How Social Media has Caused us to Commoditise Our
I recently watched a video posted on Facebook by a guy named Simon Sinek that hit a little too close to home. Simply rehashed, this guy’s message is about the plight of millennials in this digital day and age. Without giving too much of this scintillating(no sarcasm intended) talk away, Sinek makes the case that this new breed of distractible, lazy, entitled and narcissistic Gen-Y’s are caught in an endless feedback loop wherein instant gratification has become the reign of the land.
This generation is composed of the idealistic dreamers, those who were told to “reach for the stars” –and if you happen to fall— well, Daddy’s bank account will always be available. Interestingly enough, the 2008 Financial Crisis lay the ground work for historically high rates of unemployment, but that’s another story all together.
One of the ways in which this instant gratification is most clearly manifested, Sinek goes on to say, is in its use of social media. Generation Y occupies a unique nexus where we were on the cusp of many “firsts.” We remember film cameras and sported brick phones, witnessed the dot-com bubble upend the economic order, and entered college as the first guinea pigs of cutting-edge technology. Social media has been hardcoded into our DNA, and we were the first to truly capitalise on it.
For this generation, the new drug of choice is not the new strain of designer MDMA, but rather the dopamine body high one gets from receiving a “like,” a “love”—or if you’re feeling particularly adventurous and emotive that day— a crying emoji with two streams of water gushing from its eyes.
Now, this form of validation and dependency on social media is not news to any of us, and has been the focal point of many shows and movies, including a particularly jarring episode on the British television series Black Mirror episode, “Nose Dive” which tracks the downfall of a protagonist in a dystopian world in which one’s popularity and sense of worth stems from a 1-5 rating doled out by strangers who evaluate their day-to-day interactions with you.
This leads to—you guessed it—a very disturbing Stepford wives situation in which the characters in the show are so staunchly caught up with meticulously curating their perfect virtual personas that it often times does not coincide with—and is actually antithetical to their real character. How they are like when they’re finally alone in their room after a particularly gruelling day of work, is not captured in these moments.
If that doesn’t sound like a dystopia so much as it does real life Tinder and other social networks, then it just goes to show how pervasive our dependency on social media has become.
As someone who used to be an unapologetic, hardcore Luddite, I think I’ve had a hard time grappling with my relationship with social media and adjusting to the social scripts that dictate such social habits.
Now don’t get me wrong. Social media has had a well-documented track record for being a galvanizing catalyst and political tool for change, and the Arab Spring and Umbrella Revolution can attest to this. In spite of the crossfire that many sites like airbnb.com and Uber have found themselves in lately, these sites suggest an increasingly interconnected world built on the twin tenets of trust and community. There are incredible on-the-ground organizers and activists doing incredible work through social media, and content curators who tell compelling stories through branding. Social media has likewise changed the game by providing a platform for underdogs who might not have made it otherwise.
On the less refined end of the spectrum, waking up and scrolling through Instagram has become as second nature to my lifestyle as (groggily) rolling out of bed and brushing my teeth.
As I scroll, I can't shake off the little niggling voice in my head that asks: am I really interested in my elementary school friend’s younger sister who just got into the college of her choice? It begs the question, do I really need to see the ten million Kylie Jenner carbon copies on Instagram on the latest superfood fad diet, perpetuating a warped body image and society's obsession with the formula for a perfect butt? Will looking at the blog “wanderlust urban gypsy” hopping from island to coast in Capri, embracing “funemployment” and shirking all responsibilities add value to my life? And do I really need see viral/ funny cat meme #535? (The answer of course to the last one, is yes).
Chances are, probably not. Before you lump me in with the rest of the bitter haters who claim to go on a social media detox only to realize they can’t actually live without it, know that I’m also the living embodiment of the very person I hate.
I double tap and “like” things simply because—and this is the scary part—I feel doing so will result in a severe case of FOMO – fear of missing out, otherwise. I engage because as much as I hate to admit it, buried deep down inside is the insecure notion that if I don’t partake in this social exercise, I will be somehow ostracized or left behind. Or that my social value will be diminished. As Yuval Harari describes in Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind, therein lies one of humanity's deepest fears. The fear of being perceived as a social outcast and pariah. If you’re swimming with a school of trout downstream, it takes more than an ounce of energy to swim upstream against the current.
You may argue that what I’m picking on is just a slim and (unrepresentative) portion of the content out there, and I would largely agree with you. You could argue that a more bespoke platform would largely solve the problem by tailoring content to people’s preferences by allowing users to choose the content that they wish to subscribe to.
But whatever camp you lie in, it's difficult to argue with the fact that canceling out the noise and content overload isn't simply just a lifestyle choice in a world that demands that we're connected and accessible 24 hours a day. A Pew Research study recently revealed that a whooping 86% of people between the ages of 18-29 rely on social media means for communication. Sure, micro-actions like checking snapchat and posting on Facebook are seemingly innocuous, but what are the cumulative effects of this dependency? Social habits are mutable, but they also gain traction quickly over wide geographic spaces and have powerful lasting power.
One consequence is that we've fallen into the trap of commoditizing our experiences. Going out with friends is no longer about spending quality time with company – it’s about “doing it for the 'gram.” Mottos like "if you didn't post a photo, did it even happen? and "phone eats first" suggests that sharing social value with friends and acquaintances 5,000 miles away is more important than the intimacy shared between you and the person sitting two feet across from you. Travel is no longer about discovering new places; it’s about "spot hitting" and ensuring that you can efficiently check items off your bucket list, share, and re-post while simultaneously adding to the endless noise and recyclable content in this world.
When we are inundated with this ever-increasing content overload, what happens to creativity?
Creativity suffers. Inspiration becomes a catch- all phrase as online content becomes increasingly homogenous. On Instagram, considered of the most "creative" platforms out there, we begin to see the same photos and the same stylistic editing, to the point where there is now an unwritten formula of what combination of subject matter and colour tones produces a "cool" photo. Have we become pathologic curators?
It's easy to see brush our reliance on social media off as a laughable generational issue and praise social networks as a force for good. But then why is it that in a time when we've never been more connected, we have also never been more lonely?
When was the last time you had a peaceful dinner where no one checked their phones?