is the backlash against social media coming?
We’ve become a culture obsessed with likes, views and comments, but is the pressure to be popular becoming too pervasive? With digital detoxes on the rise, we ask: is it time to opt out of the digital world?
Last summer the journalist Eileen Curran wrote a short polemic titled "Why We Need To Start Dating Again" for student newspaper The Odyssey. It was shared thousands of times on Twitter, especially by accounts catering towards young women. "Snapchats and Instagram 'likes' have become acceptable forms of flirting," she wrote. "A 'like' on Instagram is way more common than a compliment in real life... I think we should bring back dating. Real, honest-to-goodness, 'I'll pick you up at 7 o'clock' dating. Instead of sending a Snapchat to that person you have your eye on, why not ask them out on a real date?"
It's a good question and only one of many being asked about our dependency on smartphones. Try searching "has [insert name of social network here] ruined..." and you'll find yourself inundated with suggestions of things that social networks are ruining, complete with articles explaining why. Twitter has ruined journalism.
Snapchat has ruined relationships. Facebook has ruined the world, society, life itself. Instagram has ruined originality in restaurant cooking, the internet, creativity, our self- esteem, photography, fashion and much more. In 2014 the Telegraph reported that Britain's animal shelters were "full to bursting" with black cats, abandoned because they don't look good in selfies. Meanwhile other things have been somehow desecrated or endangered by our desire to take selfies in front of them: from Holocaust memorials, to the Tour de France, to that unfortunate baby dolphin that washed up on an Argentinian beach.
While these networks are great at connecting us with one another and what's happening in the world, they paradoxically also encourage us to distance ourselves physically from real life. These days many of us live at one remove from reality. Everybody is always on their phones, at important social occasions, even on dates. I struggle to watch long movies or football matches because it's too tempting to look at my phone -- it's so alluring that it even distracts me from other forms of entertainment I enjoy. Our lives have become about consuming content. Whenever something interesting happens, from a rap show to a rainbow, those in attendance automatically take out their phones and start filming. We've become worse at interacting with one another and also worse at just experiencing reality. Often when something exciting is happening, or I meet somebody famous, rather than relishing that special moment I start worrying about how best to capture and share it. I start imagining all the likes pouring into my account. This is messed up. We're a generation missing out on reality and living instead inside the logic of the social networks -- even when we're not actually using them.
Is a backlash towards social media on its way? Social media turns everything into a competition. It's no surprise people don't want to take part anymore. From the way we look in photographs to the numbers of likes and friends and followers we accumulate, we're all meant to want more and more and more. Yet I'm sad when my number of followers falls. Who isn't? Maybe popularity will always cause problems, but technology has heightened its malign omnipresence: popularity now oats around us in the cloud, all of the time and everywhere we go. It's certainly very addictive. A recent study from California State University found that those suffering a compulsion to constantly check social networking sites showed brain patterns similar to those of drug addicts. This is not surprising. You know that feeling when you're on holiday and suddenly you find a free wifi spot, and your phone starts working again and you can check for notifications and news? It really is a rush.
Because of the addictiveness of social networks it's now possible to book yourself a digital detox, and go to spas where you leave your phone at the door. Or, more affordably, others are organizing their own digital detoxes by just leaving their phones at home. The most committed among us delete apps completely. Facebook, in particular, because its algorithmic feed is so long, keeps me scrolling and scrolling even when I notice I'm not enjoying it, even when I'm tense and tired and wish to stop, just in case there's something further down to surprise or delight me -- but there never is. The concept of fomo didn't really exist before social media, or at least it wasn't so pronounced. And had another name. But these days we have so much fomo that we even get fomo for social media events themselves. What if I miss an important post?! What if there's another cool song, another funny comment, another thing to like, just over the horizon? We're addicted to the structures of these networks more than we are to our friends that are using them.
This is the New Luxury Issue of i-D and one of the most sought-after luxuries today is time, and time is something that social media gobbles up like a black hole. It's surprisingly easy to waste a whole day rotating through the same three or four apps on your phone, without anything really happening. Millennials are thought of as the yolo generation (another term that came from the networks) but if You Only Live Once, and time is so precious, it's pointless to waste it doing the same things over and over again on your phones. A survey published by Common Sense Media in November found that American teens spend nine hours a day using social media for entertainment -- longer than they spend asleep. We have to reclaim our time, and with it our lives. Isn't that what yolo was all about in the first place? Going outside, smelling the roses, chasing the butterflies through the sunshine, falling in love? An article in the Guardian this March reported that teen pregnancy rates in the UK have more than halved since 1998 and are at their lowest level since records began, and went on to speculate that this may well have happened because of technology and social media. In other words we're spending so much time in the virtual realm that we've stopped having sex. Our bedrooms have become places where we lie on our backs, alone in the dark, staring at a screen, Maybe the best thing we can hope for is a naked selfie.
Speaking of naked selfies, in this age of over-sharing and mass surveillance another New Luxury is privacy. It's not cool to be a servant of social media, always plastering your whole life over your channels. People want to see a bit of dignity and elusiveness. I love Kanye West but when I see him having his public breakdowns on Twitter, and begging Mark Zuckerberg for money, it comes off as desperate, and a little sad. It chips away at the godlike aura he seeks to project. When I look at my feed, not only am I jealous of my popular friends, but also increasingly bored of them. Everybody seems so thirsty for attention these days, it's alienating. It destroys all the mystery of getting to know someone.
Of course, there's nothing wrong with enjoying the little rushes of dopamine that come with every new notification but it's worth remembering those who design social networks, and make them so addictive, do so in the hope of selling a lot of advertising. Indeed the rise in the amount of advertising on social media in the last few years is another major turn off. A good example of this intrusion of the impersonal onto the highly personal was the streaming of the recent J.W. Anderson menswear show on Grindr, which caused uproar amongst London's gay community. Because people don't go on Grindr to shop, they go on Grindr to fuck (or at least to think about it).
It seems that we live in an age of great theatricality and artifice. Think of Kim Kardashian's use of contouring, as though she's painting a self-portrait on top of her actual face. Think of 50 Cent borrowing all those watches and cars for Instagram photos and then having to return them at the end of the day because, in reality, he's bankrupt. Social networking has changed the way we present ourselves, and so many of us strive to create idealized avatars of ourselves that we cannot actually live up to. Worryingly the language of advertising seems to have permeated how we visualize our bodies and lives, often in a superficial manner.
In the past the pressure to conform to unrealistic standards of beauty came primarily from the fashion, entertainment and advertising industries, but now it increasingly comes from ourselves. Certainly selfies can be empowering, but they can also be upsetting and destructive. There are two sides to every story.
Having moaned about all those things, social media has so many positives and almost limitless potential, and complaining about its prevalence makes no more sense than complaining of the invention of the printing press in 15th-century Germany. It's really just up to us to use social media more responsibly -- and also more inventively. Social media should help us to do what we love, rather than just becoming what we love to do. If we use it less, we'll have a lot more time to spend on the things that really matter.
Text Dean Kissick