How did we manage to live our lives before social media?

Social media has been a wonderful tool in so many ways, but in the wrong hands and used for ethically dubious reasons, it can all go very wrong

File photo
File photo

The demands imposed on anyone in the public eye has made it almost obligatory for them (or someone representing them) to be on social media.

These days, politicians, and heads of state tweet their most important announcements rather than issue official press releases – heck, even the Pope has a Twitter page, complete with his own handle (@Pontifex). If a hashtag gets enough traction, it starts trending and it becomes THE main topic of conversation, but because “everyone” is on Twitter, there is no sense of perspective which is dictated by the gravity of the story. The Ukraine war can easily be overshadowed by something one of the Kardashians did – because when everything is “important”, then nothing is important, and great tragedy ends up being put on an equal footing with frivolity. The news you are fed depends on what stories you click on – which is why public opinion on controversial topics has divided us even more, as we prefer to sit firmly in our bubbles without opening our minds to another point of view.

The speed and ease with which news travels not only has changed what is considered ‘news’ but has also changed the way we access and consume our entertainment especially since most celebrities use social media to publicise their latest work, giving them an instant connection with their fans. This week, Spotify announced that Taylor Swift’s ‘Midnights’ became their most-streamed album in a single day and she broke the record for the most streamed artist in a single day in Spotify history. Similarly, the streaming platform Netflix has everyone in the world simultaneously talking about its latest hit mini-series “From Scratch” which is based on a memoir of the same name. They are shared cultural experiences in real time, globalising the world into a village like it has never been before.

But social media is also the great equaliser because it is not just reserved for VIPs. To misquote the famous show… “Everyone’s a Celebrity, Get me Out of Here.” Never in the history of mankind have so many people taken so many self-portraits, snapping selfies everywhere they go and uploading them on Insta, thus becoming their own paparazzi. If one is not careful (and many are not) this habit can also gobble you up in what seems like an insatiable desire for non-stop interaction. As any social influencer who does this for a living will tell you, the target is to attract more and more followers and that requires the constant creation of the type of content which generates hype.

One of the best descriptions of social media came from a recent interview in The Guardian with actor Bill Nighy (probably most known for his role in Love, Actually)… “Social media is exactly what I don’t want. I don’t want to enumerate my friends. I’m working on less contact, not more. Young people today must act as their own publicist. Edit and curate and broadcast their own experience. That’s tough. And if you are inexperienced and it gets combative … no wonder people become unhappy.”

Nighy’s people almost got him on Instagram, with the promise they’d do all the work. “But I pulled out. I just thought I can’t. One of the things that I would’ve been required to do was to tell people that I’m in a film. I’m never gonna tell people I’m in a film. It’s just never going to happen.”

If you are thinking that this is due to the generation gap, you are right. Nighy is 72, and his disdain of social media is echoed by many who are over 50. The younger the person, the more likelihood there is that their phone is being used to constantly take photos and videos of themselves to share with their friends, and sometimes, the world.

The compulsion to chronicle and post about every minutia of our lives in order to obtain likes and praise has actually been researched. Studies have shown that each ‘like’ is like a hit of dopamine which is a chemical that is associated with pleasure. You can feel a little buzz of electricity every time someone expresses their ‘approval’ of what you post. Prof Adam Alter is the author of “Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked” and he explains it perfectly:

“When someone likes an Instagram post, or any content that you share, it’s a little bit like taking a drug. As far as your brain is concerned, it’s a very similar experience. Now the reason why is because it’s not guaranteed that you’re going to get likes on your posts. And it’s the unpredictability of that process that makes it so addictive. If you knew that every time you posted something you’d get 100 likes, it would become boring fast. One of the problems with Instagram is that everyone presents the very best versions of their lives. So you can curate Instagram, you can take a 100,000 shots if you want to before you actually share anything. What that means is, every time you look at someone’s feed, you’re getting only the very best aspects of their lives, which makes you feel like your life, in comparison with all its messiness, probably isn’t as good. Seeing the best version of everyone else’s life makes you feel deprived.”

When I speak to mental health professionals, they often mention the phenomenon of these ‘fake lives’ on Instagram as being one of the reasons for the rise in depression and anxiety in young people. When one is going through a rough patch it is very difficult to also grapple with what I can only describe as social media envy. Imagine a teenager who is lonely and sad, gazing at all those faces of his peers having a good time…it is easy to see how the recurring thought must be, “why am I so miserable? Why am I not being invited anywhere? Something must be wrong with me.”

The socially awkward years which everyone goes through can be compounded by feelings of insecurity, loneliness, and a lack of real genuine friends; social media unfortunately can reinforce such feelings of inadequacy in adolescence when one does not yet have the skills or confidence to deal with them. But it is not just young people who have to come to terms with not allowing their envy of other people’s seemingly “perfect” lives to consume them. Some never really overcome this lack of self-esteem and carry it with them through adulthood …and social media has made comparisons with others’ lives inevitable.

It is not easy to be experiencing financial problems while watching everyone else going on holiday, dining out and attending every social event in town – this not only affects people psychologically but can also bankrupt them as they valiantly try to ‘keep up with the Joneses.” Gazing into the ‘window’ of other people’s relationships can also be like a dagger to the heart when one is alone because it seems like everyone else has a mate. And when your relationship is on the rocks, smiling, happy couples seem to be popping out at you from your feed, deliberately, to taunt you. The comparisons are never-ending: a glimpse into people’s perfectly decorated homes, their perfectly turned-out children, their latest expensive car ….it can become overwhelming, and it can perpetuate feelings of constant dissatisfaction. Behind the scenes of this “perfect” world, however, there is often a grim truth which is vastly different.

Social media (and dating apps) can also make it too easy to withdraw into a cyber world where personal face to face relationships are replaced by online ones. This is a dangerous path because (as Covid showed us) nothing can replace the human need for meeting people in real life, as opposed to their avatars, their carefully doctored and filtered FB profiles or someone pretending to be someone they are not, as so many lonely women have learned to their detriment.

Meanwhile, this week, Elon Musk went shopping and bought Twitter for $44 billion… apart from the fact that I find it obscene that one person can be so wealthy when there is so much poverty in the world, the thought of him being in control over this global social media platform with all its data, is scary. Information is power and despite his claims that he wants to “help humanity”, I cannot help but think he could have used his billions in a more tangible way to help his fellow man. Social media has been a wonderful tool in so many ways, but in the wrong hands and used for ethically dubious reasons, it can all go very wrong.