Hello there, welcome to my corner of the interwebs and thank you for your willingness to be lured in with this clickbait title I've so carefully crafted for this social commentary, if you will, about how we live in a world that's more connected yet paradoxically lonelier and more anxious than any time in history. I have no empirical evidence to support this statement, beyond my personal experiences with social media, late night Googling and growing suspicion that constant social referencing is somehow tied to the burgeoning mental health crisis in this country. Oh, that thing. You know it. It's the one we're doing a pretty bad job of solving.
More on that to come, along with some heartfelt suggestions and tips for curing FOMO and other social media driven diseases of the mind that you may or may not find helpful.
That said, it seemed fitting to highlight this post with a picture of what I look like on a normal day at home. One Sunday morning a few weeks ago, while sitting in my pajamas, bathrobe, glasses, absurdly uncool (yet insanely comfortable) slippers, I was scrolling through Instagram and stumbled on the following images:
- Kayla Itsines doing box jumps in a sports bra with incredible abs, an amazing tan, and fabulous hair
- A girl from my high school with a beautiful apartment, a successful business, and a bajillion followers
- Dwell Magazine's photo of an $8 million mansion in Hawaii
- Alexa Chung at the airport, taking a selfie with an ironic caption that was so cool I barely understood what she meant
- A quote about becoming a hustling boss babe
This is what my mind did in response to these images that I exposed it to:
- "She is so beautiful, tan, and fit. Which reminds me that I'm smushy and pale. Why can't I break my Costco SkinnyPop, red wine and chocolate addiction? Maybe I should join her BBG program so I can do box jumps in a bikini and feel great about myself while doing it."
- "Have I made bad career choices? Should I have moved to NYC after college and suffered through an overpriced English basement apartment and survived on ramen noodles for years in order to have paid the price to be doing what I love today?"
- "Wow. What an amazing place. Why do I live in Chicago? What do I need to do in life to have that house? Is it too late to return all my furniture for Scandinavian minimalist designs?"
- "She is so cool and cosmopolitan and irreverent. I literally make puns like my life depends on it and spend many hours a day in a cubicle working for the man and try really hard at everything. Was trying ever cool? How did I end up such a square? Should I try to stop laughing at my own jokes?"
- "The thought of hustling makes me anxious and I think that if I ever said 'boss babe' out loud my inner feminist might shrivel up and die. But this pink picture has 124,657,204 likes. Am I just unmotivated? Unlikely to succeed?"
My point is, the images we're presented on social media make us feel something, make us think something, usually about where we stand in our realities compared to what is happening in the picture. We usually fall short, doubt ourselves, and fail to appreciate everything amazing about our lives because we're too busy being reminded of what we are not. Although I consider myself to be a pretty confident person (if evidenced only by the sheer number of selfies I've published to the world wide web for all to judge), social media has the power to make me feel less than, not enough, left out, left behind and lonely. And it's happened often, especially in periods where I've been stressed and a bit down about it (after a fight with Wes, a challenge at work, an attempt to try on restrictive silk pants, etc.)
That sense of being separate, different, misunderstood, alone, etc. drives anxiety. And it's not just my suspicions here, I've got some facts on this: Freud himself linked solitude with anxiety, and noted that the first phobias we develop as children relate to being alone. Fear of separation - in terms of abandonment, rejection, isolation, and loss of connectedness - is one of the five fears we all share as human beings. We want to belong, to be accepted for who we are, to be liked and approved. And a great way to feel like you don't belong, won't be liked or accepted or approved is to carry the belief that perfection exists and other people are achieving it while you're still trying to remember to take the cardboard tray out from under the frozen pizza before you put it in the oven.
But what about your real friends? Can't you just talk to them?
Believe it or not, this here blog has some naysayers. Not trolls per se, but good old fashioned critics who I appreciate especially because they've taught me to anticipate expository questions. So here's the part where we establish that, yes, social media and real life friends are different. Theoretically, we should be able to talk to our real life friends about all of our innermost insecurities. But the thing is, I believe the lines between social media and true life are blurring. Nearly everyone has a social media presence these days, and we've developed a protocol for how to present our lives in that forum: happy, curated, beautiful, wealthy, and perfect. We call it a highlight reel, and there's nothing inherently wrong with that. It becomes wrong when we forget that it's not a real reel. (See what I did there?)
And it's easy to forget that it's not real, considering that nearly 75% of the US population owns a smartphone and spends roughly 2 hours per day browsing social media. Folks, that's a solid 30 days per year - a full month - that we spend staring at hot people and their perfect lives on Instagram (ok, and maybe cat videos on YouTube and Amazon Prime deals).
Let's say you spend 4 hours per weekend, on average, with real life friends. That's 8 days per year - a little more than a week - that you have to talk about everything, including how all the staring at hot people and their perfect lives is making you feel anxious and like maybe you should get Botox and max out your credit card to buy a purse you can't afford.
But you don't tell them, out of fear of judgement or for a million other reasons, but mostly because you're worried it's just you who feels it. And it makes sense that you'd think it's just you, based on the hundreds of thousands of images reinforcing the idea that everyone is hot and happy and perfect. Maybe you're single, and the hordes of seemingly happy engagements and blissful marriages surrounding you make you detest the life stage clichés that everyone is trying to project on to you when they ask if you're going to marry your boyfriend. Meanwhile, you're craving some real talk on how life's a crapshoot and there is no fairy tale, because wouldn't that be utterly boring?
You're pretty sure half your friends pushing those clichés (and inadvertently making you feel bad about being single) are actually married to d*cks who they will eventually leave in dramatic divorces and join the singles crowd right about the time you're ready to settle down. Wouldn't it be nice to know that life isn't perfect, that your serene, silent studio apartment sounds like pure bliss to your hot married friend who routinely writes love notes to her d*ck husband on Facebook? But the problem is, she can't talk to you about it. It's what psychologists call an identity conflict, which in a nutshell means that we attach our identities to social categories (i.e., married people, unmarried people), seek to elevate the status of the group to which we belong in order to enhance our self-image, and divide the world into "them" and "us" according to the social category in question (same theory is used to explain sports fanatics and racism).
Sorry, that got out of hand. My point is, social media compounds the traditional "keeping up with the Joneses" comparison trap, enabling false projections of reality to be reinforced over and over again, affecting how we think about ourselves, discouraging us from sharing what we're actually experiencing and leaving us feeling isolated.
Given the sheer volume of users and hours spent on projecting perfection, it seems to defy reason that we somehow expect our subconscious minds to separate the two realities in how we process it all. Even worse, not only is all this staring at hot people with perfect lives making us feel bad about ourselves and making us anxious, it's also making us less tolerant of imperfections in others. (Might I repeat the above point re: identity conflict and racism, and add sexism, ageism, and every other -ism that has to do with a "them" and "us" mindset.)
Most of us don't talk about our innermost insecurities and deepest fears, because we think it's just us feeling that way and we don't want to feel vulnerable and exposed and powerless. Instead we play along with the cliché fairytale expectations (yawn), attach our identities to these perfect versions of ourselves we've created, post beautiful photos of our lives and leave loving messages to our spouses in social media forums they don't use for the world to read and weep out of sadness for their loveless lives.
Ok, I get it. So what do we do about it?
Unfollow the hot people!
Wait, all of them?
No, no, that's not right. And if you're still with me at this point of the article, we both know that hot perfect people aren't actually hot or perfect, and me sitting here in my bathrobe, or you sitting there reading this in your pajamas, could, with the right hair products and highlighter and filters and photo editing tools, also pretend we are hot and perfect. Honestly I've been thinking long and hard about this, including my own behaviors and habits when it comes to projecting an image on social media (special shout out to Benefit Cosmetics High Beam for making it appear as if I have an inner glow in pictures and Laura Mercier for covering up all ma' zits) and my reason for using it in the first place.
And there are a lot of reasons to use it, including to feed your own ego, to entertain you, to stay connected with friends and family, to document your life's journey so your children can enjoy it when you're dead, etc. I've started thinking about social media and the reasons we use it from two lenses, considering that we're all producers and consumers but tend to have different reasons for what we consume vs. produce.
From a production lens, I think we will always want to project our lives in a positive light, and that's a good thing. Especially when you're considerate of the fact that everything you put out there into the world (words, ideas, images, comments) has an effect on other people's minds. It's making me think that producing content comes with a responsibility to be authentic, to consider the impact on the audience, to speak in a way that you'd speak to your best friends. Meaning we should really be reading out loud everything we're planning to post to confirm that it's actually something we'd be willing to say out loud to real people who you care about. A friend (Hi, SC) suggested that social media grew so rapidly that we didn't really have time to develop etiquette in how we use it. And maybe we need to think about getting on that.
From a consumption point-of-view, I think we often allow content to be pushed into our worlds rather than taking some proactive steps to be intentional and selective in what we invite into our lives. Thinking about consumption of social media reminded me of why I dropped off of Facebook so many years ago.
If you've been following this blog for years (!) you'll remember that I moved a lot for my job. For the first couple of cross-country moves, I went through periods where I had no (geographically desirable) friends. My mom would be too busy to talk to me and I never figured out how to use my TV, so I'd log on to Facebook and see hundreds of people I knew having A LOT OF FUN and not sitting alone in a tiny apartment on a Saturday night with nothing better to do than click through Facebook photos in a trance.
One fateful night, 300 pictures in on the profile of some girl whose name I should have forgotten years earlier, I happened upon a fetus (who is now probably a kindergartener). I was startled. PEOPLE MY AGE HAD IT TOGETHER! THEY WERE GETTING MARRIED. PUTTING BABIES IN UTERO ON THE INTERNET. BUYING MCMANSIONS. I got sort of panicky looking at the ultimate manifestation of adulthood that was imminent, looming in front of me via the lives of my peers but also extremely far from where I was in life. I deactivated immediately, never looked back, and was cured.
I just didn't want it in my space anymore, and it's been so long since I've used it that I was literally like a 95-year-old woman trying to program a DVR when I finally reactivated my account in the fall to find old photos for my father-in-law's memorial. And then I went on a massive unfollowing spree, anyone who I didn't know or care to have popping in to the front of my consciousness.
And that unfollowing spree spread to my Instagram account, where I got rid of entire categories. All fitspo, gone. All models, gone. All those who have ever posed in a pumpkin patch in a non-ironic way or without children, gone. All those who were trying to sell me things I didn't need so they could earn a margin, gone.
And what was left! Was amazing! People who make me laugh, make me think, make me want to become more like them because of their general awesomeness, people who I know and love, people who I hope to know someday! And they're no longer being crowded by stupid sh*t and fake hot people. Which means that my Instagram feed is now a happy place, one that makes me feel refreshed and energized when I open it.
Some people say that social media is silly, and would think my writing a giant essay on it is a waste of time. But I think social media has massive power to drive thoughts and beliefs, to influence action, to elect presidents, to make us stressed and / or depressed, to drive us to spend money we don't have to impress people we don't like, to take something away from the joy that it is to be alive! Which means that it has equal power to sway thoughts and beliefs and behaviors in a positive way, to help us build meaningful connections and better understand ourselves and each other. Social media is quite possibly one of the most powerful tools we have to transform the world for ourselves and for others, but only if we take the time to shape it.
The end. I feel like I should have a more dramatic conclusion here but this is all I've got for you. Hopefully you've enjoyed the latest fruits of my neurotic brain, and can relate in some way. If not, I appreciate you reading all the way to this point for entertainment purposes. If you have thoughts on this topic, hated the post, love my new website that finally has my real name, feel like sharing who you've unfollowed, etc. please let me know in the comments.