In Part 1 of If My Social Media Accounts Cease to Exist, Then Do I As Well?, I ended by asking these questions:
“Why did I feel the need to share a "clever" thought I had when I was enjoying lunch out by myself?
Why did I need to let anyone know I went to the Griffith Observatory?
Why was I so compelled to let people know I'm eating ice cream and watching Netflix alone on a Friday night?
I think the answers to these types of questions may be different for all of us, so I won't speak for everyone. However, I will speak for myself. The answers to the Why? Why? Dear God, WHY? of these questions are: VALIDATION. LONELINESS. APPROVAL.”
Now, these things aren't necessarily all bad to want (or not want). After all, social media is the reason I have made countless friends who also love to write or learn French, and it’s the tool that has allowed me to connect with other women from all over the world who love to travel; heck, it’s the reason I am even able to share my writing -- and the only reason you are reading this right now. I admit that I am grateful for all the good that comes along with social media. I think it becomes an issue for me, however, when I begin to lose sight of what matters, like being present with the people around me and seeking validation or approval from within.
My husband is one of the only people -- if not THE only person -- I have ever known who has never had a social media profile in his life, save for a MySpace profile his friends made for him to which he never even had the password. Oh, and he got a Snapchat account once for about a week before he found he never used it and then deleted it. (That's why he looks at me like that with suspicion every time I ever take his photo.)
Anyway, my point is, he is like a time capsule in human form. He is like the last human standing after a zombie apocalypse. He is like a one-man control group in a study on the effects of the Internet on human behavior. He is the only sober, designated driver in this journey called life.
As my sister said about social media and rapidly changing technology, it's as if we've all jumped into a giant body of water without knowing how deep it is or how far the shoreline is or whether there's even a lifeboat around. My husband is like the one person who didn't jump. So every once in a while, he throws me a life preserver and reels me in, though I never quite get entirely out of the water. And sometimes I worry that someday I may swim out too far for the rope to be long enough to reach me. A couple days ago, however, when I swam out a bit too far, he was still able to get to me.
I was having a really down day, presumably the post-birthday blues. Turning 30 had been really exciting, and I'd been looking forward to this milestone for a long time. Yet after it passed, I crashed kind of hard. I just felt down for a variety of tiny reasons that all added up into one huge pit in my stomach and one heavy weight on my chest. He realized I was in a funk and said, "Let's talk about this."
He started asking me all sorts of questions about what was eating at me and what it is that I want next out of life. I told him that all I really want to do is write, and he asked, "Well, what's keeping you from writing?"
"Nothing," I said.
"Okay, well then what are you wanting that you feel like you aren't getting?" he asked.
I was ashamed to admit the answer to his question because I was feeling like it reeked of a need for outside validation. "Well, I guess I want to know that it resonates with people. I want to know whether I'm actually good at it. I want to know whether it connects with others or makes a difference to them. I want to know that I'm doing something that matters."
He laughed and said, "Haven't at least a few people already told you all those things?"
"Yes," I admitted. I was starting to feel really silly. I was also starting to feel incredibly ungrateful for the really supportive people (like you!) who have been reading the words I throw out into the universe. I truly, deeply appreciate each and every person who has encouraged me to keep going, so it suddenly sounded so selfish to want even more people to like and comment on -- or validate and approve of -- my writing.
"Well how many people do you need to validate you? 100? 1,000? The whole world? What number will make you believe you should keep writing?"
He got me. I didn't have a good answer.
I started thinking about my husband and how he just LIVES his life. When he's not at work fighting fires and whatnot, he's rock climbing or spear fishing or taking part in some other equally life-threatening activity. I suppose he loves adrenaline, too. He just gets it from a different source. He gets it from taking on challenges; I tend to get it from connecting with other people.
That is incredibly vulnerable for me to admit. I don't want anyone to get the impression that what I post and share is not real. Because it is. It's just that what I do choose to post and share and comment and like, etc., does seem to be done so out of a need to connect with and seek the approval of others. Pretty much everything I do is rooted in a desire to have harmonious and fruitful relationships with other people. That is why social media is so addicting for someone like me. It gives those dopamine hits with "like" notifications and lights your phone up with happy comments filled with emojis, just like hitting the jackpot at a Vegas slot machine.
And yet it also leaves you emotionally bankrupt (dramatic, I know) when you notice someone is no longer your "friend" on Facebook or has "unfollowed" you on Instagram or Twitter or hasn't "liked" any of your photos in months when they used to like them all the time. I don't even want to get into how many times I have panicked when I've noticed someone is no longer connected with me on some social media account. Was it that one picture I posted? Did I get too political? Did I offend them in some way the last time I saw them that I can't recall? Maybe they never followed me before anyway? But I'm almost certain we both followed each other!
And just when I'm drowning in unproductive, self-centered thoughts like that, my husband throws me a life preserver -- Stop. Just Stop.
And suddenly, I'm back on solid ground, realizing that not everyone is going to like me or want to see whatever inane nonsense I post on the Internet. And I don't blame them because, quite frankly, I don't find any of it interesting within about 20 minutes after I’ve posted it. And sometimes, not following or "friending" someone has nothing to do with whether we like them or not anyway. Sometimes we just have boundaries around what we do and do not share and with whom. It may be nothing personal, and it may not have even been given nearly as much thought as someone like me worries it has been. Sometimes it may have been a complete fluke because they thought they were following you but weren't. Or maybe, just maybe, they had bigger concerns -- you know, like taking care of a child or resolving a conflict with a spouse or simply working at their job or, I don’t know, figuring out what to make for dinner that night. But that's the other reason social media can be so difficult -- because we just can't know for sure.
Sure, we may be overanalyzing to worry that a friend who has stopped liking our photos as often is annoyed with us or that an old classmate or coworker who is no longer our Facebook friend was upset with an article or video we posted during election season. (Trust me, I feel silly even writing this, and I can already see my husband's eyeballs rolling into the back of his head at the thought that any of us would ever be concerned with any of these details.) However, sometimes we are not overanalyzing at all. Sometimes our assumptions and worries are real and valid. But the not knowing makes it so that we can never address the issue.
It's also what makes us sound so utterly ridiculous to our partners and friends who aren't quite as addicted to these bittersweet forms of modern-day communication. Can you imagine if I were to contact a friend of a friend of a friend I met at a party once in 2007 to say, "Hey, I noticed we're not friends on Facebook anymore. I hate to think that there's any disharmony between us. Did I upset or offend you in some way that we could discuss?"
No, you can't imagine it, because people would think that's weird -- well intentioned but weird. Somehow, in this new digital era, it's not weird to be "friends" with people we barely know or to share our every thought with anyone and everyone who will listen to and read it, and yet it's suuuuuper weird to directly acknowledge a disruption in that digital friendship. We all know that we're part of this online game, and yet talking about it and giving it any power seems preposterous.
The bottom line is -- social media leaves a LOT of room for misinterpretations and misunderstandings. A lot of that, in my opinion, is due to the fact that technology has been evolving much more quickly than we have been able to adapt to it. Before we can come up with a set of norms and expectations around things like "How long is too long before responding to an email that isn't that urgent?" or "What is a normal reply to a Snapchat photo that someone sent directly to you as well as posted on their story?" (I really hope that way fewer people get that than probably will), we come up with some new app and new ways to be both delighted and offended by one another. And this is all happening much, much faster than we can study its effects on our personal health and relationships.
Some people may fare better in the online universe. Perhaps they do not feel the compulsive need to like everyone's posts or read and comment on every article their friends share. Maybe some people are capable of a casual, no-strings-attached relationship with social media. I am not one of those people. Believe me, I wish I were.
As my sister shared with me, she believes the main purpose of taking photographs is to capture moments that trigger memories later. So with all of us posting images of the memories we are living (oftentimes just moments after they've become memories), we are all taking part in a collective memory. In a sense, we are all in each other's minds and experiencing each other's days from the comfort of our own homes (or from whatever cruise ships or airplanes we may be on or whatever). And that honestly seems pretty awesome in the truest sense of the word.
However, it doesn't seem like the human brain is capable just yet of logging countless people's thoughts, feelings, opinions, and memories into our own minds every day. So it's not that I don't care about what other people think, feel, or experience that is the issue. It's that I care too much. I care to the detriment of my closest relationships and my own mental and emotional health. And I have a sneaking suspicion that I am not the only one.
In Part 3 of this series, I will be exploring some possible solutions for how to best balance the pros and cons of social media. In the meantime, I’m curious:
How do you regulate your usage of social media?
Do you struggle with limiting the amount of time you spend on it?
Any other thoughts?
I’d love to hear from you!