When I was a kid, I used to trade secrets like baseball cards. We moved around a bit when I was younger, and I wasn’t good at making friends. I was better at observing the kids around me, and analyzing how they talked to each other, which explains why I’m a writer now. But back then, all I really knew was that friends told each other secrets.
I told a secret, I got a secret. I got a secret, I told a secret. The exchange rate was a perfect 1:1. Who is your crush? Who is my crush? We walked away none richer, none poorer. Or that was the hope.
But there was always a lingering anxiety in telling secrets. I worried that my secret would be too big. I worried that the secret keeper would be too loose. I worried, most of all, that people would see why I really told secrets. Because for me, every secret was a question: Do you like me? Do you want to be my friend? And what followed me, hours and days after each exchange was the feeling that I had miscalculated.
When I was in college, I had a conversation with a friend about a classmate we both knew. We were both trying to figure out exactly how we had each become friends with this classmate, despite no effort from either of us, and no inclination.
“She just started telling me all these secrets,” my friend said, realization dawning over her face. “And I felt close to her even though we’d only known each other for a week, and only in class. But I never asked her for those secrets. I never asked her for her life story.”
“It’s like she cheated,” I said. “She skipped all the other steps to friendship. She took a shortcut.”
“Did she tell you the same things she told me?” my friend asked, a little while later.
I knew already that she had.
When I was still a kid, I realized there was no reason for the exchange rate of secrets to stay so perfect. I saw that the personal price of my secret and the market price were two different things, and I could control one and masquerade the other. So I started telling the same secrets to multiple people. The more people who knew my secret, the less the secret was worth, the less it cost me to give it away. I stopped caring about other people’s secrets. I stopped asking for secrets in return. All I wanted was to turn my secrets into nothing; worthless counterfeit bills, made of the same paper as real secrets, but without the magic that turns them into money. That way, if somebody didn’t want my secret, or if they shared it with others, I was truly none richer, none poorer.
I wanted validation and connection without the risk of reciprocation. I thought that was how you made friends, and how you kept them, and how you steeled yourself from heartbreak when they left you hanging.
I stopped having secrets. I had many friends.
Now I use the app Snapchat as fervently as any other social media. I’ve tried my best to convince as many of my friends to use it as possible. I’m totally obsessed.
Snapchat is a photo-sharing service, not unlike texting, except that Snapchat photos (and now conversations) disappear after a few seconds. You get to set the time limit, between one and ten seconds, and you can send the photo to as many or as few people as you like. The mascot is a little ghost. Very fitting.
I never used to send photos. I never used to stay in touch with friends. These two things are connected, I promise. A texted photo felt like a request for validation—“Do you like this? Are you glad I sent this to you?” Staying in touch also asked something of the other person, a commitment to our connection now that it was no longer as easy as crossing the street and knocking at their door. Both felt like me reaching an arm across a gulf, groping blindly for the other’s hand. I didn’t like the effort required. I didn’t like being so bald with my caring.
But Snapchat fixed this problem for me, because a Snapchat photo can be as worthless as a secret told twenty times. A picture of a cow, a picture of my meal, a picture with my goofy face—all disappear after seconds, and never require a response. But even without a response, an icon will show you when your photo has been opened and viewed. And this was enough for me.
It’s a little difficult to explain the culture and language of each social media app, what counts as a success and what as a failure, but it can usually be broken down into an exchange of, you guessed it, validation and connection. And Snapchat, with its lack of permanence, with its flippant ability to send one photo to twenty people, and with its status quo of not requiring a response, makes failure nearly impossible. A successful Facebook post has multiple likes and a few comments. Twitter has favorites, retweets, follows and replies. Pinterest has repins and follows. And so on. But Snapchat, especially at the start, had nothing. Occasionally a friend might take a screenshot of your picture, but this was rare. Yet it was still considered social media (I won’t speak about the later developments of Snapchat stories, and replays that made it more like a clone of the other apps), because it still facilitated connection, just like all the rest. I got to “stay in touch,” by flashing my face for six seconds at my long-distance friends. I got validation because sixteen friends looked at a photo of my dog.
All of this is to say that I was conducting my life based on a belief that I had invented as a kid. I had never questioned this exchange rate of secrets, the cost of connection, the shame of asking for validation. I forgot to put away my security blanket.
I still enjoy and use Snapchat. I still think it’s fun. But now I also send actual photos to my friends. Ones that don’t go away. Ones that ask for a reply. When I go back home, I reach out to old friends. When I come back from home, I reach out to newer friends.
You’re supposed to get rid of the monsters under your bed when you grow up. You’re supposed to realize there’s nothing hiding in the dark. But sometimes your childhood fear grows up with you. Sometimes your childhood fear was grown up all along, waiting for you to catch up, waiting for you to be finally large enough and strong enough to turn on the light, look it straight in the eye, and say, “I like validation. I like connection. That’s not a shameful secret.”
I like my friends. I like making friends. I like sending them pictures of my sandwich and getting a “Yum” back. That’s a secret I’ll keep telling. I’ll keep telling it until it’s not a secret anymore.
Lillian Li is a graduate of the University of Michigan's Helen Zell Writers' Program. Her novel, about an upscale Peking duck restaurant outside D.C., is forthcoming from Henry Holt. Her work has appeared in Glimmer Train, Guernica, Granta online, and Jezebel. Follow her @ZillianZi
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