Ah, yes, social media. I think just about everyone has some kind of love-hate relationship with it. Mine dates all the way back to the early 2000s with the likes of Friendster and MySpace. Yes, I’m that old.
I was slow to the take when most of the social media platforms began emerging and quickly evolving. Too busy raising babies and juggling life, not really all that interested in connecting with anyone outside of necessity. I never bothered with Friendster at all and I dabbled into MySpace much nearer to its end than its beginning.
Social Media Explosion
Remember when Facebook was actually “The Facebook”? Those early 2000s brought most of the mainstream social media platforms to all of us in rather quick succession. Facebook, LinkedIn, Photobucket, Flickr, del.ici.ous, WordPress, YouTube and Reddit, then Twitter and Tumblr, Foursquare and Grindr, Instagram and Pinterest, and even SnapChat. It was a busy, busy decade!
Then of course, it just kept growing. Google+ hit around 2011 (and what a failure that turned out to be), followed by Twitch, Vine, Slack, and Patreon. By 2015, there seemed to an internet-based social media community of some sort to fit just about anyone’s interests, lifestyle, and preferences. The selfie became king of the world and short video clips and live streaming comprised the royal court.
Interpersonal Communication Redefined
The idea behind social media was primarily one of interconnectedness. I say “was” with intention, for it has since become a very different thing. Prior to the explosion of computer-mediated communication and widespread social media platforms, the majority of communication and relationship building and maintenance was proximity based.
It was face-to-face. It was personal. It was enhanced by visible social cues and physical touch. Our worlds were only as large as the physical communities in which we lived, worked, and traveled. While some aspects of traditional face-to-face communication have been redeemed through video technology (think video calls and Zoom meetings), it still isn’t really the same.
If you disagree, consider the impact of isolation on people’s mental states throughout the height of the recent COVID pandemic. The availability of the technology was life-saving for many, but not even a little bit close to the comfort levels of in-person communication and physical touch (i.e. a hand to hold, a hug, etc.). People struggled and widespread depression crept in regardless. It was a suitable stand-in to help us try to get through, but it was not, by any means, a replacement.
A Respite from the Throes of Social Anxiety
As a person with anxiety (a large component of which is social), I found myself quite intrigued by and appreciative of the expansion of my world via social media platforms. It was freeing, in a way, to feel less pressure and judgement. I could communicate with people from around the world, people with shared interests and more diverse experiences–people I would never have otherwise known.
It was also a great outlet for a bit during that period of my life when I was starved for adult conversation and interaction. Parenting young children can be very isolating, especially when compounded with clinical anxieties. Finding comradery among circles of parents in similar situations and stages of parenting without the stress of what to wear, where to go, how much I could afford to spend, arranging childcare, etc. I could pop online at any time day or night and there was someone to talk to who seemed to always get it. A stolen moment here, a stolen moment there. It was easy and convenient and dependable.
As the platforms continued to evolve however, my feelings about them began to change. Part of that was related to a loss of the anonymity shield. The ability to be anonymous was really the biggest factor in feeling freed from social anxiety online. Most social media platforms simply required a username of choice. Anyone could present themselves as anyone they wanted. Nobody really knew who you were in real life unless you chose to tell them.
Until It Wasn’t
Facebook was different. It required your real name and was more about staying connected with people you actually knew: friends, family, high school classmates, past and present co-workers, etc. Instead of relieving symptoms of social anxiety, the Facebook platform actually heightened them. It became the high school reunion of a socially anxious person’s nightmares; the never-ending social obligation for which there was no excuse not to attend and from which there was seemingly no way to quietly escape.
Real life and online life merged. When you accidentally ran into someone anywhere out and about in the world, the conversation–no matter how hurried or insignificant–seemed to always end with something along the lines of “Look me up on Facebook!” or “I’ll send you a friend request!” Soul-crushing cringe. Immediate forced obligation.
Fun & Games No More
I will admit that way back towards the beginning Facebook gaming was one of my weaknesses. It definitely got more hours of my life than it deserved. But as time went on, it became less and less of a pleasure and more and more of a WTF. So too did the aspect of using the platform to stay up-to-date and in touch with family and friends both near and far.
At this point, it feels more like a human data collection farm than a social connection platform. My feed serves more ads than posts by friends and family. There is no real privacy. Every single thing I do online or talk about in Messenger, seems to be harvested and fed back to me in the form of ads and sponsored posts. No part of it serves to broaden anyone’s world anymore. In fact, it now serves the exact opposite function: it NARROWS people’s worlds.
It insulates people with only the things that align with who the data identifies them as being. The algorithms are designed to keep us logged in and comforted by believing that anything we think or believe is what everyone else thinks or believes too. It’s about selling ads using all the information we continue to willingly provide them so that they can maximize their profits. WE are the products. Humanity is the price.
So, how do I use social media?
These days, relatively sparingly. And with as many privacy options as possible turned on. This is especially the case with Meta platforms (like Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp) and Twitter.
It really is a love-hate thing. I love the idea and the potential it had for global social connectedness and increased diversity and understanding. I hate the monster it has become. I hate the insular circles it creates. I hate the feeling of being a saleable commodity in a market from which I reap no true benefit. I hate the negativity and I hate the hate.