The New Year is a time for reflection and goal-setting, and so like any good Gen-Y’er, I shared my New Year’s resolutions on Facebook. As I basked in the approving likes and comments that followed, I was hit by a shocking realisation: I am a Facebook addict!
I take some comfort in the knowledge that I am not alone here. Indeed, millions of people around the world are devoted to Facebook and a host of other social networking sites. But my grim realisation gave me pause for thought: why this obsession with social media, what does it say about me, what does it say about our society and what are its consequences?
In many ways, the breakdown of the public and private self that social media represents is not a new phenomenon. Perhaps a backlash against the emotional repression of the 1950s and 60s, for decades Western culture has been preoccupied with collective catharsis. Whether it’s Oprah, Jerry Springer, Reality TV or trashy magazines, we love dissecting the lives of others and seeing their emotions laid bare. Social media takes this to the next level however. We have become both the viewer and the viewed, the audience and the actor, observing the lives of others while sharing our own in a process of mutual disclosure.
But are we really gaining genuine insights into the lives of others? Rather than presenting life as it is, we carefully craft our own online personas to present life as we would like it to be. Whether you’re the perfect partner, the model parent, the popular socialite, the wealthy traveller, the gym-junkie or the selfless martyr … every status is carefully crafted, every image dutifully selected and filtered to complement the image we wish to project to the world. In this sense, social media makes us our own spin-doctors and image consultants, presenting air-brushed and varnished versions of the self to our own audiences of devoted fans.
Hardly any act is free from the all-pervasive camera lens. But candid shots aren’t the goal here. We’re looking for the money shot and we’ll keep snapping until we take it. The moment might be lost, but it hasn’t really happened until it’s been broadcast on Instagram, Facebook or Twitter. It’s as if the act of performance and validation through online disclosure is now needed in order to authenticate any experience. What’s the point of going on a lavish holiday if your friends don’t see the photos? Why bother eating at an expensive restaurant if you can’t photograph it? And why work hard at the gym if you can’t show off that sculpted torso online?
Of course much of this narcissism is dressed up as recognising personal achievement: “I’m not bragging, I just want my friends to share in my joy.” We all say it, but deep down we know it’s not true.
On social media, every day provides a new cause for self-congratulation and thanksgiving celebration: “Love my life”, “adore my amazing partner and friends”, “most incredible dinner with the most amazing human being on the planet”.
Let’s face it, if the food and company was really that remarkable, would we really have time to live-stream from the dinner table? It’s an irony of social media that those who spend the less time on it are perhaps the most satisfied of all – busy actually doing rather than broadcasting.
The problem with all of this, of course, is life isn’t all beer and skittles. Everyone has good days and bad days, but our online personas don’t often reflect that reality. While the advertising industry spends billions of dollars convincing us that we don’t quite measure up by comparing us to the lives of the rich and famous, social media deploys our own social network in this enterprise. As a result, we compare ourselves not just to celebrities, but ordinary people, those within our immediate social circle – if their life is that amazing, why isn’t mine? The result is an endless quest for validation characterised by projecting false versions of the self – my life is as amazing as theirs, just look at my Facebook.
Unfortunately when we spend so much time preoccupied with trying to project the perfect life, we forget to enjoy life for what it is, actually experiencing and savouring moments for what they are, not what they could be. Perhaps the best way to celebrate life, with all of its ups and downs, is to live it, rather than broadcast it. Now that’s a New Year’s resolution I might actually try keeping!