Eight years ago, in the television series House M.D., an episode titled “Private Lives” aired. The plot for this episode was built around a blogger (remember those?) who shared every aspect of her life with her online audience. There were no boundaries and nothing was off limits. Everything from the fight she had with her partner (and what she should do about it), to the type of medical treatment she should get, was fully disclosed and discussed in a very public manner.
Jump forward six years and in the acclaimed Netflix series, Black Mirror, the episode “Nosedive” gives us a glimpse, rather uncomfortably, into a present that we’re not quite ready to admit to ourselves already exists. If you have not seen this episode then I highly recommend you find someone with a Netflix account and watch it. To say it is chilling is an understatement. For a good overview and write up, please read “Black Mirror’s ‘Nosedive’ Skewers Social Media'”.
Some episodes are set in vividly imaginative future worlds; the most disturbing ones, though, are set in the present, and shine an uncomfortable spotlight on the ways in which we’re already living.
In that sense, “Nosedive” is both dystopian fiction and acute social satire. Lacie (Bryce Dallas Howard) lives in a version of America where every tiny interaction is ranked by the people involved on an app that syncs with augmented-reality contact lenses (or retinal implants, it’s unclear). The minute you see someone you can also see their ranking, meaning that reality has morphed into a pastel-colored nightmare of aggressive cheeriness, as citizens attempt to out-nice each other and bump up their ratings.
We already live in a world where we can rate and rank people and the services we get from them, sometimes with disastrous consequences (such as Uber drivers losing their jobs when their rating slips too low). But away from this most overt example, a much more insidious rating system is already in place within the social networking algorithms we blindly sign ourselves up to serve (see “Rise of the Machines”). That rating system comprises of how many likes, shares, follows, unfollows, comments, and interactions a post gets. We are but one step away from this information being combined into an overall social status score that we continually broadcast to all around us. The powerful algorithms behind the likes of Facebook & Instagram already effectively calculate this and decide how much your posts should either be boosted or hand-braked.
The power users of such platforms, or at least the people making money from advising people how to boost their reach (such advisors also get skewered in Nosedive), know what the algorithm does and how to play the game. They know that bikini shots, butt photos, carefully curated hashtags, food photos (especially some form of treat), and deep personal disclosures, all net big gains on the algorithm. For a while at least. Right up until the algorithm raises the threshold at which your content is eligible to be boosted, at which point your personal threshold for how you cash in your integrity and play to the new algorithm is lowered. It’s a race to the bottom.
Perhaps more than ever, culturally (especially true in North America), working 9-5 for the man is frowned upon. Far better to be your own boss than to collect a weekly wage or salary from one. What does this look like in reality? Well, if you are a “content creator” and/or “social influencer”, you exchange working for the man for working for clicks, hits, likes, shares. You work for an algorithm. Or undisclosed sponsors. The daily grind becomes the hustle. You also exchange 9(am)-5(pm) for 5(am)-9(pm).
When spelled out like this, it should be obvious that this comes at a huge physical, emotional, and mental energy cost. I recently watched an interview with a very popular YouTube content creator. He, like many others, took the risk of quitting his day job in order to take on the day + night job creating, filming, and editing YouTube content, not to mention all the social interaction stuff one needs to do to standout and be successful in this realm. His stats are impressive. His income even more so (derived from a small amount of premium content, some sponsorship, but largely from the sales of YouTube advertisements).
Within this interview, toward the end, came a subtle admission. He was generally up early to work on content. He was also generally working on content in the evening, admitting that he perhaps shouldn’t be. And it was hard to find the work-life balance when this endeavour had largely taken over his life. There was an even more subtle admission that it was causing some family tension. But then the one line that is supposed to make it all seem worth it: “This is something I’m passionate about.”
Passion – the fuel of our spiritual energy – is all very well and good with the right checks, balances, and boundaries. When the low battery light is flashing on your physical, emotional, and mental energy, playing for that big spiritual energy payoff can be the only thing that keeps you going. I get it. But it is generally always the most passionate of people who blow themselves to bits because that same passion tricks them into thinking that the other stuff can wait a little bit longer. Other stuff such as curating close, real-world, interpersonal relationships. When you are working for your passion, your friends and loved ones are supposed to just give you a free pass and demand nothing in return for their ongoing support.
Being sucked into and playing of this game is sinister enough. But there is an even darker side to it that I’ve had personal experience of recently. It is one that relates closely to the overarching theme of personal energy that I use with my work here at Being Human.
I recently learned about a friend’s battle with anxiety (a battle which is becoming all too common these days, and, somewhat ironically, is likely driven in no small part by the openness of our lives to social media, the close scrutiny this creates, and the arms race to be constantly better). It is never nice to hear that friends and loved ones are struggling, and certainly this admission from someone who is normally a confident guy did come as a bit of a surprise. Even more of a surprise was how I learned about this – via an Instagram post – along with a few thousand other people.
Social media is currently full of buzzwords like connection, vulnerability, presence, tribe, community, empowerment, and the one I loathe the most, self-love. It is full of stories and opinions around how we need to connect more, find your tribe, create community, lean in, and be more vulnerable with each other (the latter often with no mention of creating feelings of safety and security so we don’t feel vulnerable in the first instance). More often than not, to achieve these things, we are encouraged to focus on and do something for ourselves rather than for others. What this trend also seems to be creating is a further drive to share more of yourself – more of your private thoughts, feelings, and fears – with your very public and adoring audience – and this is the critical point here – to the exclusion of sharing these with your close, real-world friends (who, after all, can read your feed along with everyone else).
Learning about a friend’s battle with anxiety on social media is far from being a one-off example. More and more I’m finding that if I want to know what is going on in a friend’s life, I should just look at their Instagram feed first (Post-script: since publishing this post I’ve already had feedback that someone recently learned of a relatives drug addiction and mental health struggles through social media).
Sadly, even asking people directly about what is happening in their lives often doesn’t elicit as much information as what their social media posts do. Concurrently, private messaging is becoming increasingly shallow. Memes. Videos. Screenshots. That sort of thing.
What is driving this? Does it matter? Am I just being old and crotchety?
On the last point, most certainly yes.
As to what is driving it, the answer to that is most likely multi-factorial, but without a doubt, a good portion of it is the Nosedive-esque drive to share something about ourselves, however real or contrived, in order to swing the algorithm in our favour. For those who have seen “Nosedive”, it is a classic Mr Rags moment. Sharing something deeply personal or intimate with your audience sees your social credit go up:
People who engage in intimate disclosures tend to be liked more than people who disclose at lower levels.
But be aware that those who engage in such “true self” disclosures are often doing it for self-centred or self-promotional reasons:
In Study 1, 184 undergraduates completed an online survey assessing ”true self” expression to their friends online and reported the frequency of various Facebook activities. True self expression was positively correlated with using Facebook for communicating with others, general self-disclosure, emotional disclosure, attention-seeking, and acceptance-seeking, but was unrelated to seeking connection with and expressing caring for others.
True vulnerability isn’t opening up about something to a curated audience where you will mostly get messages of support or can delete or block messages you don’t want. Rather, it is opening up to a close friend and sharing the same thing in private. Sharing your life more privately, giving only your closest real-world friends such access to your deepest thoughts, fears, and feelings, creates deeper, more meaningful connections, serving to reduce any vulnerability which might exist.
Using instant messaging to share the shallow bits with close friends erodes those connections too:
In a recent study, Stephen Rains and colleagues examined how superficial self-disclosures affected friendships. How do we feel about those friends who share every mundane detail of their lives with us?
In this study, participants selected one friend of theirs, and for a week kept track of all the technology-based communications initiated by that person (cell phone calls, text messages, social networking sites, instant messaging, and email). Of those communications, they were asked to estimate the percentage of them that involved the friend disclosing something. Specifically, they were asked about interactions that were “about her/him (i.e., information or facts about her/him/events in his/her day or life; her/his personal feelings, opinions or judgments)”. Participants also estimated the percentage of those interactions that were “about things that were trivial or superficial”. They also answered questions about the quality of the friendship and the extent to which they felt the relationship was costly to them (e.g., “My friend wastes my time talking about his/her life”, “My friend expects me to put his/her problems or concerns before my own”).2
So how did they feel about friends who disclosed a lot of trivial personal information? It depended on how much that person interacted with them. For people who had a lot of contact with the friend, the more superficial disclosures their friend made, the less satisfied they were with the relationship and the less they liked their friend. However, for friends with whom they had less contact, the amount of superficial disclosures didn’t affect liking. Their results also showed that much of the reason why these superficial disclosures reduced liking was that they created personal costs. So when it comes to those you communicate with most often, don’t tell them what you ate for breakfast, that you saved 20 cents on light bulbs, or how your doormat looks better if you move it two inches to the left. It can make your friendship feel like a burden and ultimately hurt the relationship.
All forms of digital media have an energy cost – mental and emotional. The mental cost of attending to superficial messages and disclosures from friends will get drowned about by the noise of every other superficial message and disclosure we are getting bombarded with. When my social media feeds are already full of memes and people doing/saying silly things about diets, exercise, or whatever, the last thing I want is to get more of the same on an instant message from a friend. I just don’t have the mental bandwidth for it. So we get left with a situation where people put more effort into crafting something for their audience, leaving little energy left over for deeper, more meaningful communication with real friends, and manifesting as relatively shallow communication via memes, screenshots, and link shares, as well as the recipient of such shallow communication not having the energy to deal with these and not investing more effort into deeper communication in return. It’s lose:lose.
Hearing about something major in a friend’s life as a curated post for the masses quickly becomes something emotionally negative in a relationship. Thinking I am a close friend, learning about someone’s life in this way (especially in the absence of any deeper private communication), leaves me feeling unimportant to that person. What it suggests to me is that they value more their “true self” disclosure to strangers and the (fleeting) broader social currency it garners them than something more personal and intimate with close friends . It reminds me of the YouTuber I mentioned above whose passions seemed to be coming at the cost of his close interpersonal relationships.
I’ve been fortunate over the last couple of years to have bonds with two friends strengthened via the flipping of the above on its head. I instant message these two people most days, and get to see one in person several times per week. We have a laugh, share some banter, and, critically, the trust and psychological safety in the respective friendships is such that we can speak our minds openly and honestly about things we are struggling with (no vulnerability required). We ask how each other is, what they’re up to, what is exciting them, and we can have a deeper conversation (and connection) around this information than we would reading about it on the socials. The simple act of a deep personal disclosure, even if it is something negative, can strengthen the social bonds of that connection, and thus further fuel the positive emotional energy of the relationship.
Our digital world has opened up many positive opportunities for us – there is no denying that. But we also have to acknowledge the downsides and the harms. We live in a digital world where we are encouraged and rewarded (in the short term at least) for stripping away of all the boundaries and borders of our private lives, and opening them up for public consumption. That reward comes from the likes, comments, and shares, largely from faceless strangers. To overcome some of the cognitive dissonance of this, we repackage, both in our minds and in our language, the rewards of playing the social media algorithm as “connection”, “vulnerability”, or “community”. Diverting our mental and emotional energy into carefully curating and crafting our private lives for public consumption is actually doing harm to our real world relationships and will only leave people feeling more disconnected, isolated, and lonely in the long term.