It’s no secret that for the most part we run our lives online. We work online, we play online, we order takeaway, check film times and even find love on the internet. To sum up the world wide web in one word? Unity. And yet, we have become so entangled, most of us from such an early age, that we have never really stopped to question whether we are exploring, or being trapped.
Our Social Media networks are gardens and we tend to them relentlessly every day. They constantly grow as we progress through life collecting admirers to add to our friends or followers lists with the same ease a child would trap butterflies in a jar. After every interaction our profiles bloom a little bit more, adding to the projected visualisation of our idealised selves; beautiful tall, envious trees which hide the wild bushes and thickets underneath that we think people wouldn’t pay to see.
As our online garden grows so does our ego, naturally, nourished by downpours of likes and comments. In just the click of a button people can flock from all over the world to gaze upon the life we aim to show everyone we have, and the people we want to be; and let’s face it, we love it. I know that I revel in writing the perfect joke on twitter (which happens very rarely), checking into glamorous places on Facebook and showing my Instagram followers the progress I’ve been making in the gym, the festival I went to over Summer or how good looking my boyfriend is.
Being admired feels good, the envy of others fuels us to spur on and achieve more, and knowing that other people desire you can only give you a stronger stride in the real world. Who doesn’t enjoy subtle buzzes every few minutes that silently scream ‘hey good lookin’!’ or ‘ooh, nice jacket!’ from the little paradise in your pocket? The doorway into our lives is but a vacant hole where a fence once used to be, now available for anybody with a WiFi connection to stumble through; by uploading ourselves onto platforms, we’ve removed the curtain, and now the show never ends. But should our lives have an open door policy, and when do we stop playing the part of the curator showing off their greatest art and realise that it’s too late, and we have become, actually, the butterfly… preserved for all to see with no escape?
The most dangerous risk of laying yourself bare online (whether figuratively, or literally) is that once the information we share is out there, we’ve lost all control of it forever. It’s the simplest and most logical rule, and yet the one we often conveniently forget to remember. If you’ve been following social media news in the past few months, you’ll know that sharing your data with corporations has become more than just an overreacting concern your Grandma has about the ‘tinterweb’; powerful analytical systems are constantly analysing our online habits, bringing economic and political turmoil on a global scale. From a poetic viewpoint, one romantic to another, it appears that we have somewhere unwillingly sold our souls but clicking that little check box that holds the t’s and c’s. By allowing databases access to our online activity, from the pages we look at and how long we look at them for to every message we’ve ever sent, we’ve allowed our garden to become rife with weeds and insects, leaving destruction in their wake an transforming our tranquil Eden into a toxic wasteland. I downloaded my instagram data the toner day, which included every photo I’ve ever posted, even ones I have since deleted (my main motive for this) and with them came folders containing every single interaction I’d ever had; every like, every comment, every message sent privately both to and from my accounts… I’m talking folders upon folders of every digital fingerprint, which has made me dubious regarding downloading my Facebook data. And we allow all of this, our online interactions which are usually us at our most honest and vulnerable, feeling safe behind a digital wall, to be exploited all for a company we’ve never heard of? So they can sift through our messages and advertise us a shirt they think we might be susceptible to purchasing?
Elements that threaten our sanctuary can come in various shapes, guises and profiles, and it’s easy for them to slither over from our screens into our real lives. Repercussions from failing to distance our virtual and online selves can include various social pressure from others and ourselves to maintain the image we are creating; for example, seemingly harmless tricks such as buying more expensive things to show off on our stories and pages (or to prove that we can have the life we see others living online) can lead to say, increased debt in the long run, especially for those financially susceptible to misguided spending. I know that when I was a student I made a promise to limit myself to one ‘loan day treat’ with every instalment of my student finance, to keep balance and ensure I had a reward but also because I desperately needed the rest for rent. If I hadn’t, I could have easily blown that on all sorts of trends that uni lifestyle throws, as becomes natural with exposure to so many social circles and lifestyles at the time in your life when you’re figuring out who you’re going to be.
Credit cards are another big risk to a youthful nation already struggling to pursue their dream careers, buy their dream cars or hoist themselves onto the housing ladder in a world that is not only not offering a hand, but pushing us back with it; we have to prove that we have it at least a couple of perks, so why not say fuck it and buy that MacBook we’ve been longing at every time we go in the Apple store? We might never have four walls of our own, but damn, if we aren’t going to light up our White Company candles and waltz around in expensive cologne and perfume; we deserve good things too, and besides… everybody else seems to be able to manage it. We see everyday treasures and pretty objects online that others possess, and they can’t be in that much of a different situation from us?
Failure to keep up with this demand that refreshes every day, of course, can and does lead to a plummeting self-esteem and value of self-worth; we are unable to keep up in a society that, whilst mostly smoke and mirrors, pressures us to purchase shiny things and tempts us to taste the good life while knowing that most of us can’t really afford this in the long run, allowing themselves to charge higher interest. We only say thank you, of course, for being allowed the opportunity to grab the latest trends for the ‘gram. Social media is gambling with our integrity, and although it seems high reward to a select few who manage to appear as if they have tamed the beast, for the most of us the risks outweigh the benefits.
As I’ve said, I’m not much of an influencer myself. I tend to keep to my own circles and follow a few celebrities; the ones who I admire for their character or achievements, not just those that throw some Calvins at me and expect me to click a mysterious link ‘before they sell out’. I do, however, know a few people who use these platforms for differing reasons, and what they can gain from it. I know someone who is a lifestyle blogger and uses her voice to empower others and offer free advice to those struggling through personal hardships. I’ve dated men who have thousands of what-can-only-be-described-as ‘thirsty’ followers who lust after every half-naked photo that’s posted, jumping at a chance to feed egos while unknowing to the reality they’re being played for likes, follows and attention they’ll probably never have reciprocated.
Sadly, such romance has apparently become the the peak of expected wooing, and is an aspect of social media we should definitely approach more, as it has shifted our entire dating dynamic. Dating has become easier, because to an extent we can fine tune our preferences with an advanced search bar, or simply a ‘swipe’ button. Many of us, especially of younger ages, have been fooled into thinking that a burst of likes on old, promiscuous photos are all that is needed to gain attention and bag a date. Social Media has ushered in a new age of romance, and somehow we have managed to set the bar exceptionally low in terms of our standards. So low, that anybody can play the game and bag a hook up; now all we need are a few exchanges of pictures before we jump into bed with someone.
It’s not Social Media that is necessarily the root cause of this disease, but our unwillingness to notice the weeds in our minds as they start to grow. How many people have been fired over misguided and carelessly written tweets? How many celebrities have faced career dives due to heated debates, arguments with fans or admitting that they sacrifice chickens in their wardrobe? Now is the time for a special shout out to Jameela Jamil, who has become a keyboard freedom fighter taking on the Kardashians, photoshoppers and body shakers everywhere with her I Weigh campaign, encouraging women to weigh themselves based on attributes of character and strength rather than physical appearance.
Unfortunately, for every lifestyle blogger actively trying to encourage healing and peace in an honest means, you have five or six who have, say, been paid to sell placebo weight loss products of gym wear by start-up companies hungry for profiting off a trend-driven market. For every person who spends hours replying and following random people online, ‘following back’ and accepting unsolicited pictures of torsos, abs, etc., you have their partner at home wondering what they’re failing to provide, while questioning why their boyfriend or girlfriend is so blasé amidst this onslaught of pings and buzzes that only whisper ‘threat’ to a prosperous and rewarding relationship.
For every photo of a girl in a bikini sunning it up in the sea, you’ve got an impressionable teenager thousands of miles away wondering what’s wrong with her body because it doesn’t look like that, and why can’t she get that many likes? Never stopping to question why she needs them, but only what does she have to do to look like that girl? We are human and we are competitive by nature, but through social networks we pit ourselves against one another to win pointless virtual prizes, and prove ourselves to an audience who doesn’t even know us, and therefore wouldn’t be able to tell what is fake and what is real. Our online activity is often fuelled by jealousy and insecurity, even if we don’t know it at the time, chasing what we think will make sure we are noticed to prove that we should be valued, that we are worthy of being envied and admired. And let’s not for a second neglect a certain high profile Instagrammer and member of the World’s most famous family, who very recently posted a photo of herself advertising an ‘appetite suppressant lollipop’. Like, this has to be the Bad Place, no? I don’t even need to go into that one, surely?
As a generation that has grown up with the internet’s sashay into our everyday lives I’ve watched it become part of my daily life through every stage, from computer rooms at school to MSN dates with boys I liked, from Bebo and Piczo to Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter. There is a life cycle for every online self we create, and sometimes reinvention is simply much easier if we migrate to a new platform. MySpace was once worth $12 Billion, and yet at the last change of hands sold for around $35 million. All of my life I’ve found a place to call my own on the world wide web, and it’s only natural that sites rise and fall as we succumb to the thrill of reinventing ourselves and finding a whole new meadow of connections to meet; we are the generation of lusting after more because we’ve inherited so little. But somewhere along the way, we’ve lost the delicate art of realising the value of what we find, tossing the good virtues in our life in search of richer and more desirable treasures; when all we have to do is dust off what we have a little and watch it become shinier. We’ve forgotten to nourish our garden.
Social Media companies know exactly their own potential power, and so do other tech giants. Blogging platform Tumblr was sold in 2013 for $1.1 Billion to web giant Yahoo. Mark Zuckerberg is worth $74 Billion, making him one of the richest men alive. But we must remember that social media sites are only so profitable because of what we provide them. It’s a profitable industry to be in, and so the pressure is on to strive endlessly, readjusting, revisiting and revaluing themselves to reach new figures and target markets. But this reputation comes at at price, and it’s us. Their revenue would not be possible without the audience, the consumer, the participant. Snapchat infamously has become somewhat of a laughing stock in recent times with it’s controversial reinvention which spurred a few tweets… doesn’t sound too bad, right, if a few celebrities (along with the million who signed a petition to reverse the update) aren’t fans of the updated layout? Except that these celebrities were born into and raised by the internet. When Kylie Jenner professed her boredom with the app, she managed to wipe £1B in share value. How’s that for power?
The problem with raising generations to always seek more, is that, ahem, they’re always going to want more. ‘New is always better’ is the golden rule, apparently, and for every photo we have on our pages enjoying the summer, there’s a photo of somebody in a better country, with a darker tan, more sunshine, colder drinks and more likes. We’re pressured to become number one in a world where the gold medal is unattainable, because it doesn’t exist. Social Media is subjective, we are fickle friends, and so what makes us say ‘wow, I must have that!’ today is only going to be yesterdays news when we wake and scroll through our feeds tomorrow. It was reported this year that teens have already started to turn their backs on Facebook, according to data from research firm eMarketer, and perhaps its time the rest of us learned to follow suit and switch off, even for a little bit.
My own personal advice? Getting off the grid entirely is a pointless quest. I enjoy keeping up to date with current news and my friend’s lives, and am sincerely thank Paul for every opportunity the internet has bright me through my life. But it’s important not to become lost in the web, and remind ourselves to take our heads out every now and then. Maybe try cultivating your garden a little bit more if you’re feeling weedy; whether thats asking yourself if your timeline is too cluttered for the content you want to see and you find yourself wasting time sifting through unnecessary posts, or if you really need to know what your old frenemy is up to… does it matter?
I’ve found that keeping my feeds trim helps massively with not only my productivity, but with my self-esteem too. I have less time to worry about why somebody I went to school with is appearing more successful than me, and instead can focus that energy into actually changing my life and planting my own seeds of success, rather than envy. By limiting my usage I find that I still enjoy the same quality content of memes and viral tweets, but am able to de-stress and enjoy my immediate surroundings more, instead of constantly checking up on what the world thinks of me today. By switching off from the internet, I become more me. The internet was a revolution, but let’s not forget that we’re still human.
Go out and smell the flowers in a field; but go to actually smell them, not just to take a photo and say you were there.
Words by James Hawkridge