I’m inside a sweaty, rank basement with music that's far too loud, engulfed in a mass of unrecognizable faces. I came to the party for my best friend, but five minutes into the chaos, she disappears. I’m sure I don’t belong here. I think that if I don’t find someone familiar within the next five minutes, I should make the trek back home by myself.
A screech sounds over the blaring EDM that I’ve quickly grown to hate, “Oh my god! Are you Morgan Jones?” I turn to see the youthful face of a new Penn student, glistening with perspiration and first–semester excitement. She tugs me into an embrace, and I hesitate for a moment before returning the hug. I’ve coached myself over the last few weeks to have the perfect reaction, but it doesn’t feel any less unnatural with each smile or embrace.
“I’ve watched all your videos on YouTube! I love you!” she says as she hugs me again. I’m flattered, and I wish I could say that my YouTube viewers are getting to know the real me. But I’m afraid I might just have nothing in common with the girl from a year ago, enamored by film and editing, who sat in her room and talked to a camera for the whole world to see.
My life has always been a public affair filled with constant posts on Instagram, random tweets, and silly vlogs of my life. I’m aware that I’ve portrayed myself as a very confident, independent person, and while I believe I possess these qualities, the online persona I have created is not necessarily a full representation of who I am. I’ve tried my best to be authentic and honest with my audience, but they’ve arrived halfway through the movie. Any ounce of confidence or independence they see did not come from a self–help book.
The truth is, any shred of independence on screen is just self–reliance, cultivated from the struggles of being the “new girl” in high school. Confidence is a side effect of the tough skin I’ve built up over the past decade after being the subject of many racist and sexist “jokes.” I learned the hard way that anonymity can be blissful for one second and dehumanizing in the next, and when you aren’t a real person the cruelest of actions are fair game.
Being alone gives you lots of time to work on yourself, and what happens when you don’t really have any friends? You make a YouTube channel. Making videos gave me purpose. It became a creative space for me, and for a while, it was also a safe space. Looking back, it seems completely irrational that I would find YouTube, a public digital media platform, “safe” by any means, but I really never thought anyone but my grandma was going to watch my videos.
What was once a passion project of making lifestyle videos in my dorm room, has accidentally become the stimulus for a complete identity crisis.
As much as teenage boys attacked every fiber of my being in high school, once my videos gained some views, internet trolls did not hesitate to do the same. “You don’t sound very intelligent,” commented one viewer. “Useless and delusional,” commented another.
YouTube viewers have gone out of their way to DM me on Instagram, calling me a “catfish” and pointing out fluctuations in my weight over the past year. One girl went through the effort of sending me a screenshot from a video I posted in January and my most recent Instagram post to compare the two photographs of me saying, “Same person? I would say no way.”
I often receive kind messages, which I’m so thankful for, as well as messages from prospective Penn students. I try my best to help Penn hopefuls with their college applications and essays, but every now and then I will get the consecutive messages from a Penn applicant: “You’re honestly not that cute, but can you read my Common App essay plz lol.”
I’ve never thought of my physical appearance in a terribly negative way, but with others constantly claiming that I “look like a different person in every photo,” I sometimes catch myself thinking that I may have no idea what I actually look like.
Sometimes, I will glance in my bedroom mirror before leaving for class and realize something is not quite right. Should I put my hair in a ponytail? Should I leave it down? I might just want to tie it back to have it out of my face, but then I think, "No, Morgan wouldn’t do that." I have to be "her," and look like "her," or else someone will say something. It might be a, “You look different today,” or a, “You look tired.” Maybe it will be the worst of them all: the classic once–over and the, “Are you okay?”
Yes, I’m fine. This is just my face…or is it?
I do my best to brush off the negative comments from trolls and “friends,” but recently, I’ve realized that the commonly prescribed, “Get over it,” is a pretty terrible remedy.
High school bullies hurt me. Internet haters hurt me. That was hard to say, and I don’t think people admit these truths enough. I’ve been hurt by the world. That I’ve become my own destroyer through my love affair with the internet is difficult for me to accept. Even after admitting it, I’m still a long way from being over it.
The most heartbreaking part of the whole fiasco is that admiration has become a double–edged sword. It’s surreal when someone recognizes me from a YouTube video of mine as I’m going about my daily life. I love meeting subscribers, I really do, but sometimes I have this uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach right after. Did I meet their expectations? Do I match their perception of the girl on screen? Do I look like "her"? Or should I say "me"?
It’s the positive sentiments from subscribers that have made me question myself the most. “You were such an inspiration to me when I was applying to Penn” said one freshman, as he stopped me on my way to British Poetry. “You’re literally goals. You’re thriving!” said another as I made my way back home after a tiring, never–ending day. I’m so astonished and thankful to receive these glowing compliments from complete strangers—at least strangers from my perspective—but I fear that these comments conflict with my current reality in the most dangerous way.
Am I thriving? After spending three months in New York in a state of numbing isolation for my “dream” internship that ended up not being all that dreamy, and two weeks in my hometown avoiding anyone and everyone from my high school, I made my way back to Penn. I thought it would be my saving grace from the most intense loneliness and uncertainty I’ve ever experienced. I was finally going to be back with my people. I was finally going to feel whole, like myself again.
Yet, I’ve found myself alone in a sweaty basement, surrounded by strangers who know everything about a “me” that is not real. I’ve found myself searching for my people to no avail. My people that now have boyfriends and girlfriends that have become their entire world. My people that now have other friends they would rather spend time with because they grew closer over the summer. My people that now do not respond for four days when I text them to make plans because they got “super busy.” My people that now have other people.
While everyone else moves forward, I find that I’ve been put on pause in a little 1,920x1,080 pixel frame, and I’m not sure if anyone is coming back to press play anytime soon.