LinkedIn. Facebook. Instagram. Tinder. No, we're not just naming random apps; we're talking about the latest viral meme, “The Dolly Parton Challenge.”
You've probably seen it pop up on your newsfeed, as plenty of users and celebrities alike have gotten in on the fun. The premise is pretty straightforward: post four photos of yourself, each reflecting how you might present yourself on the various apps. A professional headshot would serve well for LinkedIn, while family photos reign on Facebook. Add an outfit-focused image filtered through a VSCO preset for Instagram, then a flirty snap for Tinder, and you're done. It's been dubbed the #DollyPartonChallenge because the singer was supposedly the first to post the mosaic herself, though other versions of the concept driving the meme have certainly circulated before.
And while the meme is by all accounts a fun excuse to unearth the archives of your camera roll, the Dolly Parton Challenge actually says a lot about the ways in which we use social media, because we do present alternate versions of ourselves from app to app. “Obviously we portray ourselves differently on different websites, but I think there's always a semblance of truth to each profile we have,” Kelly, a 23-year-old from New York told MTV News. “LinkedIn is definitely a professional app, so I try and keep my profile up-to-date and looking ‘good.' On Facebook, I'll keep things family-friendly and almost professional-like. As for Twitter and Instagram, they're two platforms where I can go and be myself: a poet, a woman, someone who loves memes, Harry Styles, and The Bachelor.”
Olivia, a senior at Loyola University, also thinks it makes sense for people to curate slightly different avatars on different platforms. “Everybody presents themselves differently in whichever setting they're in,” she reasoned. “Given how much of our lives revolve around social networking apps, it makes sense that people show other versions of themselves to fit an app's culture and purpose.”
And it's true; each app does have its own culture that might not exactly translate to another platform. (Can you imagine your great-aunt understanding “cats can have little a salami” if you were to post it in a Facebook status?) Dr. Alexandra Hamlet, PsyD, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute, explained to MTV News that, in some ways, this is reflective of real life too. “If we go on a date, we are more flirty than if we're on a job interview — just like on LinkedIn, we're way more buttoned up and ‘professional,'” Hamlet, who is an expert in mood and anxiety disorders, said. By that logic, it makes sense that what you post on Facebook may not make the rounds on TikTok, or any other app.” Kelly agreed, noting that “sometimes you really do have to put a certain mask up, especially if you're dealing with family or employers.”
According to Hamlet, it's “healthy for humans to have different sides of themselves,” and the Dolly Parton Challenge illuminates those different facets of our personality. But to some people, like Rafy, a 22-year-old from Florida, the meme also underlines how we might be losing sight of our authentic selves by flattening our personalities throughout so many apps. She posited that “authenticity across platforms doesn't exist,” and added that the meme reminded her of the popular Netflix reality show, The Circle. “People know that you cater to your audience, whether that's presenting yourself differently on a dating app versus your family-oriented Facebook. I think the meme highlighted those gaps between reality and what's presented on social media.”
The major difference between IRL and social media is that online, we're always putting a calculated version of ourselves out there, no matter what the platform may be. “Every human is dynamic,” Hamlet explained. “But it gets a little dicier on social media when the urge is to have a perfect and really curated version of yourself, and there's not as much depth or explanation for the consumer of those pictures to know that…these aren't perfect people.”
While some people might feel more of an urge to share certain embarrassing moments, or post photos that are intentionally awkward, that requires a conscious choice to post those images. Between finsta accounts and “close friends” IG stories, there are plenty of ways to present images with less varnish. According to a 2017 poll by Truepic, 81 percent of respondents believed other people had posted edited photos on social media accounts, which was likely informed by the fact that 64 percent said they had done so as well. 48 percent of people aged 18-34 also said the possibility of edited photos made them distrustful of dating sites (sorry to your “Tinder” meme square). People regularly posit that they are tired of seeing the filtered version of one another and want to see more of what's true, even if it's messy or uncomfortable or imperfect. Olivia has been trying to break down the walls that exist between the online world and the IRL one on her social accounts. “I used to take Instagram way too seriously and try to [have an] aesthetic, but lately I've been trying to be more transparent and just post what I want, like I do on Twitter,” the 21-year-old said.
Rafy also wants to merge truth and perception on her Instagram page, but says it's a lot harder than it looks. “I wrote a really real Instagram post at the end of last year,” she recounted, referring to a 2019 recap where she explained how the “most humbling year of her life” taught her some incredibly valuable lessons about healing and companionship. “I detailed struggles and [tried to] build that genuine and authentic sense of self,” she said. Even so, she felt a certain level of filtering creeping in by virtue that her account is public. “I try to remember that my employers or students with whom I work could stumble across it. That's not a barrier for posting, but it causes me to dial back what I consider to be my ‘real' brand,” she added.
Hamlet suggested that we've become conditioned to post what other people have conditioned as our “best selves” online because we're often rewarded for it — a 2015 study found that photos with filters are more likely to elicit reactions than untouched versions of the same images — which can make it a lot scarier to pull back the curtain. “If you post something and it starts to get a lot of likes, there's potentially the pressure to post another, which might get a similar amount of likes,” she explained. “You get dopamine rushes; you get an increase in self esteem. It's very short term, but in the moment it feels great. Long term, it could actually end up working against the person, because it creates a lot of pressure…and so, the curation starts.”
This is exacerbated for people of color, many of whom feel they must “code-switch,” or adjust their manner of speaking or presenting, to be successful within predominantly white social settings, and especially within the workplace. A 2019 study found that, among Black adults with four-year college degrees, nearly half say they often or sometimes feel the need to change the way they speak around others of different racial and ethnic backgrounds. How someone interacts within their own social circles may be different from the LinkedIn-adjacent setting of their office, but feeling an expectation to code-switch in your digital life in addition to your professional one can feel like added layer of performativity, in which who you are is never perceived as being enough.
The desire to be liked and the urge to “fit in” are completely normal emotions. And if we view each social platform as its own community with its own set of rules, it's only logical that we'd shapeshift accordingly to be accepted within each structure. Just as different friends bring out different aspects of your personality, various apps might do the same thing.
“It's not the whole truth, but not necessarily a lie,” Rafy agreed. “We're different versions of ourselves with different people, so why should that change with our social media? I think a lot of it is generational, where people who are still growing into themselves might try to discover who they really are by seeing what's being perceived [positively]. But I think it can influence who a person becomes.”
As for the meme itself, Hamlet noted that Parton's initial post had positive messaging, given that the country legend captioned the image, “Get you a woman who can do it all.” “You want to be able to be multifaceted,” Hamlet said, noting that the ability to be professional and serious in one setting, while being fun and silly in another is a sign of being adaptive, which in some cases can be a strength.
But as social media becomes more and more ubiquitous, it can only follow that we'll begin to re-evaluate how we use our apps. After all, the internet is no longer something we visit occasionally; we live here now, all the time. As our online personas become more and more like our real selves — and vice versa — we're forced to reckon with what that says about us, our relationships, and the way we live our lives. So yes, we might be different on LinkedIn and Facebook and Instagram and Tinder, but that doesn't mean we're fake or telling a lie. We're just not telling the whole story, 100 percent of the time — and if people want to piece the facets of your personality together, they can either follow you on every platform…or perhaps just hang IRL.