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Without a doubt, social media has taken over our lives. I'm curious how and why social media transitioned from a commodity to one that dominates us.
Why does the bulk of our experiences take place on the internet? How did we get used to the fact that our private lives were broadcast live on the internet for everyone to see? Lynne Jarman Johnson, CMO of Consumer's Credit Union, says, "I've always been an open book." However, social media has cracked the linking way open (Kerpen 1). Every waking second must be documented on Snapchat, every mundane thought must be broadcasted on Twitter, and every major life event must be shared on Facebook. It has come to the point that the number of likes, comments, and reactions that our posts get effectively defines our self-image; I know they do for me.
So much has changed in the last ten years that I sometimes forget what it was like to have landlines and DSL networks, to have the gift of spending time to ourselves without worrying about which angle will make the best Instagram picture. I longed to know what it would be like to live without social media. In fact, I wanted to prove to myself that I could be without it.
And so, in 2012, while I was in my home country for a long vacation, I did the unthinkable. I deleted my Facebook account.
The first few weeks, I imagine, was like withdrawing from a long addiction. I felt an itch on the tip of my fingertips, begging me to grab my phone. It may seem like an exaggeration, but those few weeks were actually very difficult for me. There were numerous times when I wanted to give up on my little experiment, when I forgot why I was doing it in the first place. It didn't help that every time I talked to a friend, their first question was "Are you okay? Did something bad happen?"
When I asked them why they thought that something bad had happened to me, they would say, with nonchalance in their voice as if I should have already known, "Your Facebook is gone."
My friends thought that I was going through some quarter-life crisis or that I was having a mental breakdown, all because I deleted my Facebook account. I almost relapsed just to prove to everyone that I wasn't losing my mind.
Despite the struggles of withdrawal and social pressure, I somehow managed to barrel on through. I remained Facebook-free during my entire vacation back home, which proved to be a liberating experience.
As time went by, living without Facebook actually made me feel free. I was no longer spending countless hours scrolling through my news feed to see who's dating who, what team won what sport, or which celebrity wore it better. I was no longer reading offensive and toxic arguments in the comments section. I was no longer bothered if I didn't know what my friends were up to every single day.
I began to see the big picture: I was no longer obsessed with a timeline that muddled my past and present together. I was able to separate, say, my immature high school self from my mature (or, as some of my friends would say, less immature) present self. When before I used to contemplate over pictures of my poor fashion sense when I was in my early teens or my bad haircut from three years ago (which was usually followed by a loud, exasperated sigh and a self-loathing "What was I thinking?" speech), I no longer had the narcissistic (and quite frankly, sadistic) desire to torture myself with such pointless obsessions.
Which also helped my self-image. My perception of myself was no longer anchored on an external point of view. The pressure of upholding a personal brand, which used to daunt me, was lifted from my shoulders. I asked myself: Why do I need a personal brand anyway? It's not like I'm a celebrity or a public figure. It's not like my life is for public consumption. In fact, I am not a commodity, period. So why must I worry about the image that I am presenting through social media? During my year-off, I made an important realization: This pressure of building a personal brand is just inside my head. (Key word: narcissistic.) I mean, does anyone really care that I'm watching a new series on Netflix, or that I just bought a new pair of boots, or that I really like dried mangoes?
In Facebook and other social media platforms, I have created a "me-centric" universe where everything is good, perfect, and happy. I am the deity of this universe. I shape the way the world perceives me. It gave me power, but not the good kind, not the kind that I enjoyed. And even though I felt like a deity, I was still confined by limitations. I still can't control how the world reacts to my image. Do they fall down to their knees and worship? Or do they laugh, point, and mock?
(For the sake of complete transparency, I was, most of the time, met with indifference as my Facebook friends scrolled through my posts without so much as a like or a simple comment. Even though their reaction was not at all negative, I think their indifference affected my self-image more than the few hateful comments I have received in social media. For the most part, I think what affected my self-image is waking up in the morning without a single notification. After all, isn't social media all about transparency? How then was it able to make me feel invisible at the same time? )
But then again, why resort to a single story? In class, we discussed Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Ted speech titled "The Danger of a Single Story," where she talked about the pitfalls of a limited worldview. While social media has many faults, there are also good things about it. For instance, Facebook helped me connect with old friends whom I haven't seen in a long time. Twitter helped me advocate important causes that helped and educated other people. Instagram helped me promote places that I have seen and enjoyed.
If we forget for a moment about the pressure of upholding a personal brand, the toxicity of different opinions clashing in the comments section, and the pointless time-consuming obsessions, I must admit that social media is a helpful tool that can promote change and positivity. For instance, #MondayMotivation, #DressLikeAWoman, and #BlackLivesMatter are just some of the positive twitter trends that have helped people inspire others to become better, stronger, and more accepting of each other's differences. Social media can help us expand our horizons, widen our knowledge, and better our worldview, especially when sixty-two percent of adults now get news from these platforms (Gottfried and Shearer).
But we cannot always keep a blind eye towards social media's faults. It is a flawed system after all. We can, however, change the way we use it. Instead of worrying about a personal brand that will get the most likes and comments, subscriptions and views, or followers and re-tweets, let's use social media as "a way of making sense of the world around us (Beck)." We should not be afraid to use social media to tell our stories, because there's a corresponding set of consequences to staying mum. Just like Beck said, "If someone is afraid of how people might react to a story, and they keep it to themselves, they'll likely miss out on the enrichment that comes with a back-and-forth conversation." If we have something important to say, we should very well say it. The interactions we have on social media can give us a deeper insight—or even a whole new perspective, one that we could not have imagined if we kept all our opinions to ourselves.
Coming back to Facebook, I still sometimes catch myself scrolling through my news feed for hours without an important reason. I still sometimes worry about the angle from which I take pictures with. I still sometimes rewrite a tweet to make sure that I'm making the most out of my 140 characters.
But what my Facebook-free experiment has taught me is this: I am who I am with or without social media. I should not aim to create an alternative self that most people will like. I should not change the story I want to tell just to please other people. After all, I cannot and will not please everyone. Despite the pressure of once again upholding a personal brand, as if I am a commodity selling my image to everyone else, I will focus my energy on sharing my true story. By doing so, I hope that I, in my own little way, will be able to inspire someone else to forget about their manufactured image, to free themselves of the burden, and to finally share their authentic self on the internet.
Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. “The Danger of a Single Story.” TedGlobal, 23 July 2009, Oxford, United Kingdom. Speech.
Beck, Julie. “Life’s Stories.” The Atlantic, 10 Aug. 2015, www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2015/08/life-stories-narrative-psychology-redemption-mental-health/400796/. Accessed 5 Feb 2017.
Gottfried, Jeffrey and Elisa Shearer. “News Use Across Social Media Platforms 2016.” Pew Research Center, 26 May 2016, www.journalism.org/2016/05/26/news-use-across-social-media-platforms-2016/. Accessed 5 Feb 2017.
Kerpen, Carrie. “How Has Social Media Changes Us?” Forbes, 21 Apr. 2016, www.forbes.com/sites/carriekerpen/2016/04/21/how-has-social-media-changed-us/#79c361df40f6. Accessed 5 Feb. 2017.
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