A recent survey of 12,000 people aged 18+ in eight countries sings a very familiar refrain: 70 percent of people say that technology enhances their personal relationships, but 60 percent believe that it can be dehumanizing. This is a theme that's been revisited and rehashed and commented upon until it's been flattened into a pulp of a concept; upon that pulp, someone rested an iPad and posted a plaintive and soul-searching Facebook status.
Technology changes the way we relate to one another. But, on a fundamental level, does it affect the way we conceive of ourselves and relate to the world? To put it differently: if something even slightly noteworthy happens to you and you don't share it with an anonymous mass that consists of your friends, family, colleagues, and weirdo strangers who are lurking in the shadows, does it even count?
I'd say it's fairly undeniable that the constant option of sharing whatever thought wobbles its way into your consciousness or whatever sight you're capable of documenting has changed the way we interact with the external world. It's an internalized self-consciousness. Even if you are extremely chill and unconcerned with how others perceive you, it's fairly inevitable that you've had a thought and then wondered, "Is that Tweet-worthy?" or seen something and asked yourself, "Is it obnoxious if I Instagram that?" Social media can also instill in you a sense of constant performativity, which can affect how you live your life — for instance, a study suggests that couples who express their affection over Facebook tend to be happier. Conversely, as Amanda Hess points out at Slate, having bad social media couple-etiquette can fuck up your relationship a lot:
In 2010, Russell Brand tweeted a photograph of then-wife Katy Perry as she awoke in bed, her saucer-eyes frozen in fear in the dim glow of Brand’s cell phone camera. The photograph swiftly disappeared from Twitter, and their marriage soon dissolved. Brand finally unfollowed Perry on Twitter last year. “Bad Photographs,” a song on Perry’s forthcoming album, is presumed to be inspired by the relationship.
My first instinct was to dismiss this Brand-Perry quibble as trivial, but then I realized that my job isn't to appear beautiful and flawless to millions of judgmental pop-music-loving fiends. Posting a private moment without permission isn't insignificant — built into the constant audience for one's posts is the ability to be invasive and malicious. Also inherent in social media is the potential to be unintentionally embarrassing. "Love is so weird," argues Hess. "We do and say things when we’re with romantic partners that would seem embarrassing and deranged if shared with the outside world, and that’s exhilarating. Publicity can spoil that intimacy."
It's arguable that "publicity" cheapens our relationship with the outside world in myriad ways. The unending performance of being alive during a time when everything is networked and shared has sort of made it so most activities aren't an end in themselves. When everything is a photo opportunity with a built-in audience, it's difficult to shake the compulsion to perform.
I asked Robert Weiss, therapist and author of the upcoming book Closer Together, Further Apart, for his opinion on the matter. "The problems aren't new," he explained, "but the way we experience them and the speed with which we notice them are." In his opinion, the issues raised by social media are eternal human questions: "We've always been asking things like 'How do others look at me?', 'Am I liked?', and 'Am I alone?' It's in human nature. The only difference is the immediacy of perception: [social media present] an instantaneous and constant stream of opportunity to receive feedback from people we know."
Weiss doesn't like to make rough generalizations; he thinks it varies on a person-by-person basis. "More narcissistic people will become more narcissistic," he said. "People who don't give a shit will continue to not give a shit. The more involved you are, the more aware you will be of how you're constantly being evaluated."
He's also dismissive of the claim that social media somehow diminish "authenticity":
"You've always had a false self — take, for instance, your professional self. With your professional self, you're only revealing the part of your self that's appropriate for the situation. We put different selves into the world, and they're all different versions of us... The people that you're most intimate with... the closer they get, the more of yourself you reveal. That hasn't changed."
The person you "put on" via Twitter or Facebook or Instagram is no falser than the person you put on in any public situation, he argues. Most of your waking hours are spent in an attempt to grasp what self to put on in which situation. Different crowds have different expectations, which you have to define and then meet in order to go about your public life without offending anyone or embarrassing yourself. For instance, Office-You is very different than Party-You is very different from Eating-Night-Cheese-and-Watching Oprah-You, but switching between these personas isn't reductive to you as a whole person. Similarly, IRL-You is different from from Twitter-You is different from Malicious-Anonymous-Commenter-You.
The fact that many online forums are removing the ability to comment anonymously shows that the ever-growing ubiquity of social media has rendered it no longer really viable to conceptualize your online persona as not really you. I asked Erin — who started out as a Jezebel commenter and then turned into an Internet Person who went by her actual name — how she felt that giving up her anonymity and taking on the burden of a web-self. She responded:
I mean, it was weird because I never lie on the Internet and I would hold back in WORK LIFE all the time. Did I feel self-conscious? Yes, at first I was scared. I was positive I was kamikaze-ing my finance career (LOL).
Using social media is projecting a false self, yeah, but only inasmuch as anything else you do in public is projecting a false self.
However, managing your false self (and everyone else's false self) is a bit more complicated than that. Having the constant option of sharing whatever you want with your peers "forces you to be 'on' all the time," as Weiss puts it. And being "on" isn't just about being aware that anything you do can shown to others as part of the endless human quest for validation; it's also about being hyper-aware what everyone you know is doing. Fear of missing out, that "blend of anxiety, inadequacy and irritation that can flare up while skimming social media," is a result of constant on-ness.
The other day I was talking to a friend who graduated college before any kind of social media became really popular or pervasive. "I'm so glad that Instagram didn't exist when I was still in school," he said offhandedly. I never really think about my high school experience because I mostly conceptualize as a depressing limbo state guarded by bland demons clad in Ugg Boots that didn't have much of an impact on my later life. But suddenly I recalled being fourteen and looking through other peoples' party pictures and all their status-seeking public communications and feeling completely weird and unlikeable and left-out.
"There's a world of inner thoughts that we often had to guess at or ask a friend about. Now it's easily accessible," Weiss told me. At that point in my life, when I felt awkward and outcast, the world of inner thoughts was less difficult for me to deal with than the very conspicuous way in which my peers were reifying their social status. It's one thing to assume that there was a big party you weren't invited to and quite another to know for a fact. The pains of adolescence are magnified when they're represented so blatantly.
Social media have also made forgetting and moving on more difficult. It's not completely accurate to depict the opportunity to receive feedback as a stream, as Weiss did, because everything that's shared on social media isn't ephemeral. It doesn't rise up and then float back into oblivion. Your shared content functions as a sort of altar to your false self — which can be fascinating and harmless (clicking back to a new friend's first-ever tagged Facebook photo is a beauteous and humbling experience), but the permanence can also be used as an act of violence or malice. That's the whole principle behind revenge porn, public slut-shaming, and cyberbullying in general. The permanence of your Digital Self-Altar also adds extra baggage to breakups. Cutting ties — from people, from mistakes, from past iterations of how you present yourself to the world — is harder than ever. This is something most people are at least obliquely aware of, and it changes the way we view the world.
But it's true that the self-consciousness and hyper-awareness effect different people differently. Case in point: when I told him — MOSTLY jokingly — that it bothers me when I do something cute and sweet and my boyfriend doesn't post it anywhere, he tactfully replied, "Um, well, that's your own personal problem that you need to work out." Ugh, FINE. True enough.
Image via niroworld/Shutterstock.