On Mary Rosenberger

“This, of course, is everything — the seeming.” A short story that scrutinizes our relationship to social media, and those we “meet” in that most enigmatic of realms…

by: Ariadne Will

I never knew Mary Rosenberger, but I was still sad when she broke up with her long-term boyfriend. He had long hair and she and he had lived in California together for years before she moved to New York City to pursue modeling. Or, that’s what it looked like on her Instagram, from my iPhone in Southeast Alaska.

I was 17, then, and Mary was in her 20s, and I had never even visited New York City, though everyone I looked up to on the internet already lived there. Everyone I looked up to on the internet was in their 20s and trying to make it — whatever that meant — and maybe if I’d been a little older, I would have understood the woes of rent, misogyny, and relationships these people always seemed to be navigating. Maybe if I’d been a little older, I would have chosen different role models, but being young and on the internet was like that — a search for how to live in my own reality that turned up, instead, twenty-somethings whose confidence masked chaos in long captions about self-love, hard work, desirability. “Life is risky!” these creators — or people; I should just call them people — seemed to shout. 

“I’m wearing a sheer top because I love myself!” Mary exuded on her Instagram, circa 2017. “Here’s a photo of me crying, because authenticity is vital to self-actualization!” she added. I wanted that, badly. Or, I wanted authenticity that demanded people pay attention to me. I wanted to command a digital space in a way that entertained others, but I didn’t know how to get to that point of self-commodification. I didn’t know how to turn myself into something full, if only in an online space. I lacked the skills to market myself, sure, but more substantially, I lacked the ability to promote myself as a vibrant, confident, and savvy being in that space. I have never been well-versed in seeming more than I am. 

This, of course, is everything — the seeming. The appearance. Instagram, in the late 2010s, was still for sharing photos. There were no infographics. There wasn’t the kind of acknowledgement of curation that exists now, and photo dumps were impossible, unless a user was interested in posting several different times and clogging everyone’s feed. To appear as oneself was not the same task it is now, because the strategy was different, and because everyone posted somewhat regularly, which is to say, those of us who used the app did so in more or less the same way: we used it to showcase ourselves and the great things we did, and we used it especially to promote our own image. We posted selfies we took when the light was just right, before we knew the concept of “golden hour,” and when the blinds were striped across our noses. We posted photos taken with the self-timer to show how great our outfits were. We posted blurry pictures from school dances and nights out with lighting so bad that the tags we placed on the eyebrows of our friends mattered more than the content of the images.

Mary posted a little more often than most everyone else I followed, and she always posted images of herself. There was nothing the 2017 algorithm, and 2017 Instagram users, loved as much as a selfie, and Mary knew how to provide it. Her posts were always well-lit, conversational images in which she was often the only subject. To an outsider, her photos were always easy to understand because she was always the main character. One was her excitement about seeing her mom. Another, her frustration with another pimple in her nose. And another, was her crying about…something. This last photo genre was more common than all the rest (or maybe it was just the most striking), though the reasons behind the tears were often unclear. This didn’t matter, she and I were strangers on the internet, which meant that to follow her was to accept what was given. 

It was Mary’s crying images I loved most, the way they gave an illusion of trust, though the only person Mary would have needed to trust was herself and her own judgment before posting to a space followed by thousands. I loved the rawness of the images. I loved how they embraced — no, claimed — a vulnerability that I had been uncomfortable with for years. I loved Mary’s crying pics so much that I started taking and posting crying photos of my own, which stayed on my private account, but were still there, a sort of triumph or proof or leveraging of whatever emotion had moved me to saltwater. When posted, my tears gave me character. I believed these images rendered me real on the internet, where nothing can ever be more than realistic.

Mary seemed to say, but never really did, that these teary photos were necessary, that documenting our tears would render us three-dimensional. We had to see it, online, all together. We had to have the proof of this water grazing her cheek, and then we had to acknowledge the emotions of her, a stranger. I believed her and the urgency of these images. I was old enough to know the phone eats first, had come of age at the same time as the YouTube vlog. Live online, or else! the internet shouted. Mary shouted loudest, and then she showed me how to shout, too. I tried to follow suit. I was still bad at it. I was still unsure of myself.

If Mary marketed internet authenticity and showed me how to commodify my own image, I didn’t have the energy to keep up. I lacked the endurance to record as if my vulnerable body required the attention of hundreds of strangers. I lacked the stamina to reach that point of online, nipple-adoring bliss, to proclaim my body and self idyllic enough to call my actions perfect and stand by such an assertion. I was, after all, a teenager and living in rural Alaska. I was, after all, a teenager. I wore clothes that fit right only some of the time and hardly ever bought them myself. I did things I thought I loved but lacked the resources to analyze my own actions. My needs were mostly met and still I was unhappy: I did not have community on my own terms, confidence in myself, or the language to communicate the absence of either. Mary became enticing because she spoke to desires I could only dream of articulating, and then expressed them in a way I had not yet found words for. She wanted recognition, and so did I, and this parasocial relationship flourished because it would be years before I realized that she and I were so far from the same.

It seems to me that (and I know this is a generalization) we talk about youth as a ubiquitous experience, as if a 17-year-old and a 25-year-old might know one another as peers. It’s true that eight years still puts Mary and me within a generation of one another, and that, culturally, young and normative bodies are all placed at the same amorphous, fetishized age, but I know now, at 23, that there is too much difference between today and Ariadne at 17 for that classification to make any sense. I can appreciate that at 23, I am still young, and my prefrontal cortex is (still) not finished developing. I can acknowledge in the same breath that at 17, I would have been utterly lost, had I been tasked with regularly paying my electric bill and buying myself groceries for the week. At 17, I had little clue how to care for myself, let alone how to choose the online role models I interacted with. Indeed, at age 17 — hell, until age 20 — I was a child.

Mary, at 25, was not. Mary paid rent and made art in her apartment and talked about how much she loved her body. When she lived in California, she danced, mostly naked, in her backyard, amidst canvases strewn with gaunt, feminine forms. Once in New York, she posted photos of her glossy face, the pimple in her left nostril, her outfit for a modeling casting call. I was enamored. I had not known we could sprout pimples in our noses or love our bodies so much to let them be, naked, in the sunshine. I wanted to soak up what looked, to me, like radiance. I wanted to believe in my body, myself, and my creativity the way Mary seemed to believe in hers. I was unaware of how much I was skipping over — that so much was between Mary and me, and most of it was obscured by the infrastructure of growing up safe and loved and privileged. The way the internet pitched it, the only difference between Mary and me was that she was on her way to self-actualization and I wasn’t.

To be fair, the way the internet really pitched it is that I was far from perfect. I was too awkward and young, for starters, but the internet also insinuated that I was capable of being on the same level as these people I looked up to, especially since so many of them were so clearly having a mess of a time. These people were broke, making art, and in the throes of their early twenties, and I was none of those things, which meant I had none of the social capital of being young and hot and broke, but also that I had so much more stability. That, combined with that tendency the internet has to flatten out the differences in our lived experiences, granted me the mentality that I was smart enough to understand the positionality held by these people who shared so abundantly online. This was so far from true. I had, instead, a parasocial relationship. That wasn’t what I wanted.

What did I want? I wanted to be these people. If not Mary, I wanted to be like her. I wanted to be a mess with the confidence that I was beautiful. The confidence that the world would change for me. The confidence that I was entertaining. I could never be comfortable with cutting myself open like that — with entertaining others with my own insecurities, even if they were disguised as confidence. I could never post those images of my sad face, tears gleaming on either cheek, without giving away a piece of myself I had not made peace with on my own. Had Mary?

It took a few years for me to realize Mary couldn’t teach me much. She could embody confidence, sure, but she was her own project. She was not on Instagram to teach but to learn for herself, and post for herself, and bumble around the internet, and through life, for herself. Watching her learn gave me a sort of comfort, the way her posts said, “My twenties are messy and isn’t it gorgeous?” but her path was not mine. I did not paint naked or think my body desirable enough to model or desire a semblance of online fame, regardless of whether Mary had ended up with thousands of followers by accident or on purpose. I did not yearn to be in public like that, to bear what I had yet to learn like Mary did — with ease. I did not want to make my mistakes like that, either, because even at 17, I knew, on some level, that I was too young — too new — to act as if I could depict myself the way I desired. That’s what it was about, after all — cultivating an image that I, myself, desired. At the time I followed Mary, I had no idea who I was, let alone how I wanted to perceive myself, which is why I followed someone who seemed to know how to navigate both those unknowns. Mary told me there was a way to unravel myself that would be interesting to watch, and I wanted so badly to believe her. I craved confirmation that I could know myself well enough to supply the world with a true image of my being. I lusted after the idea that in growing, I could entertain even myself. The internet makes it look easy. It’s not easy. Neither is it fun, only fun to watch. For now, I am finished watching. For now, I am finished following Mary.


Ariadne Will was born and raised in Sitka, Alaska. Her writing has appeared in a variety of small publications, and in her spare time, she writes for her local newspaper and takes walks in the rain. During the day, she works at a university library in Oregon.

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