TL:DR this post is basically a psychological and emotional strip show in which I go bare with what I do on social media and what it does to me, and once I’m naked and cowering after revealing my darkest thoughts, I offer a glimpse at how we could feel less empty when we go online.
Like a mindless lab rat, I tap mechanically through three or fifty Instagram stories, allocating more of my scattered attention to the people who I feel are cooler or richer or better looking than me, lingering on the stories that brandish places or experiences that give me FOMO or make me feel excluded.
In response to the more compelling stories that aren’t just status-signals, I send words to the handful of people who are IRL friends and just emojis to Internet friends. The “💯” is my favorite, because it has the affirmational effect of the “👏” without seeming fanboyish or pandering. If these people are online, and most usually are, I watch for them to “see” and respond to my bid for attention. I feel it’s important that responses be matched and balanced: words for words, emojis for emojis. I perceive a response to an emoji with more than a slapped-on 👍 or ❤️ to be desperate from someone I don’t know well, and escalating to words with really anyone makes me anxious.
If a word exchange somehow begins, I muster the wittiest response I can think of through the morass of sudden self-consciousness and quickly click out of the conversation. Because if they see that I immediately see their message, then I seem over-eager or like I have nothing better to do than wait for it. If I initiate words and I don’t get a response, I feel slightly (intensely) rejected, and I resume my hunt for connection and validation from other people on Instagram with whom I have friendships that may or may not be real.
After tiring of flicking horizontally right through humble-brag and LOOK-WHERE-I-AM stories, I scroll vertically down — an appropriate direction — through the murky chum of grid posts and obligingly like the ones posted by people who consistently like my own posts. I’ve found lately that my attention span has shrunk to the point that a grid post almost feels like an affront, an act of war, an actual photo bomb, particularly if the photos aren’t superbly shot or in a highly desirable location — like the stern of a sun-drenched yacht (preferably with an exotic flag waving in the background), the top of a mountain in a country with stringent visa requirements, a delivery room, or a step-and-repeat at a charity gala that has absolutely no beverage sponsors and includes people with only very subtle lip injections.
I’ve muted anyone who has ever defiled my feed with selfies or poorly lit group photos at basic parties that aren’t even in Europe or Mexico City. I’ve unfollowed the handful of people (who I probably met in Tulum) who posted selfies. Because gross and desperate.
And I just feel bad for anyone who thinks they still have to go to Tulum. I feel actual contempt for anyone who posts from this seaweed-covered, morally bankrupt, ecologically ruined, insecurity-ridden thirst-trap for the hollow, strident wokeism and performative meditation of C-grade Instagram models and the trust-funded Shaman Bros who prey upon them. I feel trace amounts compassion for their aimlessness and the soul-crushing, collective ennui that they thinly veil with shapeless $400 rags they were peer-pressured into buying at Caravana that are also sold wholesale for nineteen cents to locals as eco-friendly reusable toilet paper because Millennial and Gen X global nomads have overburdened their septic tanks with what was initially small-batch mezcal and avocado toast. “Aho,” and also unfollow.
After these three or fifty minutes that go by as fast as a lunchbox-sized bag of Doritos and leave the grotesque mouth feel of a Costco-sized bag of Cheetos, the lurid yellow residue not on my lips but glazed across the whites of my eyes, I lurch back into reality, feeling sluggish and a little confused. I try, like a beached whale flopping towards the sea, to return my focus to work or to my friends or my family, who I actually care about and who want me to be present and not hunched over a screen powered by algorithms engineered and optimized to turn my hijacked attention and hapless chemicals into their swelling NASDAQ share price.
I find this return difficult, sometimes so difficult that I default back into Instagram, or worse, if it’s a dull day on the Gram, to its increasingly irrelevant Boomer parent product, Facebook. And sometimes, worst of all, to some dating app that masquerades as a productive pathway to romantic salvation but is actually designed to keep me doing the exact same thing that most digital products are designed to do: pay off my constant partial attention with just enough dopamine to keep me hooked, which translates into just enough engagement to not quite justify vampirically draining the ad budgets of B2C brands who are forced to buy into this dystopian abstraction of what was in 1997 ironically named social media.
What do I get in return for this state of persistent mental and emotional malaise? What do I actually get out of social media, which is eating the Internet like a ravenous bacteria?
At best, I get the ostensible admiration (but hidden resentment) of acquaintances who tell me at parties that are not in Europe or Mexico City how much they envy my life, which looks to them like an unending series of “high-vibration” long-table dinners, far-flung travel and aspirational family gatherings, but is actually a rollercoaster of anxiety, stress and self-consciousness.
At best, I get a place to post photos of life events that I think will get likes and maybe even comments from my followers.
At best, I get fleeting validation and affirmation from those likes and comments that are in and of themselves also ploys for validation and affirmation.
At worst, I create a false impression of my life in the minds of people who don’t actually care about my life, and it makes them think less of their own lives.
At worst, life goes by looking down and not up.
At worst, I become my worst.
And I’m a fckng adult. How would I feel if I were 13? How would I feel about my niece feeling this way when she’s 13?
How do we all feel about all of us on the Internet feeling this way?
If you flinched or nodded or sighed at any point, here are a few questions to consider –
How much immediate dopamine are we willing to give up in exchange for doing something that has a long-term positive impact? Can that impact actually deliver a dopamine hit, or better yet, can it deliver a steady stream of serotonin? And how can we redirect the $250 billion dollars that brands spend to show up on apps that marinate us in insecurity and fake news into solving the social and environmental problems that people care about?
How can we create a sticky social media experience that brings out the best in us and un-ironically makes the world a better place?
I think it’s possible.
I think we’re better than our last Instagram binge and more useful than our last Facebook post and kinder than anything we’ve ever written on Reddit.
I think that the Internet, with its wondrous potential to turn collective attention into collective good, deserves to be more than a way to broker eyeballs for ad spend at the expense of mental health.
I think there’s a way to create a new system of constructive incentives that gives people the affirmation that we will always crave and delivers brands the impressions, conversions and loyalty that privacy changes are making increasingly elusive.
I think the Internet can do better. So we’re going to try.
Meantime, I hope you’ll put your phone down and go take a walk outside with someone you care about. Even if it’s just yourself. Especially if it’s just yourself, your best self. Maybe I’ll see you out there. Because we’ll both be looking up.