“The problem is why we are so far away from reality here?” This question about social media was posted by a friend. Her lament, “believe me or not, but social media ruined the mental health of our generation.” I agreed with the lady. But her “why” question stuck in my head. Obsessively curious after almost a year of a deep dive study into the shallows of social media, I had 5 observations directly bearing on the lady’s question.
Before I go down the rabbit hole in search of illusion’s lure, I have seen social media provide exceptional opportunities for engagement, connection, and grassroots direct marketing. The medium is a feast for the eyes and an amazing venue for vetting ideas and gathering a tribe. Friendships, business opportunities, and romance can and does flourish in this digital fortress of image. And, for creative types a wonderful outlet for entertainment and fun. Like most things, human beings find a way to sully the best intentions. In my humble opinion, used for nobler ends, social media continues to yield promise. Now, it is time for our walk in the hall of mirrors.
We can’t help it. None of us. Nor escape it. We all will go on at least one first date.
To the lady whose question prompted this post, let me propose a scenario to you. In a moment of sheer weakness, you accepted a dinner date with me via Instagram. You were hungry. I tempted you with amazing sushi.
Your social media account is finely manicured, mine not so much. My 60-plus TikTok videos after my 4 miles run at dark-thirty in the morning are not my best foot forward in the image department. Normally, I don’t care about my morning appearance. I am 2,597 days into a running streak that separates the men from the boys. My niche, if you call it that, is reality. A novel concept on social media.
But now I have a dinner date with you. I am already rethinking my TikTok strategy and hoping you have not seen my videos since we met on IG. Two hours before our dinner, I am primping and prepping, because your first impression of me matters. I have one chance to make a great first impression. I want you to like me. I hope there is an attraction. Ripping off my clothes lust would be better. But I am okay with being likable, warm, and funny in your eyes. I aiming for a second date.
What are you doing in advance of our date? Are you as beautiful as your IG pictures? I bet you are. Are you a little nervous? I AM your type. Tall, dark, intelligent, and worldly. You sense a connection. I have made you laugh. That’s rare for you. How is your hair? Your makeup? What about your dress? What message do you want to send tonight?
Do you want me to like you? Maybe. Definitely, yes. I make you laugh. You smile as you think about our exchanges. I am kind. But you have never seen me in person. You stalked and found my TikToks. You think, “he is older. But if that is the worse of him in the morning after a workout, I can work with that.”
Every picture we post. Every video we self-edit is a first date with the social media realm. Potentially, as we cultivate new followers, it is the first time someone lays eyes on us. We want to be liked. We are insecure creatures. The first and most prominent feature of social media is the relentless first-date syndrome. We are being judged, scrutinized, and given the once over by critical scrolling eyes that matter. They matter because we want to be “liked.” We want the scrolling to stop. Hey, you! Look at me. I matter. Not to mention our legions of followers’ opinion of us. We want them to stay engaged.
For my dinner date, I bet you are going to wear a dress that is conservative yet screams at me to stop, drop and roll like I am on fire in your sight. Am I wrong?
First dates are nerve-racking. We want those jitters in our rearview mirror. Here is the deal. Our dinner date will happen. The first date will begin and end. The massive wave of uncertainty will wash over you and recede. It’s the reality of first dates. They end. And then there are second dates. Right?
Why are first dates so nerve-racking? Yes, there are no second chances to make a good first impression. More importantly, no one likes to be rejected. Rejection feels like being judged and losing. If you are competitive like me, I hate losing. In that way, I am a perfectionist. Am I insecure? Maybe. About losing, definitely.
Psychologists have broken insecurities down into three general types. Type 1: Insecurity Based on Recent Failure or Rejection. Type 2: Lack of Confidence Because of Social Anxiety. Type 3: Insecurity Driven by Perfectionism.
Every post, TikTok, and reel is brutally scrutinized like a first date. The creator’s work is a piece of performance art in the hands of a harsh critique and the occasional trolls. That’s a lot of pressure on our youngsters, not yet confident and secure in their identity. Trust me when I say this, the adults in the room feel the first date pressure too. Ladies and gentlemen, how many “takes” does it require to get your videos right? Are you a little anxious when you release one? Social media plays with our insecurities so we fight back in an attempt to control our image striving for a temporary, very fleeting 15 seconds of perfection.
Control. We like it. We love it. We want more of it.
This leads us to our second feature of the social media universe. Human beings have a deep-seated desire for certainty and control. Social media offers us unprecedented control of our image and likeness. We can sit in our bedrooms, or kitchens and attempt to be our own PR managers crafting and polishing our own image to garner the “likes” and “followers”. Screw rejection! I can recraft my image with filters and photo hacks transforming myself into a Prince or a Princess with the tools at my fingertips. That kind of power is intoxicating and hard not to use and abuse. Filters, photoshop, camera angles, and endless retakes to get the action and the look just right is a small price to pay for a chance at perfection.
The more in control we feel, the more efficacious we feel about achieving the outcomes we desire, and this sense of competence boosts our well-being. But given the tools of illusion at our fingertips and the incessant need to perfect your image or niche, the reality is lost in a digital storm of artificialness. Millions of amateur image consultants loosed in the digital realm on long tedious series of perpetual first dates desperately running from their insecurities.
Haven’t you noticed the copy-cats themes all over TikTok and Instagram? Creators are running out of first-date material. Perfectionism is spreading like wildfire among digital devotees. Crazy-assed surrealism is all that remains. But why do people persist? What is the big lure?
Hi-jacking our Hardwiring.
Let me suggest there are several enticements to stay the course. The first bait for the social media creators and audience is the little tiny shots of dopamine every time a “like” or “ping” alerts you to the fact that you are being noticed, adored, or captured a reply to a comment. My third observation is that the little bump of brain juice we get with being “liked” feels good. The bottom line. Dopamine promotes pleasure. They’re produced during activities such as exercise, sex, laughter, dancing, listening to music, and time being “liked” by someone on social media.
Neuroscientists are studying the effects of social media on the brain and finding that positive interactions (such as someone liking your tweet) triggers the same kind of chemical reaction that is caused by gambling and recreational drugs.
According to an article by Harvard University researcher Trevor Haynes, when you get a social media notification, your brain sends dopamine along a reward pathway, which makes you feel good. Varying the rewards ups the ante; psychologist B.F. Skinner first described this in the 1930s. When rewards are delivered randomly (as with a slot machine or a positive interaction on social media), and checking for the reward is easy, the dopamine-triggering behavior becomes a habit. It feels good and the brain literally rewires itself, making you desire likes, retweets, and emoji applause.
So much for reality’s grip.
Next, ready to be somewhere else. Need to escape. To transcend time and space, not watching the clock. Reading a book in your leisure is healthy as it develops the mind. In my late thirties, my kids passed me chickenpox. A lovely little virus presenting a serious hazard to adults. Weathering the pox and fevers I was paralyzed unable to do anything that involved upping my brain activity. Turning my brain on caused my fever to spike. I could not work or even read a book. Too cognitive for the pox. The one thing I could do to excess without the slightest spike in my fever was watching TV. It seems human brains can absorb relentless TV viewing without any cognitive brushfires in the brain.
TV. Scary. The ultimate escapism, no thinking is required.
We can also get lost in great cinema or theatre. Experiments show that exposure to awe-inducing images— whales, waterfalls, beautiful people in extraordinary venues —slows down the perception of time, leading to feelings that you have more of it. I bet you can guess where I am going. Social media does not trigger cognitive processes either. My fourth observation is the timeless immersive effect of social media. Hours pass without notice as your scroll and scrutinize your feed.
The really big payoff. Going viral.
Going viral is the Holy Grail of social media. The gold fever-like tease of the digital universe. Fame. Fortune. You have heard the stories of lightning striking. Our hopes and dreams are exposed to the whims of chance. But there’s a legit shot at the prize. Every marketing team aspires to go viral. The kind of limelight that a viral post sheds on a brand or an individual are a goal worth chasing. In the social media landscape, anything that resonates with the audience goes viral, thereby starting a new trend.
Viral posts are not just limited to clever memes or a quick challenge video. They can be stories, a quote, or a picture. Basically, whatever triggers your audience to pour in likes, shares, and comments, and view it a dozen times within a short span of time.
One day, you are a nobody creator. The next you’re a celebrated genius. Money. Notoriety. And fame. The secret sauce of the post-digital generation. My fifth observation is that each and every post, video, or reel is a creator’s lottery ticket to a breakout future. Your hopes and dreams are so close, that you can almost taste them. “Going viral” is a compelling reason to wake up and play the game of bending reality to nab the prize.
The insecure shall inherit the world.
Social media feeds on our insecurities. Fear of rejection. Social anxiety. Perfectionism. Crafting our image as we seek “likes”, admiration, and acceptance from our digital tribe strokes our need for control which Instagram and TikTok deliver in spades. Belief in one’s ability to exert control over the environment and to produce desired results is essential for our well-being. It has been repeatedly argued that the perception of control is not only desirable, but it is likely a psychological and biological necessity. But who is really in control?
The addictive lures of the medium with its tiny shots of dopamine, velvet escapism, and daily lottery tickets are a potent and alluring potion for the average human being. Reality is the casualty of our insecurities beaten back by the hopes and dream-ridden temptation of the polished and filtered images on a screen. And, admittedly it feels good.
Let’s come back to my friend’s question, “The problem is why we are so far away from reality here? Reality is bent paying homage to our insecurities. Pure and simple. A powerful social elixir at our fingertips is a recipe for abuse and emotional misalignment with what is tangible and real. The technology’s image hacks beg creators to indulge in the lie and slay our insecurities, if only for a tiny moment in time. Every post, reel, and video is a piece of performance art in search of praise. Individual identities can be lost and destroyed when such strong forces are at play.
I assert that social media is invaluable in vanquishing the distance between us. Our big world is a little smaller and more friendly because we connect. In a matter of seconds, I can reach out in two or three different languages to friends in distant lands with a smile or a funny joke. But our progress always comes with a cost. There is no free lunch in this life. The creators of these immense platforms are capitalists. They want to get paid. And, they are not afraid to prey on our weaknesses conveniently relabeled as the user experience or UX.
The history of humanity shows that we take a leisurely approach to the moderation of a good thing. Most cars did not come with seatbelts until they were mandated. And, we are slow as molasses to identify the seeds of our own destruction. Consider a generation lost to cigarette smoking.
As for my hypothetical first date, who knows what the future holds?
Until next time. Stay safe my friends.