If you have ever lost a phone or ran out of mobile data, it is very easy to feel as if the entire world was passing you by while you are stuck in a physical reality where only things you can see, smell and touch exist. This reality often seems bland, a tired drag of repetition that seems to give us very little room in shaping it into what we wish it was. The digital landscape is a very different place.
With every other photography-based mobile application availing us with a range of filters that can ensure your skin appears blemish-free (or even enlarge your eyes), it is obvious to see the appeal of digital representation of our lives...not to mention the fact that you don’t have to document and share moments of pain and agony, but you can project that cocktail to be the best ever, or capture that one night you managed to go out and have fun. In essence, among many other uses, we majorly use social media to curate our lives in a manner we deem fit for public consumption. It is a tool for keeping up with the Joneses (if not the Kardashians), but then again, keeping up is hardly anything new, so why the panic over social media?
Photo Credit: sciencenews.org
The widely held assumption is that we behave the way we do on social media, primarily because people are watching and we want to impress them. This, of course, is partly true and far from baseless. The French existential philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre, wrote extensively on how the awareness of our selves being observed changes our internal environment and influences our behavior, but this is not a philosophy class. Suffice it to say that you are more likely to wipe that ketchup stain from your mouth if someone was watching, but social media goes a lot deeper than that when it comes to the human psyche.
If the primary driving force behind our obvious addiction to social media was based on our need to impress others, it wouldn’t be too difficult to break out of it. After all, the opposite, which is radio silence, bears no real consequence. For us to keep going back, constantly refreshing pages to count our likes and obsessing over how many followers we have, something connected to our sense of self has to be involved in the process. No one is addicted to drugs just because it’s something you have to do to seem cool around your friends. At best, that will make you a social user, not an addict. So what is it then?
We do not post on social media to convince others that we are living the life we pretend to live, or wished we were living. We post on social media to allow others validate this life to us, for us. Basically, we are addicted to social media because it is an avenue for us to be validated that we are who we imagine we are.
Imagine if you were part of a social network that hid the number of followers you had, and didn’t allow people to 'like' your content or comment on it. How often do you think you would be posting on that platform? If the goal was to share without any need for validation, surely, the point of sharing to project your chosen image is all you need to do that. Unfortunately, this isn’t exactly how we tend to behave online. The Instagram poet posts his work and waits on the likes and comments to validate that he is good in scribbling verses. In the same way the vain teenager would take a selfie ("self-portrait" sounds too old-fashioned), and wait for the likes to confirm that they are really pretty or handsome.
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On the surface, this appears to be relatively harmless. So what if people need a little pat on the back to encourage them by way of external validation? In the long run, however, the result is an increased level of anxiety as we battle to distinguish our reality from the digital projections we have created to replace it. Is the poet still as good at his craft when no one is there to tell him? Are you still as beautiful or handsome when no one has complimented you? We are aware of the distance between our projected realities and our actual realities, that's why sometimes we end up feeling like frauds, and paradoxically, to counter this, we post more, hoping that the validation will make it real. Just ask any celebrity that is forced into presenting a self-image they are aware is far from their actual image. They will tell you how, even when people come to believe the brand they have sold, it becomes problematic because people begin to have expectations they are forced to keep up with.
So what are we to do? Organize mass social media deleting marches? Stop posting and become permanent consumers that never contribute? These steps probably do have their appeal, but beyond our need for self validation, social media has also been brilliant at helping to form contacts, promote our businesses, meet like-minded people, and even find romantic partners. We do not have to throw the baby out with the bath water. Instead, we can challenge ourselves to become more comfortable with presenting more authentic versions of who we are. Also, beyond ourselves, we can also think about putting out content of significant aesthetic or educational value.
With mental illnesses becoming more prevalent as life appears to develop in complexity, monitoring our habits and the psychological relationships we have with spaces will become more important. We already do this for our physical space, closing windows for mosquitoes. In the future (and perhaps even starting now), we might just have to close tabs for our sanity.