I can feel myself growing increasingly disenchanted with social media sites. It was six years ago that I became a Facebook user, four years ago that I became a Twitter user, and a year and a half ago that I joined Instagram, and while I’ve gone through varying stages of wild evangelism for all three, the past month or so has seen me receding from all of them as a user. It’s in no small part, I think, because I read this op ed piece by Jonathan Franzen in the New York Times and this cover story by Stephen Marche in The Atlantic from a few months back, and have not been able to look at, or participate in, social media the same way since.
Both pieces of writing, though they take different routes in getting there, essentially arrive at the same conclusions: that social media’s promise of a community of greater interconnection is boloney, that social media make us lonely and narcissistic and our interactions with other people superficial, that in a world of passive ‘liking,’ it becomes more difficult for us to actively love.
I think I always understood these statements to be true, at least on a subconscious level, but there’s something about the words being spoken out loud (or, in this case, written) that is particularly damning and impossible to deny. And now when I peruse my various news feeds, I can see nothing else but the truth of these assertions: in the Facebook likes I get from people I haven’t physically spoken to or seen in eight years, in the Instagram photos of bed comforters and glowing televisions that signify a solitary night in, in the tweets that betray a shocking lack of personal filter. It has always been there, but I’m seeing it with new eyes for the first time.
The rate at which we are inundated with equal parts deeply personal and deeply useless information via status updates, tweets and the like from our friends and acquaintances is overwhelming and frankly creepy to me. It’s almost as if we see ourselves as the narrators of our own reality, tasked with keeping our friends, our sea of “professional carers” as Marche would say, in the loop about every single thing that is happening in our lives, regardless of whether it is significant or mundane. I’m probably not the only person whose Facebook friends are largely acquaintances at best, but at least half of the status updates I read on a given day strike me as wildly inappropriate to be broadcasting to a large group of people who are not your close friends. One example that is, unfortunately, seared in my memory forever came from a girl that I knew from elementary school and haven’t communicated with since the mid-nineties, who posted a photo of her two-year-old daughter and her boyfriend in front of a television with a caption that read something like “Watching Barney after giving (daughter’s name) an enema :(” For the love of Pete, why is this worth of sharing? Because there is always a willing audience, and as a result, that line between appropriate and inappropriate seems to become increasingly indistinguishable.
Further, the level of self-absorption displayed on social media sites is insane. We complain in our tweets or status updates because there is always someone who will be sympathetic and it’s much more uncommon to be called out for being a Negative Nancy on the internet than it is in real life, and we brag about our new job or our travels or our perfect boyfriend/girlfriend because good news means affirmation, whether it take the form of ‘likes’ or ‘hearts’ or ‘favorites’, and affirmation makes us feel good about ourselves. No matter that it takes less effort to click a ‘like’ button than it does to stifle a sneeze. A friend of mine once described Facebook as social masturbation, which now seems more Truthy than ever; the output is always inward-facing because it is all a calculated effort to appear cool or clever or successful and to garner the attention or approval or jealousy of others. It is all about the benefit of the I. Jonathan Franzen puts it very succinctly: “We like the mirror and the mirror likes us. To friend a person is merely to include the person in our private hall of flattering mirrors.”
This is an indictment of my own self as much as everyone else. For the past month, every time I have thought about posting something to Facebook or Twitter or Instagram, I’ve stopped to ask myself “What am I trying to accomplish here? Do I really think that this is worthy of sharing or do I just want to be affirmed?” And nine times out of ten, I have abstained from posting whatever it was because I am in fact just looking for affirmation. And yet, I feel like it’s perhaps more creepy for me to be a social media lurker, scrolling through endless status updates and tweets and photos and absorbing everyone else’s thoughts and opinions without putting out any of my own. I don’t want to quit social media entirely because I do believe it can have great utility in my life, but I also don’t want to become the type of person who throws verbal discretion completely to the wind and thinks that every thing I could possibly have to say is worthy of sharing. So the conundrum is this: how does one actively participate in social media without being a self-absorbed cad? I’m open to suggestions.