Most of us spent the spring and summer talking to strangers on the Internet. We played Pictionary, complained about time zones, took personality quizzes and sent each other our results. We stayed up hours too late telling stories to a pixelated grid of faces. There were movie nights and a makeshift prom, people dressing up and dancing with their microphones on mute, turning on their phone flashlights during the slow songs. Some of us got into fights. Some flirted, prefacing everything with the caveat of “if we end up on campus,” making promises to meet that never came through. Some said far too much or said all the wrong things, cultivating images of themselves that they wouldn’t even recognize.
When my city shut down, I buried myself in this world that felt almost like real life. And now, I meet people who know my brother’s name and what I dream about, but we still have to introduce ourselves like strangers.
Finding out that reality shows are scripted ruins the fun, doesn’t it? We need to know that it’s all spontaneous — the drinks thrown across the table, the hookups in hot tubs and the tearful confessions. In reunion episodes, beautiful couples sit curled up on loveseats while a live audience shouts and gasps, and the hosts ask everyone the same question. Tell us, was it all for the cameras? We’re hungry and need to know more about you. Post photos on each other’s birthdays, write lengthy captions comparing your love to the moon or God, prove it’s for real.
We’re fascinated, too, by the vicious sides of our celebrities. We love fights on Twitter, long apologies typed out in the Notes app, leaked dirty videos and phone calls. When these secrets flood our social media feeds, we wait with baited breath for updates, laughing at ourselves for being so invested. There’s something powerful in knowing something we shouldn’t know.
Currently, there seems to be a cultural obsession with the “confessional booth,” the urge to get as far into each other’s minds as possible. Why else would we know so much about people that we’ve never met? We chase down their personal lives with a disturbing intensity, whether they are chefs, heiresses, drag queens or influencers. The world of fiction isn’t enough for us, not compared to these things that feel so true.
There was a virtual translation of the pre-orientation programs a week before move-in. I ended up signing up for FOOT. The trip I had originally wanted was in the back of my head the whole time — waking up to birds and making breakfast together, the conversation easy and unscripted. We like our lives like we like our reality TV shows. We don’t want to sense the metaphorical producer’s hand hanging over every interaction, a puppeteer asking leading questions about our childhood in hopes that we will all magically connect. The fundamental issue with all the bonding exercises over Zoom may be in this, that it necessitates a master organizer and a constant lesson plan. The leaders of FOOT tried to recreate everything that they could, including the tradition of writing letters to our future selves while sitting around a campfire. For this, we wrote alone in our rooms, in silence and still on camera. Meanwhile, one of the leaders shared their screen and played a Youtube video called “Virtual Campfire with Crackling Fire Sounds (HD)”.
I knew what I was looking for when I came here, because it was the same thing as everyone else. I wanted to be the archetype of the 18-year-old, cycling through every emotion in a single week, sprinting through the streets and sleeping at dawn. I hoped for a clean break from childhood, the moment that the plane’s wheels lift off the tarmac. Real connection, real friendships, moments that feel so vivid that you can barely stand it.
I wanted the life that existed in the cautionary tales that I would hear from my parents, in sentences starting with “once you’re in the real world…” Growing up in Japan, America often seemed to me like a character in a storybook, a place of grandparents’ guest rooms and hazy summers at sleepaway camps. I left Tokyo two months before I had to, because part of me was itching to see this country in a different way. Once here, I had to set up phone plans, doctor’s appointments and bank accounts for myself, making childish mistakes at every step. I drove alone for the first time — few things had ever felt more freeing than that. Yet the feeling didn’t last long, disappearing when I was rear-ended while driving my grandmother’s car four days before coming to campus. There was no damage, but I will never forget the jolt of it.
When we enter the real world, we play for real odds. I have to keep reminding myself of this because it is so easy to feel untouchable, walking through campus on a bright and cold September morning.
In my philosophy class, we consider reality as defined by Plato, lifting our hands up in front of our laptop cameras when we want to talk. “What we see, touch and hear misleads us,” he wrote. Reality is a realm of perfect definitions. Not the beauty I see in the Matisse poster I put up crooked on my dorm wall, but instead Beauty itself.
Our professor tells us we must understand Plato’s version of reality by appealing to “similar concepts.” Here’s my attempt. A drawing of a butterfly is to a butterfly what the world of the senses is to reality. The “Virtual Campfire with Crackling Fire Sounds (HD)” is to a campfire what the world of the senses is to reality.
I keep having the same conversation here, centered around the fear of not being one’s “authentic self.” In a rush of icebreakers and acquaintances, we face our first chance to redefine ourselves on our own terms, to choose what we like from the stories of our lives and throw the rest of it away. In normal times, this would already feel like a performance, and this feeling is only worsened by the virtual format of so much of our first year. Some things feel so present and real: picnics in the grass outside Sterling, shouting the lyrics to favorite songs from high school under the LED lights of someone else’s room. And yet so much of the time, I’m just staring at a screen, not saying a word out loud to another human being until dinnertime.
The worry that I am projecting a false image of myself, or that otherwise I am changing in some strange and fundamental way, has come to mind often in these past weeks. But the more time I spend with the people around me, the more I am able to relent to everything about this year that is chaotic, undetermined and new. Just before I left home, I wrote a line in my journal — “It feels inevitable that I will evolve.” I’ve begun to believe that to stay true to the most authentic version of ourselves, we must accept that there may not be a single, constant version. Maybe living a real life means falling in love with the change.
Sylvan Lebrun | email@example.com