23rd June 2017.
No one can deny that social media is a prevalent, omnipresent and, indeed, intrinsic aspect of modern life. The world is so much smaller than it once was, so much more accessible. I recently wrote about the dangers of having such heightened access to information about tragic events that occur across the globe and how a constant, almost inescapable, stream of distressing details emerging in real-time can have detrimental impact on emotional wellbeing. Enhanced accessibility to resources, people and information does, of course, have many advantages. Communication is quicker – the physical distance between individuals no longer necessarily dictates the relationship; I can send an email to someone on the other side of the world and get a response within seconds for instance. For the purposes of this piece, however, I want to focus on that term that I mentioned in the opening sentence – “social media.” What precisely does it mean? We can all give examples of social media platforms (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram – the list is ever-growing). In the simplest form, social media encapsulates all forms of electronic communication – the sharing of information online. I wish to expand a little and focus on the fundamental characteristic that it is dependent on user-generated content. This may seem obvious, but having focus on the “user” as an individual, crucially as an identity, invites noteworthy comment.
Drawing from my personal experiences of, and relationship with, social media it is evident that learning how to navigate the various platforms available is both crucial and something may not come easy for some people. Before you, as the user, produces and publishes (generates) subject matter (content) you need to consider who may see it, who has easy access to it, why you are posting it and, crucially for me, what response do you want to receive. Now, clearly, the fact that there is such a range of social media platforms available demonstrates that each have a slightly different purpose – I wouldn’t, for example, publish a blog on Snapchat! They all, however, are rooted in communication, relationship and receiving a form of response or feedback. In recent weeks I have become increasingly aware that I have fallen into the trap of almost exploiting social media in order to get affirmation, attention – some form of acknowledgement. The reasons for this are numerous; I’ve written previously about the desperate consequences of loneliness, for instance. Being part (or thinking that you are a part) of an online community can be very reassuring if you feel isolated from peers, or don’t feel able to communicate verbally, face-to-face. This poses a great risk. I wish to emphasise that I maintain that social media is an extremely effective tool, but it has to be used correctly; the consequences of generating your own (and indeed viewing others’) material need to be realised. What exactly do I mean by this? Well, it is perhaps best illustrated by some examples from my personal experience.
The extent to which you desire your audience to engage with your content (selfie, blog post, comment) is determined by how much importance you level on the platform you use and how much value the extent of engagement from others has. Put bluntly, does it matter if your filtered selfie on Facebook only gets ten “likes” and your friend’s have thirty? The answer will be different depending on to whom you talk, but I imagine for the vast majority of people they do secretly, or overtly, have concern over the popularity of their posts. We shouldn’t, but human nature dictates that we (to varying degrees) do have the tendency to compare our acceptance by others and draw conclusions therefrom. It is important to keep perspective of these conclusions. People (some friends, some strangers) not affirmatively acknowledging your content does not translate into them not liking you, as a person, in real life. This is something that I need to keep reminding myself. Does my best friend not “liking” my latest string of photos mean that our friendship is over? No. The very fact that I’m having to make this point perhaps demonstrates that our investment in social media, our prolific use thereof, and, sometimes, our dependence on it, can supersede interactions in real-life. I myself have no embarrassment in admitting that my confidence takes a knock when something I post online goes almost unnoticed. After all, surely we broadcast to entertain or inform our audience, don’t we? If there’s no obvious audience there, no one listening and no one seemingly interested, then have we wasted our time? Again, no. That being said, one thing that I do still struggle with is realising that my heartfelt, honest accounts of suffering with depression, or learning to cope with anxiety (written primarily to break down the stigma of the illness and to help others) gets considerably fewer comments, shares or affirmative interaction than someone who posts a funny gif, or a photo of them topless in the gym mirror. This, however, transfers into real-life. It upsets me that some close friends don’t read my posts, don’t support the “cause” by advertising the link to other friends, so I probably can’t “blame” social media alone for this (and I don’t). The way in which I suppose I will handle this is to focus more on why I am writing these pieces and for whom. If someone who needs help and is actively searching online for personal accounts of mental illness, then the chances are my blog may appear – the message will get through to the right people if I persevere. It is upsetting, however, that from my standpoint (and I am aware that this is tainted by underlying issues with self-esteem) the way to gain popularity, and to be noticed, on Twitter and Instagram is to be funny, attractive or use the latest popular words and phrases. It’s a constant battle to not cave in and “tow the line” in order to get noticed. I have to believe that my content does have worth and will be appreciated on its own merits.
Once you realise that the continued success of social media is based on, and rooted in, the users thereof and the material they (we!) produce it is acknowledged that we hold the power – we determine our online persona. This has two broad consequences. Firstly, that we are able to play a role online, we can be a totally different person with a different identity than in real-life. There is a sense of anonymity where the “online you” doesn’t have to be “the real you.” People can choose to totally reinvent themselves, be an exaggerated version of who they really are, or conversely actually be themselves! This can be incredibly liberating – I’m thinking of people who, for varying reasons, aren’t able to come out as homosexual to their family, colleagues, classmates for instance. Having an online community where no one really knows who you are enables you to talk with people with the same interests, the same issues, the same sexuality. Secondly, we have the power to choose precisely what we do and don’t publish online. We can tailor our appearance (filtering a selfie, only posting “perfect” photos), we can cherry-pick the news about ourselves we share (racing to tell followers we’ve got a new job, but neglecting to mention we were fired from the last one) and we can choose to let people just what we’re up to (someone uploading countless photos of them quaffing champagne against a backdrop of a crystal clear sky and golden beach doesn’t mean that’s their norm). For the audience that can be extremely disconcerting. I constantly compare my life, job, activities, happiness levels to friends online. The rational Nathan is fully aware that false idylls are rife on social media – that many are only promoting a “perfect” lifestyle, but I do find myself comparing how dull and mundane my life is compared to those I follow online. Remembering that the user dictates what the audience sees is key. If social media usage plays a substantial role in your daily life, it is vital, for your emotional wellbeing, that you can make the distinction between the virtual (the online) and real-life. Don’t get tricked into a state of mind where online gratification replaces a hug from a friend, some verbal kind words or physical social interaction; don’t blur the line.
Finally, the aspect of social media specifically from the user’s point of view, and something that sadly has come to define my own online persona is the fact that I prolifically used (and the past tense usage there is very much deliberate) Twitter as a platform to cry out for attention when I was going through period of poor mental health. You can read about the background to my mental illness so I shan’t regurgitate that here, but a longstanding feeling or worthless (which, yes, does still exist to varying degrees) and an overwhelming sense of loneliness and isolation has resulted in me needing, far more regularly than normal, to be told that I’m okay – that I’m more than okay, that I’m important in someone’s life, loved, not always second best or the last resort. I suffer from Athazagoraphobia – a debilitating fear of being forgotten, ignored or replaced. I only actually realised a few weeks ago that growing up I only received a loving response, or affection, skin-on-skin contact, when I was injured. I often found myself sitting alone during my school years and would only be noticed (heard) when in tears – I never gained emotionally or socially on my own merits – I always excelled in education, but even when seventeen years of schooling culminated in getting a First Class degree at university, I still didn’t feel valued or worthy of respect. Desperately Tweeting statements like “I am nothing,” or “Why do I always end up alone?” only makes (and has made) people turn away. Desperation is a very unattractive trait and one that absolutely does not result in what I wanted – to be told that I matter. With all of us now having an audience, small or large, to broadcast ourselves to, it’s all-too-easy to throw out a cry for help, to grasp any slither of affirmation that may come from someone behind a computer screen. We need to be mindful of the value, and significance, of such. I have made some truly wonderful friends through social media and I need to believe that this has happened not due to them pitying me, or having to be nice to me in case I get upset, but because I play a positive role in their lives.
How we portray ourselves online and the degree to which we immerse ourselves in social media has varying consequences, both for us as users and our audience. How we form relationships is evolving, how we interact with the wider world is shifting. As technology continues to develop and the role social media plays in society grows ever-larger, we need to remember this now more than ever and take precautions to enable us to use it wisely and prudently.