Pain is caused by the blurring of authenticity with fabrication*. Matt Remski
I often bore and annoy my friends with my angst about social media. I am prone to distractibility, routinely over-schedule my days, and tend to over-think just about everything—all this by way of explanation for my love/hate relationship with facebook.
I love that I can connect with distant friends and relatives, and be part of professional groups where I can ask questions and share ideas. I love that activists, environmentalists and innovators can use social media to get important information out to the public. I hate that I get sucked in to reading or watching so many posts that basically just waste time. And recent research is beginning to prove what I’ve always feared: social media is making us dysfunctional, both on an individual and a social level.
“Pay attention” is an interesting turn of phrase, and one that has become more apt and relevant the more we learn about neuroscience. Attention, like money, is a limited resource, and the pot of gold that marketers are scrambling to capture. Social media platforms generate revenue by selling your attention to businesses. Let me pause here to say that I am completely aware of the irony of writing about this from the perspective of a business owner who also needs to garner attention (and I do use social media accounts). Marketers get our attention by appealing to the subliminal, “bottom up,” automatic cognitive systems—the brain functions that we don’t have much awareness of. Basically, these systems are prone to being yanked around by promises of sex, wealth, power, social acceptance or inclusion (beauty, body image, fear of missing out) and also baby animals and cat photos.
As we become caught up in this cognitive junk-food we don’t have the time or the focus needed to attend to anything that is deep, insightful, complex or analytical. Many think we can connect the devolution of politics into partisan, child-like, name-calling with little appreciation of facts, research, or the complexity of issues with the rise of social media use. We are drawn to the best entertainers now, not the best leaders or problem solvers.
Social media doesn’t often allow for nuance. I recently responded to an old friend in a comment thread in a way that I felt would be relevant and meaningful to him (knowing his history, his values, and his ways of speaking). I immediately offended another friend whom I would never speak to in this language. I think most of us, in real life, belong to multiple communities and social groups, and we adapt our responses to whomever we’re with. (A simple example would be the friends you swear around and the ones you don’t). But there’s no way on a social media platform to be skilful about these differences, unless you were to message everyone privately. Some people would argue “Who gives a damn? Just say what’s on your mind.” But I change my mind often, and often what’s on it is more a factor of how tired I am than it is of my prevailing opinions. Also, comments can be tone-deaf (hence the rise of emoticons) and have to be kept shallow to be safe. I miss real conversations! I miss depth, authenticity and the simplicity of real, in-person conversations.
To be “successful” at social media (i.e. to build a big following) you have to fabricate a second “self” and that self, by virtue of the platform and process can never authentically be you (because there really isn’t such a thing as you. You will always be in flux). But these days people seem to spend as much time editing, thinking and planning their posts about what they are doing as the time and energy they spend doing it. We’re dividing our consciousness in a way that alienates us from being fully present with what we’re actually doing and being with whomever we’re actually with.
Current research is finding that in general, the more time we spend on social media, the unhappier we are. A study by Holly Shakya and Nicholas Christakis discovered that measures of life satisfaction, mental, and physical health all declined with increasing facebook use.2 Also, social media was designed to cause addiction, and causes similar brain activity to substance abuse and gambling. Facebook has also been called “the envy generator,” because everyone posts their highlight reels and not the mundane reality of their everyday activities. Some of us are more prone to envy than others of course, but if you have a pain point in your psyche you can guarantee that someones’ facebook post is going to poke a stick right into it.
Authenticity is tricky enough in real life, but the performance aspect of social media means that we have to fabricate an online image or brand that colours inside the ever-shifting lines if we’re going to be “liked.” And that doesn’t even take into account the anonymous trolls and other nasty (unaccountable) behaviour. According to John Bell and John Zada: “Masters of profits and propaganda are farming our minds, doing cumulative damage that may go to the very core of our humanity. As a result, our attention is becoming locked into a low level of living and functioning.”3
Chamath Palihapitiya, Facebook’s former Vice President, is suggesting that people take a “hard break” from social media because it’s “ripping apart the social fabric of how society works.”4 But given the popularity and useful aspects of social media it’s unlikely to be going anywhere soon. Personally, I find the more I stay away from it the happier and calmer I feel. But, I think it’s possible to use social media without too many destructive side effects, just as it’s possible to enjoy a drink without becoming an alcoholic. I have an attention-span that doesn’t tolerate much distraction, and I’d prefer to spend my time going “deep” into more interesting (to me) and quiet places. But it’s possible to use platforms wisely by limiting your exposure (set a timer for example), retaining your skepticism (fact-check), keeping your privacy settings strong, and following only close friends and family.
Attention is a precious and limited resource and what you spend it on will determine the kind of life you’ll live and the experiences you’ll have. Think twice before you “pay” attention,
Hoping you all don’t unfriend me now. Yours (ironically),
*I am playing fast and loose with this quote in this context. Matthew is describing the problem of consciousness wherein “our cognition of objects is so efficient and seamless that it creates a potentially artificial and alienating web of simultaneous projection, interpretation, and abstraction.” (Threads of Yoga,Page 131). However I do think this extrapolates to the social media space.
1 Remski, Matthew. Threads of Yoga. Toronto: Matthew Remski, 2012. p.131
2 Chandra, Ravi. “How to Use Social Media Wisely and Mindfully” January 23, 2018. https://www.mindful.org/use-social-media-wisely-mindfully/
3 Bell, John and Zada, John. “The Great Attention Heist.” Jan 1, 2018. https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/the-great-attention-heist/#!
4 Chandra, Ravi. (As above).