“You get approval from likes” used to be a favourite tease from my ex-lover.
This is probably the longest hiatus I have ever gone through in my online life. It makes me feel weird because I don’t know where time has gone, and it feels as if I have ceased to exist. Or at least my virtual self has. When I wrote my last post I was frustrated, exhausted, and on the verge of a mental breakdown. Yet, and this is still takes me by surprise, I did find the time to upload the odd picture to my most used social media accounts, or to send the odd snap of me doing something mundane like making coffee.
Or going to the library to write my dissertation.
My virtual self, then, had not disappeared. I managed to prioritise the careful creation of a self that only exists online. I now realise that I was divided between real life and social media. I, members of the audience, had become a cyborg, a sort of a hybrid. I have created a monster that lives and breathes in HTML codes and encoded pixels. In filters and hashtags, and followers and…yes… likes. Even after swearing to myself that I would not allow numbers to rule my life, somehow digits still control how I feel about myself. These digits do not scream at me from a scale, they come from friendlier displays: my phone, my tablet, my laptop, my work laptop, my work email, my bank. Of course, a lot of these have nothing to do with the way I experience social media, and how social media influences my life.
So, let’s begin with the way social media works.
The active word in social media is ME. I mean, we all use it to send a message (which is the purpose of social media, after all), and that message usually circles around the very exploitable topic of Me, Myself and I. Look at ME at the beach, look at MY enviable life. Look how I am a healthy person.
By social media I mean the channels we use to broadcast a message, and not send a quick personal note to a friend. When we update our profile[s], we contribute a small piece of information to the image of ourselves we want to let on. Now, this image is not necessarily a sincere representation of our real life. After all, who wants to say they feel like crap?
Sometimes I have the fantasy that these sharing opportunities are the new massified versions of sending postcards, letters, or having friends over to look at the memories from a trip. I don’t agree with this most of time. Social media is, regardless about the meaningful connotations we give it, all about numbers. What can we say about the relationship between social media and numbers? I like to summarise it in three points: we desire high numbers, which satisfy us, and so control our self-worth.
Have you ever thought about the word desire? I mean, really thought about it. It has an overwhelming feeling in the way it rolls out of the mouth. De-sire… It feels as if your cheeks fills with want and power; it carries a strong meaning of yearning, even desperation. “I desire…” means so much more than want, or wish. It carries the anxiety of never having, never achieving. If there is something that controls desire, it is numbers.
Numbers in social media cannot and should not be reduced to mere statistics. The digits that flash in our profile[s] are also invisible objects of desire. When we post a picture, or we update a short status, the goal is to reach a certain number. We desire the recognition and the attention. This desire, and how we have come to manifest and express it, is not necessarily bad. The broadcasting nature of social media immediately becomes a key tool for minority groups who would otherwise be ignored. It offers a platform for connection. The more followers you have that look, the higher chances of finding a strong community. Or so says the theory.
The danger of desire is that it is a ruthless emotion. A desire for recognition or to find a community can quickly turn into a shallow desire for quantifiable satisfaction. Creating, amending and posting content with the sole objective of increasing your numbers can be obsessive and control how we feel about ourselves. We might find that we feel lonely if nobody has replied to a great argumentative status update, so we replace it with another we know will cause others to show happiness for you. The desire for numerical recognition, then overwhelms our desire for human interactions and community.
— Mercedes Domenech (@aftertravelglow) July 19, 2015
The numbers on social media; the amount of “followers”, “friends” and “connections”, are not, in any way, an accurate representation of reality. I am quite sure that no one who is slightly media savvy expects their social media numbers to reflect their actual social life. How is it, then, that models and social media pseudo-celebrities are exiting the virtual sphere en masse and in an outrage? If we all know it isn’t real, why bother? The answer can be a simple one: we want it to be real. We want to be the smart, popular, beautiful, healthy and successful woman. We tell ourselves that if a 17-year-old can do it, maybe we can, and so we begin to believe our own lies.
We are all guilty of it. Being noticed and accepted is satisfying. It gives you the feeling that you are doing something right. That’s what that little 11 means, right? It means that SO many people accept you that you can’t name them, they are a number! They become a social body that collaboratively has approved of you and your life, and that brings us a satisfaction that we can hardly get anywhere else.
What I find unique about social media is the sense that anyone can be famous. Fame happens when a body of people knows you and has an opinion about you, so seeing that a body of people (if only 11) “like” you, makes you feel slightly famous. Or at least popular. Alas, like all good things, this also has a dark side. When you broadcast an image, or a status, no matter how innocent, you are broadcasting a message that what you’re doing is the right thing to do or the right way to live. If you have followers, you are transmitting to them that that is who and what you are. We have already said that what we post in social media is not necessarily true, so when we thrive on being liked by our followers we might fall in the trap of promoting a lifestyle that they like and which is, in fact, unattainable.
What does history say about unattainable standards of “rightness”? I know!!!! They can create social problems of generalisd low self-esteem. Which leads us to…
But you will say:
Mer, you are going on a rant. Yes, of course everyone likes “likes”, and of course I am gonna delete my posts if no one likes them, because I don’t wanna be lame! What is the problem with that?
Exactly that. We have become addicted to virtual appreciation. If you are like me and live in a gigantic city like London, then some nights can get pretty lonely. It’s not that I don’t have friends, but we all have extenuating jobs and sometimes you just don’t want to deal with anyone. The night closes in and you are in front of the TV, looking but not watching, and nursing a secret glass of a not-so-virgin-grape-juice and (shhh…) a bowl of ice-cream. Who wants to remember that? Not me, for sure! Instead, I would snap a picture of the basil plant (still alive by some mysterious cosmic desire) next to a plate of pasta and type: #rockinglife I can do this!
Really, what I would actually mean is: I am a 23 year old thrown kicking and screaming into the real world, and I AM SURVIVING. Be proud of me.
So the likes start flowing in and I begin to nourish myself with them. My self-esteem gets a boost, and the way I tolerate myself improves a little. Look how healthy we are, whispers my virtual self, look how many people believe this. It must be real. This is how I picture the effect social media works. Or at least the numbers that we see in social media. It may be in digit form, or in the times a phone vibrates (one person, two people, three, five, eight, 11!! YES!!!). The numbers of social media determine the ways we can learn how we love ourselves, because to some extent they also determine if our content, message, and even life matters.
Our world is ruled by numbers, it is undeniable, and social media has helped us integrate them into our lives. Because of the desire we have to reach a certain amount of people, and the satisfaction it gives us when we do, our IRL sense of self-worth very much depends on how our virtual self is doing. And this is what I think is the danger of believing and yearning after the virtual selves of others: even if we know that our virtual selves are just fabrications, we still believe it when our friends post glorious pictures of fabulous trips, dinners, new clothes. We believe them when we are alone on a Saturday night and we skipped dinner and went straight to the ice-cream with a side of gin, and then we feel the so-called FOMO and feel worse about our lives.
The numbers of social media tell lies, some bigger and some smaller. Getting a certain number of likes on a picture of a bikini selfie gives the illusion that you are sexy, when really those little hearts and likes are reinforcing a culture that encourages self-identifying (and not self-identifying) women to want to be sexually appealing. 22 retweets about a brunch may give you the assurance you needed to know that your life is great. What we are forgetting is that we are human beings and we feel, and we bleed, and we hurt, and a lot of the time we look ugly. We have forgotten that we aren’t perfect.
Social media is not the new evil, and most certainly it is not a tool to deceive others. In fact, I am a big fan of new and social media (and I will hope to share this over and over), but as anything new, it is uncharted territory and we still need to get used to this. We just need to tell ourselves before bed that #SocialMediaLies.
Until next time.
PS: All the images and tweets come from my personal social media accounts.