I have long felt that the most human phrase of all time is a simple and short one: “I was here.”
You can find it anywhere and at any time: etched into a desk in the library, spray-painted on the side of a building, scrawled on the walls of Pompeii (no, seriously, the oldest graffiti known to man is in Pompeii, reading “Gaius was here”), painted in nail polish on the shelf of your local dollar store (another true story, from a middle-school version of yours truly).
Sometimes the sentiment is expressed without words, too: footprints in the shape of a heart at the beach, fingerprints of paint in the tunnels of our school, and handprints stamped over 200,000 years ago on the walls of ancient caves.
It is a fundamentally human impulse to not only want to be heard but to want to be heard forever. To be, in one way or another, immortal.
In today’s world, we have incredible cameras in our pockets at all times, lodged into devices armed to the teeth with social media platforms to send content off to. We have ways to encase any and every moment in amber, to sign them with our names, to send them into orbit and to tell everyone, until the Internet burns and disintegrates — that we were here, we were here, we were here.
We feel a need to prove, not just to ourselves but to the world, that we saw and touched and felt — that we exist. This is the reason that at any tourist destination, everyone there is taking photos despite the surplus already in existence. No one wants a stock photo of the Eiffel Tower; they want their own, horribly overexposed, slightly off-center iPhone photo. They want proof that they were there, that for the briefest moment, for the millisecond of the aperture shutting and opening again, the Eiffel Tower was theirs, and only theirs.
However, I don’t think we were ever meant to remember forever, let alone exist forever. It’s the subject of a hundred stories, and within them, immortality becomes a burden, a curse, an inescapable evil. Finality — of our lives, our impacts, our memories — is not a tragedy, but a relief.
We are the first generation to not remember a time without the Internet and social media; the first to be able to conjure every facet of our lives through photographic evidence. This has made us all too aware of the importance of impermanence.
Past generations were allowed to have much of their lives fade into the blurry, fluorescent filters of memory. But for us, so many moments in time are almost eerily preserved. We can look back on our memories, our words, and our voices in perfect crystalline recreations, rather than through the merciful distortion of nostalgia. And while it’s a blessing that I have shaky cassette-tape footage of my brother and me, four and seven years old, eating popsicles on our fold-out Elmo chair in the living room, it is a curse that I have Snapchat videos from middle school with some of the most cringe-inducing content I’ve ever had the (dis)pleasure to view.
As this way of life becomes more and more ingrained in us, it scares me what this will do to the way we experience our own lives. We see it already. We see it in toddlers trained for the camera, whose childhoods are documented for the entire world to see by fame-obsessed parents. We see it in young kids with YouTube channels, who are just trying to have fun but are unable to grasp the permanency of what they are putting out to the world.
In the age of social media and omnipresent cameras, we are unable to escape the embarrassments and mistakes of our pasts. The past is constantly coming up to meet us, packaged in perfect resolution and stellar audio quality, available at the touch of a smooth LCD screen. All because we want to remember, and to be remembered.
But I have to say it again: While the methods may be new, the pursuit is certainly not. Where handprints fade over time, our videos and posts won’t go away until the Internet itself does (which feels as equivalent to the end of time as the death of our sun). Maybe it’s the terrified optimist in me, but I have to believe that if humanity disintegrates and society collapses because of social media and terrifying technology, it will somehow still be in the most endearing of pursuits: to tell the universe, however long it stands, that we, in all of our imperfect, selfish glory, were here.