If you’re a regular reader of these pages you know that I often look at new and social media in the same light that I do art, film, and so on, questioning whether there are some problems we need to be aware of. To wit.: a friend recently shared this rather lengthy, but very much worth-reading article from The Atlantic, which asks what anyone who uses social media asks themselves, at some point, if they are honest. Namely, are sites like Facebook actually making us feel more lonely? As a jumping-off point for a bit of reflection, the question is extremely useful in the broader consideration of whether social media actually makes us lazier than we ought to be.
What do most individuals put out on social media sites like Facebook about themselves, as opposed to their simply commenting on the events of the day? As the author of The Atlantic piece points out, most of us tend to share happy pictures of ourselves, family and friends doing wonderful things. The net effect of this, intentional or not, is to say, “Look how wonderful things are for me!” Rarely does one see pictures of babies waking up covered in their own excretions at 3:00 a.m., and screaming until the entire house wakes up, for example.
There are certainly people who use their social media accounts to one-up other people, by saying, “Isn’t my boyfriend/job/lifestyle/car/etc. more fabulous than yours?” There’s even a half-joking hashtag on Twitter, #BeJealous, which is quite literally daring people to despise the person using it. The intent may be humorous, but unless what is being talked about is so awful that it is clearly meant as a burst of humor – e.g., “Fixing a hair-clogged drain #BeJealous” – sometimes we can’t help but indeed feel a bit jealous, and perhaps a bit less well-disposed toward the person who made us feel that way.
Going to social media to find some support and comfort can be a good, temporary means of pouring balm on our wounds when we need it. Yet the more time people spend focused on their unhappiness via social media, the more unlikely it is that they will act to improve their life. They will become more and more sluggish, the more they find an audience willing to indulge them in their unhappiness.
I should point out that we are not talking here about people suffering from clinical depression, who need to seek professional help. Rather, I mean the kind of people whom Kyle Scheele talks about in his book, those people who need to find a way to turn off the television – or indeed, the social media platform – and actually interact with the people whom they live and work with, instead of criticizing their life or the people on it (or not in it.) For there is a definite escapist element to social media which can reinforce some of the worst aspects of our personality, if we are not on guard against it.
It seems many people are creating a world of broader but shallower friendships in social media, as The Atlantic piece rightly points out. We spend more and more time talking to more and more people whom we do not actually know, about all sorts of things. And in the process, perhaps imperceptibly at first, we are spending less and less time in the company of people whom we do. For those already susceptible to this sheltering aspect of social media, i.e., people who are shy or lonely by nature, it may at first seem to be a wonderful outlet, but this is only the case if they use it as a tool to create with and build upon, rather than as a substitute for human relationships.
Life has its wonderful moments, but quite a good deal of the time it is simply a slog. And like that fact or not, social media is simply no substitute for action on what needs to be done in life, however unpleasant or difficult it may be. We do not win any real points in the human race by having more followers, or more posts, than someone else, but rather by the quality of the relationships we develop, and the people whom we help and interact with in real life.
Social media can connect people who can aid and encourage each other, but it can also encourage lethargy, envy, and self-absorption. Taking a step back every now and then, in order to make sure your real life is in order with respect to the people actually in it, is a good thing. Indeed, it is going to be more beneficial than reinforcing the tendency to sluggishness which all human beings have, and which can be reinforced by an over-dependence on social media.
Detail of “The Sluggard” by Frederick, Lord Leighton (1890)
Minneapolis Institute of Fine Arts