Internet, Social Media and The Individual

As the COVID-19 pandemic has proliferated and as we have come to terms with it, the Internet became the heartbeat of our world. It has already become ubiquitous in our lives but the pandemic has forced people and businesses to realize how our socioeconomic lives have become dependent on it. This is only going to accelerate in the coming years considering the new ways of work and interaction people have adopted over the previous few months.

On the other hand, this has left people with increased psychological disquiet since we're already overwhelmed by the influence of the Internet and social media in our day to day lives. It's ever more important to reflect on our relationship with the Internet on the individual front and ask hard questions about our future with it.

The following are some of my reflections on the current state of the influence of the Internet in our individual lives and what can be done.

Connected But Dejected

We are living in the most connected times, yet we've never felt more isolated collectively. Our phones ring with so many notifications in a day that no single notification has more value. The asynchronicity of our communication patterns has no definite coherent start and end. Text is not suitable for hourly long conversations over food and drinks; so now we talk in bits and pieces. Instant messaging has made communication so cheap and effortless that talking on the phone for more than a few minutes feels like dread. Social media, online news, and videos on anything take so much of our time that later we end up deciding whether to work or check for what's up with a friend/family member.

I think it's not the time that we end up sacrificing, it's the fear of missing out of things. Information moves so fast on the Internet that we trade-off attention for aggregation. We've started to live in two realities. One is physical and the other is digital and unfortunately, the digital one is taking the lead. Even when we are in the physical one, we left some part of ourselves in the digital one. It's like we're sailing two boats at the same time. We're in constant flux. It's not so difficult to map both the realities with the characteristics of the modern world that humans cherish. The digital one is fast, productive, opportunistic, economic, scalable, reliable, and mostly non-discriminatory. But all this comes at the cost of our psychological health. While we marvel at the disruptive innovations of digital connection that the Internet has sown seeds for, it's no substitute for our fundamental biological and physical need for connection. We still long to sense fellow humans by engaging with them in a physical medium. And that's when our psychological instincts find refuge.

The Desire For Feedback

We are a creature that loves attention. This starts from the day we are born. Babies demand attention to care. Teens demand attention to self-esteem. Adults require attention to form new connections that help in job prospects. Attention is a natural and necessary part of our biological behavior. The problem occurs when instead of getting attention as a result of our personalities, we tend to seek attention. What popular culture does is divide people into two categories: the influencer and the follower. Class-based societies are everywhere in the world. But popular culture creates another category.

Before the internet, there were fixed avenues for a person to become popular. Internet followed by social media turned the table upside down. And after the smartphone revolution, anyone having a phone got the tools to broadcast to possibly every other person on the planet. Social media started with networks of friends and family and platforms like Instagram and YouTube eventually turned it into a worldwide virtual stage.

Now, everybody has got everybody's attention. The playing field has been leveled. Everyone wants a piece of it. This behavior is not permanent though. In the end, everybody can't win. Since social media is far less daunting than the physical space, we tend to delegate the feedback mechanism of society to it. The effort required to represent oneself is frugal and the consequences are far less intimidating. And since the said rules and codes of society are not applicable here, the expectation for feedback increases.

The Perfect Life Diet

Social media was started as a way to connect with friends and family. At least, it was projected like that. It's not that we didn't have mediums for that before. I think it provided a great escape from physical reality especially for teens and young adults. We know that these years are an intimidating phase of our lives. Connecting with other people to know a little more something about their life and creating your persona was way much easier.

Once all the young people onboarded, the network effects made the older generation to join it. Text was still a banal way of sharing your life. Soon after, the social media companies realized that photos are more stimulating to us than text and activate more parts of our brain. Then came platforms like Instagram and Snapchat. Photos became the dominant media crossing through our minds. Marshall McLuhan in his book quotes that in the long run, content matters less than the medium itself in influencing how we think and act. Soon after, the advertisers got hold of this fact and since more people were shifting to these platforms leaving TV and newspapers behind, advertising gave way for people to make some extra cash. Eventually, the ship started sailing and marketing picked up speed.

Advertising has always worked on exaggerated product characteristics and contrived human behaviors. As a result, people started sharing their ideal lives. The perfect couple, the perfect job, the perfect clothing, the perfect diet, the perfect fitness regime, the perfect accessories, the perfect home, the perfect vacation became mainstream outlook. Some people post multiple photos in a single day. Young people have even started to start their professional journey on social media. Dissatisfaction start to seep in when we start to compare our persona with other people's personas. Comparison is a natural trait of us. That's how we perceive the world around us and separate one thing from another.

But it doesn't work the same way in the physical and digital space. In the physical space, there can only be a handful of objects or people in our line of vision. Hence, our brains get an ample amount of time to process our emotions. This changes completely in the digital space. We go through so much media in so little time that the brain is not able to register all of them at the moment. Instead, it registers hooks to all the information which resurface later in our daily lives

Mimetic Paralysis

René Girard's Mimetic theory’s key insight is that human desire is not an autonomous process, but a collective one. We want things because other people want them. This is ever more visible today as we spend more of our time watching what's going on with other people and the world. The increased consumption of digital media might be rewiring our brain structures in ways that we don't understand yet. While we are mapping our social behaviors in the physical world onto the digital world, our digital persona is creating a space of its own. This novel persona is being shaped by the values and norms of the digital atmosphere.

We can already see the effect on how people have started curating their digital persona according to these rules and how the nature of every social profile has started to look the same. Someone creates a new style of content and soon after you can see mushrooms of other people creating the same content. It's not a special trait of social media. Just that it has aggravated this trend. We don't realize when our digital worlds start to influence our physical world. The places we go, the things we buy, the food we eat. Some people have started even doing things in their physical worlds just to enhance their digital curation. The mostly independent nature of social media also attracts many of the young people. Bringing up connected is also a huge reason for the current generation of teens trying to find a stable work opportunity out of it.

The Information Rabbit Hole

How many times have you opened a bunch of links in different browser tabs; all seeming interesting just to realize that you can't possibly read all of it? How many times have you started watching something on YouTube just to realize that it's been hours? Every new second, someone is publishing content somewhere in the world. And it's all available instantly. There are no distribution costs. There is simply too much information now. There are news sites, wiki sites, videos, blog posts, independent publishers, newsletters, twitter threads, documentaries, etc.

But information is not a substitute for knowledge. This is a great misunderstanding of the post-internet era. Cramming our minds with disparate information doesn't make us knowledgeable. The brain is a very efficient machine. It doesn't retain information which it doesn't find useful regularly. That's why however a great article you've read days ago, you don't remember much of it. We've delegated memorization to search engines. Memorization is a key element in forming a solid understanding of the world. Since there is so much content, every different person is reading, watching, and listening to different things.

That's why it's getting harder to talk or chat about a common topic of interest. Consequences are FOMO and despair. You're now subject to know every social, political, national, geopolitical news. Every second something bad is happening in some part of the world and it's all visible in plain sight. But we can't do much about any single incident. This ends up in a lot of mental despair. In the end, we've to pick our battles. There is limited fuel in our brains and it's in our control what we choose to put it at work.

Where's the Refuge?

Every day, we hear about a new campaign to delete some social network indicted with privacy violation of allowing triggering content, political propaganda lobbying, and several other reasons. Often these are headed by news media companies that themselves promote their headlines and stories through these networks. Also, it's should be understood by now that once something becomes so ubiquitous and pervasive in society, it's very hard to remove its existence without force. So, social media is not going anywhere. Society has invested too much into it to remove it from our reality.

I don't think social media is bad for our society. Instead, it's a better antidote to more harmful propaganda instruments such as radio and television which provided only one-way communication. The premise of turning everything off also seems absurd. You'll gain nothing from separating from it when everything you know and doesn't know are on it. I also think that the invention of social media is a natural course of events after the advent of the internet and signifies the natural tendencies of our species to gossip. It was not invented for any novel purpose. The whole idea of social media was to gossip. What we turned it into and what we are going to do with it will depend on what value we derive from it.

On the individual front, getting away from it doesn't work unless you're a monk living in mountains with nothing to do with the outer world. The only refuge for you is to understand your relationship with it. The least you should understand is how much are you influenced by it, what is the role of it in your life and how it aligns with your prospects. Taking the time to ask these hard questions and deeply reflecting on it can be good first steps in the direction of a better future.