Thoughts on Social Media after Returning to Facebook

Wow. Social media is definitely something to watch out for; it is anything but something “neutral.” It has its perks, its conveniences, its uses, and I appreciate what it can do for people.

That said, after pausing from Facebook (actually, hoping I would never go back, except to use it to get more sweepstakes entries and getting the occasional Amazon MP3 credit . . .), I am now back, and I can see how it can aggravate social angst, especially among teenagers and others who succumb to peer pressure (this does not preclude so-called “loners,” introverts, or anti-social people).

People (or at least I) can so easily succumb to the “social” pressure of narcissism and people-pleasing when on Facebook. I can choose to be distant and yet feel selective social intimacy with people who are all miles away in front of their own screens, interacting not only as themselves, but more likely as a persona of their own choosing. I know I was immediately tempted to put on a front and seem like the coolest kat (i.e. the cat’s pajamas) that ever walked the streets of [fill in City of your own choosing]. It was so natural of me to begin building up a projection of myself that I wanted others to see and like [and, as you are probably aware, “Like” has now become a quantifiable action on Facebook].

But even with this fake intimacy and social networking lies another problem. The distance can be confused for intimacy, but there is another scary, creepy loss of privacy. Everything we write or read or respond to is being tracked, and now, in group forums and posts, one can track real-time how many people saw what you posted, liked what you posted, and commented on what you just say. This is a short step from taking even a few words personally and defining yourself by the way others interact with your posts on social media. It becomes a popularity contest for you, and everything becomes personal, whether as flattery or as insult or offense. [This applies to Youtube as well (and other online features that can make people subscribe, follow, and comment) –> in essence, “you” become a public product and commodity that you must now sell in a fickle marketplace, and so you must make “you” marketable and trendy and something that will sell well, trend, or become popular. We may laugh when The Office’s Andy Bernard takes Youtube comments personally in Season 9 Episode 19 “Promos.” But really, how could you not take it personally when you are now reduced to a product that must compete in a marketplace for popularity. If the public market doesn’t like you, then clearly you must be a failure.]

In real life, when we talk, we are held accountable by the very fact that we must talk in person in physical proximity with our audience and/or conversation partners. This checks our tendency to say anything we want. We can’t hide behind a screen, but we must always speak to a real person in close proximity. Now, of course, we still might try to impress people or put on a front, etc. But we don’t record everything we say and go over the tapes and comment on other people’s words. We don’t know exactly how many people heard what we said, and we don’t know how many people officially “Like” and approve of our words or how many will repost them or share them with friends.

Facebook takes away true social interaction and intimacy, and it allows people to easily create a fake persona to interact with other online personas, and it heightens the inherent social competitiveness and posturing with tools like Likes, view count, and comments. People then become absorbed in nurturing a pseudo-popularity and image they want others to see, to become marketable (rather than being good and kind, or even just “natural”) and people start judging and keeping track of who does what and says what to whom when. All this done in one’s own private room with no one else watching, and yet, there is somehow even less privacy, as everything is scrutinized, and all the social data is compiled and displayed for all the world (or at least the 1000s of “friends” and “friend of friends” you have) to see. It seems private, and yet it creates so much social anxiety!

Now maybe I’m just an old fogey buzz-kill who’s taking all this too seriously. But man, there is now no privacy, and there is now hyper-sensitivity to how people perceive you (and your posts, which easily becomes your identity and how you think you are viewed). This can quickly escalate to unhealthy worry about one’s reputation and social status, and this is further aggravated by the fact that many teens already succumb to social anxieties and fears and are easily influenced by how they think they are being perceived. They already feel like everyone is watching and judging, and now with social media, people are watching and judging and voting with their likes and expressing their tastes in individuals who know become products and commodities that must compete with each other to be the next big thing, the next big hit.

So my ruling on social networking: Use at your own risk. Beware of the inner narcissism and social posturing waiting to lash out from within. I work with teenagers (and enjoy hanging out and befriending them), and this was largely why I am back on Facebook. I am no longer a teenager, and yet, on my first day back in the “social” media scene that is Facebook, all these temptations to be cool and fit in and be respected surfaced so quickly. Granted, it was already present in me, but Facebook is definitely the perfect tool to amplify the unhealthy desire to be a people-pleaser doing whatever it takes to win short-lived and fickle respect. it is the perfect platform to commoditize yourself and make “you” a product for mass consumption. Being a “public” figure (or rather “product”/celebrity) brings its highs, but its costs can be heavy. You can’t please everyone in real life (you probably shouldn’t either), and when you seem to be doing so in social media, you really have to wonder what you gave up in the process.

UPDATE 19 Dec 2013: See this post by the Housewife Theologian on Ref21 that corresponds somewhat to this culture of like and vanity.

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