Growing up and sticking my curious nose in places it didn’t belong, I observed this happen a few times… someone achieving a great thing and disappearing from the public eye – not necessarily for a negative reason but the loss of desire to be seen and noticed. When aunties or older relatives would mention someone and say, “O to jo meta ti a ti ri Lagbaja,” meaning it has been a while since we saw so and so, I knew there was a gist about someone who pulled a Houdini on them. If it wasn’t marriage, it was childbirth, relocation to a different country, pursuing a higher degree – something worth congratulating that raised alarm about their disappearance. It was almost as though the better people’s lives became, the higher the expectation of visibility by people who know them. Even some of our favorite musicians like Sade and Lagbaja have done this so masterfully and refused to return to the spotlight despite our nostalgia.
The first time I experienced this happen to a peer was at church – a very noticeable young lady who got engaged. Of course, the natural shenanigans of recording and posting a beautiful video of the proposal on all social media platforms happened. Then she got married and went quiet; her social media handles eventually disappeared. She is still alive and well, but that sudden erasure terrified me because of how much we value online presence and correlate it to being alive and doing well. Worse, the former feminist in my head imagined all sorts of ways this had to be a women’s issue until I experienced a male friend do the same.
On the contrary, I have friends with zero online presence whom I used to tease to show their face. I had been biased in only seeing the benefit of online visibility and not so much the value of privacy. Six friends come to mind, and they all have this silent but enviable confidence that the right people see them in their daily lives and what’s meant for them won’t pass them by just because they aren’t on social media. Unlike with publicity others use to bait themselves for opportunities, these people are like skillful hunters hidden in plain sight and expertly armed with their knowledge of self, waiting for a game, a perfect opportunity and serendipity to pass. Because they aren’t caught up with the noise of social media, they are able to focus well on the things that matter. They are all successful in their nitch with extremely impressive experiences and accolades. Truly, those who need to know them, know them.
May 2016, I got accepted into a career development program. In one of the sessions, we were taught how to strategically update our LinkedIn and expand our connections to become a bank for opportunities. A determined and desperate me took this advice and session so seriously that I started researching and connecting with many people who aligned with my academic, scholarship, and career goals on LinkedIn. I also felt compelled to always share every new accomplishment – scholarships, admission offers, internship acceptances, career growth, and more until the pandemic happened.
I can’t word or place a finger on the shift that the pandemic caused but something changed. While seeing people publicly share their experiences was valuable, I equally felt overwhelmed by the good and bad things I read. I often wished I wasn’t aware of that many people’s business. There was also a point whereby getting another scholarship, certificate, or a new job didn’t feel any different and I found myself in an awkward space, negotiating with the norm of publicizing every success and the indifference I truly felt.
Besides accomplishments, I realized I didn’t even want the publicity of my struggles in exchange for sympathy. While I acknowledge that sharing one's struggles publicly is beneficial to some people and necessary sometimes for survival, I had more peace in deciding it wasn’t for me; at least for now. Notably, as I have written in previous blog posts this year, the more I paid attention to the power of words in creating constructs and shaping other people’s perspectives, the less I want to say to others about who I am and what I am doing. Worse, with technology these days, what one puts out, no matter how much deleting or editing you try to do, sticks on the internet. Considering how much I am changing and growing in my perspectives and experiences, I would hate to lose the power to change a narrative I established for others to believe.
Recently, I came across a social media post by Elyse Myers saying that if any pregnant women out there needed permission to not do a pregnancy photo shoot, she is here to grant them the permission. She was pregnant at the moment and had admitted that while she loved her child and was joyous about meeting the baby, she hated being pregnant and, worse, hated the pressure to pretend about how she felt through these extravagant activities. The outpour of love and “I feel seen” in her comment section was wholesome.
No, I am not pregnant, but hearing Elyse denounce such modern norm and a perspective I resonated with meant a lot. It is not just LinkedIn and professional accomplishments that make me feel this way. I feel the same about weddings, childbirth, and other life-changing events. For example, after age 22, the desire to do a photoshoot and post anything for my birthdays diminished. It wasn’t a loss of joy about the day or my aging but a peaceful contentment I found in being acknowledged and memorably celebrated by the people in my closest circle.
The people I often feel the most compassion for, in regard to this topic are children under age 13 who are posted online by adults. Yes, it’s impossible to have a world without pictures or videos of children online and we can argue that there are child stars who join the movie industry early or had an early break in their life for impressive talents. However, I think we rob children of an essential privilege they will need to excel as adults when we do this to them – the privilege of a well-informed choice.
Informed choice is only complete when the person receiving the information fully understands the gravity of what you’re saying and I don’t think anyone under the age of 13 has enough wisdom and foresight about the long-term implications of such early exposure. Hence, I find it unsettling that children are made or allowed to be participants of such unprotected space at an early age with or without our guidance. Knowing how much I have enjoyed choosing to hide and publicize certain aspects of my life, now, as an adult, I imagine how it would hurt for anyone to not have that option, let alone a child. However, social media hasn’t been here long enough for there to be studies of how this shift in our culture will affect the children involved.
This is not to chastise others who find validation or profit from publicizing their life experiences for any justifiable reasons; I am writing this for those who need permission to not be seen. I am writing for those who need the assurance that certain opportunities meant for them won’t pass by as a consequence of choosing a private life. I am writing for those who need to know that a private life is not a less important, less valuable, or less existent life.
It is alright to get that promotion and not write an “I’m excited to share” speech on LinkedIn; it is okay to be in a relationship and have a social media account where you post everything else but you and your lover; it is alright to not do a birthday photoshoot, it is okay to be pregnant and find out the baby’s gender at the doctor’s office; it is fine if you do a baby shower that will not be edited for reels or YouTube; it is okay to not have a wedding hashtag; an unposted vacation is still a vacation; it is alright also to post all these things if you wish, leave them online forever or take them down if you change your mind.
As I write and reflect on these things, I wonder if there is an element of “growing older” to it. I try to remind myself that my life was as valid when I thought putting myself out there was a good idea as it is now, when I don’t think being noticed by everyone is something I care for. I also think of the effects of changing technology as I age. I remember when online meant Google, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and LinkedIn. But every other second, another social media app or feature takes the spotlight that we all rush to be on, with the fear of missing out or losing relevance. And if it is not a new platform or a feature, the change in algorithms convinces you to try something else, so you would not be erased or left behind. It feels like a rat race that I hardly care to participate in anymore, especially when it’s a distraction from experiencing life fully and being more present.