and was so, so heartening to see. Neither road kill nor road rage, re-captioning is authorship at its social media finest.
Take heart, critics, worriers, and parents of digital natives! Plenty of social media users are using it exactly as intended; to share moments of their lives with others and many are striking self-determination gold by managing their social media presence the way my example demonstrated. Furthermore, those like me who may not be courageous enough — yet! — are inspired by it.
As for the #cheater in question? I don’t know if he knows he’s been re-captioned, but I’d suggest it might behoove him to do some re-captioning of his own and reflect in a genuine way as this gem did. As the moments of our lives are ever more public and ever more intimate, it is refreshing and encouraging to see a strategy employed like this subtle and reflective re-captioning.