Social Media, Junk Food of the Mind

Like junk food piggybacks on our innate liking for salt, sugar and fat, so social media abuse our desire for social sharing and validation… and so, both are feeding problematic tendencies, even as there is use and pleasure in them.

I woke up just 5 hours after going to bed, barely resisted the temptation to check if there’d been any notifications on the phone (which “only” runs twitter and gmail) in the meantime, went to prepare my usual morning matcha – and a downpour sat in. A weekend of storms had passed, the weekdays had had nice weather, so what was that? It sounded as though it was going to be a truly heavy rain… and then it stopped, mere seconds after it had started.

First thought: How do I share this odd occurrence on facebook? Do I have any chances of illustrating it with a photo?

Second thought, thanks only to the notion of slow sharing and the desire to not be overwhelmed by the habit: What the hell?!? Sure, it was something unusual, but why on earth would anyone need to hear about it?

That’s just how it goes, though.

Be Yourself search screenshot
Screenshot of just the first few results of a Google image search for “Be yourself”…

When we experience something, we are likely to not just want to keep it to ourselves but to desire to share it with others. Even if you are an introvert, you are more than likely interested in hearing at least a little something about some other people (and getting a little validation yourself).

We are bombarded by messages exhorting us to do our own thing and not care what others think, but those messages themselves are of any interest only because we always do care what others think. And what they do. And whether they – at least, some “they” whom we make out to be relevant to us – approve or disapprove of our doing.

We are a social species, after all.

Social ostracism used to mean a sure death; left to one’s own devices, one just couldn’t procure food, protect oneself from predators, simply function as a living and breathing human being.

Sure, we also need our alone time for reflection, some more so than others, but we aren’t ever total individuals for whom group contexts don’t play a role. In all the individualism of many a modern, especially Western, society, there is an even stronger drive towards conformity than in many a more traditional and collectivist society (where the conformity would be the only and ‘natural’ thing to do).

Try even just dressing yourself differently from the rest of the people in your high school or the rest of the employees in your company or profession! It’s such a difficult thing to do, someone who manages to pull it off successfully, and obviously doesn’t completely fall outside the profile of the type of person he/she represents, is interpreted as having to be of high social standing. (As recently shown by the study The Red Sneakers Effect: Inferring Status and Competence from Signals of Nonconformity – paywalled there, but a good write-up is freely available e.g. here.

In come social media. Possibilities of keeping up with what’s happening in our friends’ and family’s lives (Hi, Dad!), opportunities to create an audience for our ideas, non-places to be social without actually having to interact with actual people with all their idiosyncrasies.

Of course, there are good sides.

Social and cultural backgrounds play less of a role; you may have friends on Facebook, let alone followers on Twitter, who are of a different race or religion or culture or sexual orientation or… you name it, and it might not matter. You may not even be aware of it.

Interesting articles and fascinating insights may be shared, insightful conversations may be had.

Then again, there tends to be a self-selection to groups which share similar interests and opinions, and there is a tendency to utilize the networks for either the most inane of statements (Helloooo, photoquote “memes” and food pics..) or for radical and otherwise extraordinary positions held at least as much for the likes and shares they bring as for the value they are seen to hold. And to some extent, the value is seen as residing in the shares and likes and retweets, anyways.

Social media use shapes a habit.

It’s so easy to share, such a nice reward to pull the lever… uhm, open the page or app and just quickly check what’s been going on with one’s “friends,” it becomes second nature to do so. There are ways of doing it better, sharing more slowly and thoughtfully, maybe even of utilizing the tendency to want to present oneself and one’s life as interesting in order to actually work on making it so – but those practices require a thoughtfully reflective use of the technology. A technology which is, at heart (what a phrase…), designed to reward the exact opposite.

More likely, it goes the opposite way, bad habits are developed, and one’s own life just seems empty in comparison…

The challenge, then, will be for us to not let us be shaped by the technology, without wanting to and in ways we don’t want to be, but to shape our use of the technology so that it is good for us, instead. That only works by being highly reflective and controlled about it, or setting up systems to avoid ‘overfeeding’, though…

Feel free to contribute