Is Social Media a Problem, or is it the Way We Use it?

Are we missing something with social media? This is a subject that I’ve wanted to write about for a very long time and it’s something that many people have covered in much better articles than this (some of which I’ll link to in this post).

What’s the problem with social media?

We live in an era of multiple social networks that have emerged extremely quickly. From the clunky old days of Friends Reunited and then MySpace or Bebo, we now have towering monoliths like Twitter, Snapchat, Facebook and favourite of millennial’s and photogenic brands, Instagram.

Feeding our new obsession, modern smart phones –  which blew up around the same time as social networks – allow us to dip in and out of social media at will. The children of today who can’t remember not ever having smartphones will also never have the incredible experience of living in a world WITHOUT social media. Now it’s here, it’s just so difficult to resist.

Facebook and other social networks are now everywhere and it seems obvious why. The idea of having your own webpage dedicated to you and your friends isn’t exactly a hard sell. Now we have pages all over the web on a choice of different platforms that we can dedicate to ourselves and our lives.

Is social media a bad thing or does the problem lie in the way we use it? It’s a hard question to answer because we’ve got so many positives from social media. From keeping in contact with friends and family no matter where they are in the world to helping us organise plans and share information instantly, social media has in many ways made our lives easier. Some studies show this may be especially true in the case of people who find it hard to connect with others face to face.

The problem is it has the capacity to be used in a horribly damaging way. It is proven to make people feel depressed, more miserable in general and often powerlessly addicted to their screens. It unites bullies, hate groups and spreads disinformation – it has the power to deceive and even manipulate democratic processes. It also offers a new avenue for brands and marketers to seamlessly melt into our daily lives, a lifeline for brands now we watch less TV and read less newspapers or magazines.

 

We are we marketing our lives like a brand?

It’s not just marketers and brands who are advertising on social media. Instagram seems to have offered up the irresistible opportunity to emulate brands and “advertise” ourselves. It seems like we’re representing our lives in contrived photo snapshots that reflect what we want to say – and what we want to say looks increasingly like an advert for the perfect existence. According to a recent article in Time magazine, it also is the worst social media network for mental health.

But it’s exactly the contrived nature of Instagram that make it so appealing to look at. No one wants to scroll through reams of someone’s boring or out of focus holiday snaps. Yet, whilst scrolling though beautifully edited photos, people seem to become emotionally effected in a negative way. In fact, the more positive, beautiful and inspirational the photos may be, the worse it can make people feel. What is essentially a digital book of curated photos is, seemingly, being mistaken for real life.

Boohoo.com made a video illustrating perfectly the hilarious but poignant realities of social media. Are you living an Insta lie? It asks…

The mass commercialisation of Yoga (as an example)

My sister has just trained to be a Yoga teacher and is at the first stage of thinking about how to build a social media presence. She’s new to Instagram and so has been checking out other “Yogis” for inspiration. She found one account that had been recommended to her and scrolled through to find endless images of a gorgeous young woman posting pictures of perfect looking meals, beautifully executed yoga poses, inspirational quotes and endlessly positive messages. And. It made her feel a bit shitty.

Far from being inspired, she felt demoralised. Why? Because she wasn’t looking at something real. Even though she knew that in reality no one’s life is as perfect as their Instagram – she just couldn’t get comfortable with the idea of editing her life to try and emulate those kinds of images. Even though she might preach the “right things” and channel “positivity” with her images and comments. “Instagrammable positivity” in this form is not authentically transferable to your followers. There was a lack of humility and honesty that made her uncomfortable.

Search for #Yoga on Instagram and you’ll be confronted with thousands of images and accounts dedicated to contrived photos of gorgeous bodies in designer clothes doing incredible poses in front of picturesque backdrops. This representation of yoga isn’t exactly yogic (when you consider that yoga is a “course of physical and mental disciplines for attaining liberation from the material world and union of the self”). Yet, the irony seems to have completely escaped THOUSANDS of people and it’s often consumed in total, hilarious earnestness. It’s so refreshing to stumble on accounts that do feel authentic and inspiring that I want to applaud when I find them. @_the_yorkshire_yogi is one that I love for this very reason.

When I created the Wilder Life Instagram account, I worried that if I didn’t post “pretty” pictures that I wouldn’t get any followers. I had to think hard about how I could build the account whilst staying true to myself but still post things people would like to look at. It’s something that I still struggle with now, but I attempt to address in the comments under each picture, which I keep totally honest or at least, tongue in cheek. I don’t want people to think my life is a stream of holidays and care-free country life because it isn’t but it’s hard to figure out how to strike a balance.

Is Social Media or the Internet to blame, or Are We?

Social Media doesn’t make anyone do things, it’s the way we choose to use it. If you don’t want your life to be consumed by it, just use it less – right? If you want to be “authentic” then why not just post about things, brands or experiences you really believe in. That’s the philosophy I’ve always believed in… but is it really that simple?

When we talk about social media, we should remember that we’re talking about a specifically designed piece of technology, created by entrepreneurs and big businesses, not an organic social network we’ve built on our own.

The social media that we use today has been designed to be addictive. Saying that social media isn’t the problem and that it’s the way we use it isn’t taking into account this important fact. Platforms and apps like Instagram are created to be addictive on purpose. The more their app or platform is used, the more it’s worth. Everything about it is designed with the end user in mind (you) and how to keep you repeatedly using their platform.

The algorithms and designs of social media platforms are constantly tweaked to keep you using. As an example, lets look at the algorithm that Instagram uses to ensure that only the most popular posts from accounts with the most followers get the most likes. This is due to a system that draws attention to pictures that get likes very quickly after a photo is posted. This means that influencers or anyone in the know can manipulate their picture into getting more views and likes. Many influencers can band up together, organise to post at the same time (and there are guideline optimum times as these are when more people worldwide are online) and rush around online furiously liking each others images so that they get maximum impact and maximum attention. Likes feed on likes… followers feed on followers. The platform is egging everyone on to grow both.

Or what about the push notifications telling you “you’ve got a new like” or “you’ve got a message” or the emails asking “check out how many likes you’ve got this week” – what they’re all really asking is “please come back to our platform, we need you!”.

The psychological insights that tech companies scrape from our tech saturated world is endless. Marketing companies never used to dream of having such a huge amount of data on their customers, but technology has completely changed all that.  The more we use tech, the more we’re recorded and measured so we can be persuaded to use even more tech. This occurs in so many varieties and forms it’s almost impossible to count. Simple examples you experience every day would be ad retargeting; persuading us back onto sites we’ve visited, to Facebook data on which videos we watch for more than a few seconds so it “knows” what to show us next time we log on.

In this case, the chicken of tech and social media came before the egg of its negative social impact. You really can’t just blame the egg.

So, should we start changing the way we behave on social media?

You could argue that no one has to show a side of themselves they don’t want to. If you’re having a bad day or a hard month, why should you have to talk about it? You’d be right in arguing that no one has any obligation to share anything they don’t feel comfortable with… but actually, is that true?

Influencers like those on Instagram can just be “regular people”. Do these influencers, some who have hundreds of thousands of followers, feel as though they have a responsibility to their “fans” on social media in the same way that say, a famous singer with a large teen following feels they may have to their fanbase? Maybe not, but regardless, asking the question and examining the new world we’re participating in is an important step.

In the Pope’s recent interesting TED talk (not that I follow the Pope, but I do like TED talks…) he focused a lot on building our world and our futures. When he said “The more powerful you are, the more your actions will have an impact on people, the more responsible you are to act humbly. If you don’t, your power will ruin you and ruin the other.”

Maybe those with a lot of “power” on social media should reflect on that when wondering if their responsibility extends to humility and authenticity, and if portraying their lives in a constantly positive way is actually counterproductive. This was certainly the cased with the much watched (and much criticised) video of Australian teen Essena O’Neil explaining why she was quitting her life on social media.

Our world now is changing because of social media. Do we owe it to ourselves and younger generations to start being more authentic with the ways we use social media. Are we just heading down a road where every individual strives to create the right brand of themselves, encapsulating their existence in pretty square pictures?

 

 

 

 

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