Please Like Me
With social media being used regularly by 3.3 billion people for an average of three hours each day, it's safe to say that our social lives as we knew them have changed immeasurably over the past decade. We now share our lives with the world- offering up photos of our homes, our relationships, our nights out, our children and our bodies; posting our every thought, argument or location online for all to see. But how is it that being more connected than ever has left us feeling so alone?
I have three social media accounts. I spend around two hours each day checking Facebook and Twitter for amusing memes or anecdotes, scrolling endless posts from 'friends' that I haven't seen in decades. I feel embarrassed as I share this truth with you and horrified as I realise that an eighth of my waking hours are wasted on something so unproductive. I am an observer on these sites- I don't feel compelled to share glimpses of my private life and I have become increasingly interested in the motivation behind people's active unveiling of their every move, their every meal and their every thought. To me, this is about relinquishing boundaries and privacy and I'm curious as to what has happened in our culture that we feel compelled to hand over to friends, family and strangers these things that keep us safe in the world- the moments that should belong only to us.
The easy explanation- the one thrown around by critics of social media is simple: narcissism. A definition of narcissism is 'an excessive interest in (or admiration of) oneself and one's physical appearance'- it could certainly be argued that obsessive selfie-taking and using filters to remove facial lines or the reduce size of one's nose fits with this definition. So briefly, let's go along with the concept that there is an increase in narcissistic behaviour online. A person I know, for example, has over a thousand selfies on their Instagram account- another shares every single place she visits by 'checking in' on Facebook. What I know about narcissism is that the individual outwardly demands constant attention and admiration, while inwardly feels unable to give these things to themselves- they feel almost completely empty. With this in mind, using the word narcissist as a throwaway label or insult towards those with a social media obsession no longer feels like something that we as a society can ignore. We need to ask ourselves WHY? Why do our friends, our parents, our partners and our children feel the desperate need for confirmation and admiration from total strangers? And what are WE doing wrong that means we and our loved ones are becoming unable to find this admiration in our real-life relationships with others and with ourselves?
The message that you send to people by placing your social media account ahead of a real interaction with them is that that other person just doesn't matter to you.
The failure of our real-life relationships is a chicken-egg scenario; nobody knows whether we became more emotionally distant from each other as our smartphones made it easier to have access to a network of online relationships (and all of the fantasy and promise that they hold), or whether we went in search of a cyber life because our own lives had become too empty and painful for us to be truly present within. The fact remains that we are choosing more and more to turn our backs on social occasions, real intimacy and relationship (with all of its messiness, beauty and pain) in order to immerse ourselves in the fantasy of social media. I can't even count the number of evenings that I've spent with friends who have their faces buried in their smartphones instead of making eye contact, or who immediately reach for their device just as soon as the enticing 'ping' of cyber communication arrives, regardless of who was talking at the time. The message that you send to people by placing your social media account ahead of a real interaction with them is that that other person just doesn't matter to you. That whomever is attempting to contact you in your pocket at that moment is significantly more important. And this is why your relationships are failing. This is why invitations are on the decline and your deep feeling of loneliness is on the rise- which in turn will suck you further and further in to the false warmth and security of your cyber-existence. Lonely feeds lonely and the only way out of this cycle is real human relationship.
So why else?
There's an expression that a psychotherapy client of mine uses- FOMO. This stands for 'fear of missing out', and although used as a modern throwaway excuse for obsessively checking the activity of other people on social media, FOMO means more to me than it implies. Rather than simply being frightened that someone else might be doing something fun without us, what FOMO really signifies is a dissatisfaction with our own lives, to the point that we throw away reality for the assumption that someone else's media fairy tale is better. And I'm here to break it to you right now- it isn't. Because the bottom line is that if someone has the time and inclination to pose, filter, edit and post photographs and information about their whereabouts whilst they are still there, then they aren't truly enjoying the moment either. They are not truly connecting with the other person/people, with their environment or the moment, with the sounds and smells and tastes and bodily sensations. Their head is down and their eyes are staring at a small screen. They aren't connecting with life- they are connecting with the internet and all of the false admiration that it promises.
Perhaps you see that couple- you know the one. Always smiling, always together- usually jetting off several times a year to a romantic destination and frequently sharing unprovoked statements of love and unworthiness of each other on their Facebook pages. Here they are- look. They're in Paris this weekend, sharing unboundaried access to their lives while you sit at home and damage your self-esteem by comparing your real life with their rose-tinted one.
I often wonder what happens next in that scenario: The two flawless lovers kiss in front of the Eiffel Tower, their picture taken by selfie-stick and posted romantically and immediately to three different social media accounts each. Hashtags are added, location is confirmed- then the waiting begins. Do the happy couple interact as they await the 'likes' and 'hearts'? Are they even holding hands as they reply to the stream of comments from their followers?
A final thought
I recently went to watch a rock band from the 1990s perform at the Brighton Dome and was impacted by something the singer said to her audience. She looked out at the sea of mobile phones being held up in the air and she said 'put your damn phones away and just live in the moment.' Each time we see the world through a four-inch screen we are removing part of our experience and over time, we become so far removed from our own lives that we barely recognise them any more. We are falsifying and then sharing every intimate detail of our lives, begging and pleading of others 'PLEASE LIKE ME'.
Please, like me.
And when others oblige and click that heart or that 'thumbs up'- well, deep down you know that they are liking a fantasy- the censored, enhanced self that doesn't exist in real life- and as such, their admiration can't reach the core part of you that so desperately needs to be recognised and loved, just as you are.