I want to preface what I write by first taking a moment to address an important point.
This article is not about the elimination of social media. I think we can all, in some way, acknowledge the obvious benefits that social media has. Online social platforms have enabled us to do things that previously were impossible. Government-changing revolutions have begun on Facebook. I recently connected a friend from Switzerland who was traveling in South Korea with friends I have that are living in Seoul. I met some of my best friends in Colombia through a Facebook group that organized pick-up basketball games for ex-pats in Medellin. FaceTime, WhatsApp and Facebook’s Messenger allow billions of people to communicate with family and friends all over the world. For free. In real time.
These are amazing things.
No, the central matter here is not the elimination of social media. That argument would be pointless. We have come too far. My argument instead focuses on why people need to spend less time on social media. My point is simple. I believe the more time you spend on social media, the more unhappy you become.
Finally, I think it is important to remember just how new social media is. The social revolution we are experiencing now is still in it’s absolute infancy. It took more than 100 years for people to figure out cigarettes were bad for us. To assume any of us, myself included, know the full impact that social platforms will have on society would be foolish.
PART ONE: A Question.
I have a question to ask you.
I would like for you to think back on the past three months of your life. Specifically, try to think back and identify some of your ‘human’ moments from these three months.
Now, when I say ‘human’ moments, I am referring to the times you may have said something you regretted or embarrassed yourself or when you perhaps made a stupid mistake. For example, as a child I once, unprovoked by anyone, took a running start and leapt into a bush garden. The other day, while visiting the Scalinata di Trinità dei Monti in Rome, I saw a woman fall down several stairs for no apparent reason other than the fact that she missed a step.
We all have these moments. We all have times of jealousy and rage and utter stupidity. To put it romantically: these are gentle reminders that we are human.
Now, on to my question.
Thinking back on your ‘human’ moments from the past three months, how many of these did you happen to share on social media? Do you post videos of the time when you finally run out of patience and scream at your kids? Did you post about the time you ate too fast at a fancy restaurant and got balsamic salad dressing on your new white shirt? This last one was me, in case you were wondering.
Spoiler alert: When it comes to social media, nobody else is sharing these moments either. But more on that later.
PART TWO: Same Story, Different Platform.
There is an expression I once heard that has always stuck in my mind.
“Good stories don’t happen to bad storytellers.”
Boasting is no new trick. We all do it. Stories grow in size and change in form over time. My friends who always seem to have the most interesting lives coincidentally also happened to be the best storytellers. This is neither good nor bad. To be honest, people who see life in a positive light and whose stories reflect this positivity are more likely to be happy. But that is a different conversation.
My point is this: while how we interact with one another may change, our patterns of behavior will not. We have all exaggerated the truth and bent stories to fit the narrative that we wanted to hear. You do it, I do it, everyone does it. Part of this is a survival instinct. Life can be hard. So we tell ourselves, and sometimes others, the stories we want, and need, to hear.
It is only inevitable that this pattern in behavior continues as social continues to transform how people interact with one another. From caves to the fireplace to the pub to the internet – humans will adapt their behavior to whatever social outlets are available. The locations may change, but the patterns will remain the same. People will tend to portray themselves, and their life, in the best light possible.
Social media is perhaps the greatest tool for storytelling that we have ever seen. It is no surprise that seemingly ordinary people have become YouTube sensations or Insta-famous. What is interesting about social media is the ability that ordinary people have to edit their lives before sharing them.
We get to pick what we share. We can share a photo from the top of a mountain and completely disregard the four hours of climbing it took to get to the top. We are able to edit posts before posting them. This young Finnish blogger has done a fantastic job of highlighting how slight changes can make a huge visual difference with photos on Instagram.
Now, editing itself is not new. TV networks and film companies have told us carefully edited stories for dozens of years. Even ‘reality’ TV was never reality. And why do these companies edit? Because real life; the life that is always happening and does not allow for re-takes; can be boring. And sometimes sad. And sometimes lonely.
We are all storytellers. Our lives are the greatest story we will ever tell. And as storytellers, who would want to tell a story that was boring? Or sad? Or uninteresting?
PART THREE: We Boast on Social Media, We Live on Google.
I shared an article recently, and would like for you to read it. If you have a moment, please read this short, but fantastic, op-ed from the New York Times.
(On a personal note, I would recommend bookmarking this URL. If you ever are having a bad day and want to be reminded that we all struggle, this article is just the trick.)
In this article, the author examines the very hilarious differences between what people post on social media and what they search for on Google. To paraphrase:
‘On social media, the top descriptors to complete the phrase “My husband is …” are: “the best,” “my best friend,” “amazing,” “the greatest” and “so cute.”
On Google, one of the top five ways to complete the same phrase is also “amazing.” So that checks out. The other four: “a jerk,” “annoying,” “gay” and “mean.”
Irritable bowel syndrome and migraines are similarly prevalent, each affecting around 10 percent of the American population. But migraine sufferers have built Facebook awareness and support groups two and a half times larger than I.B.S. sufferers have.
The point? What we present on social media is often a reflection of the lives we wished we had and not the lives we actually have. A majority of what people present on social media sites is not an accurate reflection of reality.
Think I am wrong? OK.
How many times have you seen someone post that they had an ‘OK’ vacation? How many times have you seen an anniversary post saying ‘Well, we’ve stopped having sex as much and we’ve been fighting a bit more and the kids threw a kink in our groove, but I love you and I am here to make this work.’ Has anyone’s wedding ever been at least a little stressful or chaotic? Have the drunken uncles and inevitable family dramas miraculously disappeared from family get-togethers?
PART FOUR: Highlights, Not The Whole Game.
The perfect analogy for the contrast between real life and what we see on social media is an NFL football broadcast.
The average live NFL broadcast is about three and a half hours long. Of that time, there are a total of eleven minutes of actual in-game action. Eleven.
To quote the report:
“67 minutes of the broadcast are shots of players standing around. 63 minutes of the broadcast are commercials. 35 minutes of the broadcast are shots of the crowd, the coach, cheerleaders and announcers.”
In my opinion, watching a live NFL game is boring. There are lengthy play reviews, long pauses in-between plays and an absurd amount of commercials. This is sort of like life. Our lives are long periods of monotony interspersed with moments of action. Vacations, family get-togethers, new business ventures, weekend trips. These times are the in-game action. It is what we wished our lives were like all the time. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, the majority of our lives are routines and sitting in traffic and grocery shopping and work and quiet time at home.
A lot of what we see on social media is the highlight reel of life, not the whole game. The monotony of life and our innumerable ‘human’ moments don’t make the cut.
I travel often. I have been fortunate to go to some really cool places and have some incredible experiences. If you were to perceive my life only through the photos I shared online, it might seem like I lived a dream life. Beaches and Patagonia and worldwide jet-setting.
The only problem is that these photos wouldn’t tell the entire story. You wouldn’t see the loneliness I feel. You wouldn’t see the stress that can come from moving from one place to the next. The missed flights and hotel check-ins and constant searches for a new apartment. You wouldn’t see the Tuesday nights when I am alone in a small Albanian apartment eating pizza and watching Netflix because I am homesick and that is the closest to home I can get.
Don’t let the highlights fool you.
The next time you are online, try to remember, that what you see is not reality. It is a snapshot of reality. If for example, you see a picture of someone in front of an awesome natural landscape, like the one below:
Remember that this person spent three days hiking with a 45 pound backpack on his back, sleeping in the cold and eating instant soup. Not so much fun. Also, a good portion of his time walking was spent asking himself: “Do I like walking? Do I really like walking this much? Nope, I’m pretty sure I am sick of walking at this point.”
PART FIVE: Proof.
Facebook recently made some significant changes to their NewsFeed algorithim. These changes are a direct result of their recent acknowledgement that passive consumption of information on social platforms is bad for you. Yes, that is a link to Facebook’s actual newsroom page. Yes, this is the world’s largest social media company telling you that randomly scrolling through your Newsfeed is likely to make you depressed. They believe productive conversations and connecting with others is great, but your popping in and scrolling around – not so much.
There are also psychological questions that need to be addressed. Do we really want to know what everyone else is doing? There are close to 7.5 billion people on the planet. Is it in our best interest to be exposed to the highlight reels of everyone else’s life? Wouldn’t consistently viewing how great everyone else has it just put us in a state of perpetually feeling as if our lives are not enough?
A study by SCOPE, a UK-based charity, found that more than than 60% of Facebook users felt inadequate compared to other users online. This study by the University of Pittsburgh has linked large amounts of time on social media with depression.
And if social media doesn’t depress us, it at the very least distracts us. Social platforms are designed to be addictive. Think it is a coincidence that you wake up and immediately grab your phone. Or that when you have several new notifications you feel excited? This is by design. The more time we all spend on a specific platform, the more valuable that platform becomes. Your attention a commodity, like sugar or oil. And just like major cigarette companies, it is in the interest of these publicly-traded companies to fight for that attention in order to make their product as desirable as possible.
PART SIX: Closing Statements – A Lesson from Charlie Munger.
Charlie Munger is considered by many to be one of the smartest people on the planet. He has been affectionately referred to as the “walking book.” His book, Poor Charlie’s Almanack comes recommended from some of the biggest and brightest minds on the planet. He is business partners with Warren Buffett and the vice chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, the conglomerate that Buffet manages.
A former teaching friend of mine once told me a story about Mr. Munger. I would like to share it with you.
Every year, Berkshire Hathaway holds an annual meeting for their shareholders. At this meeting, Munger and Buffet set aside time for an open forum, where they field questions from shareholders. My friend is a shareholder in Berkshire Hathaway and attends the annual meeting each year.
Several years ago, during the open-forum portion of the meeting, a woman asked Mr. Munger what he thought the key to happiness was. Mr. Munger replied that he could not tell her what the key to happiness was. What gave him pleasure might be different from what gave her pleasure. “But,” he said, “I do know the keys to being unhappy. Envy and self-pity. If you envy what others have and feel sorry for yourself, you will be much closer to unhappiness than happiness.”
Social media platforms have one fundamental flaw. They don’t present reality. They present fractions of our lives, carefully edited. And if you continuously scroll through the highlight reels of other people’s lives, it is only a matter of time before you envy what you see and feel as if what you are doing is not enough.
I was recently in Albania. I was alone. I was without many social outlets. I was coming off of an amazing trip with friends in Greece and I missed their companionship. To be frank, I was as depressed as I have been in quite awhile. I had a lot; perhaps too much; of free time. Naturally, I started to spend more time on social media. When I had down time, which was often, I would pop in to Facebook or Instagram.
And you know what, this did not make me feel better. It did not fill my social void. I did not feel more connected. Actually, the opposite happened. The more I logged in, the more envious I became of my friends and family. They were all seemingly having such a great time. I began to stop recognizing the blessings I had; the ability to swim in the Mediterranean Sea, lots of time to read and write, amazing seafood for less than $5; and began to focus on all the things I was missing out on.
After about a week, I noticed that the less I logged in, the better I felt. I began to swim more. I started journaling and sorting through my thoughts. I went on long walks. I made more of an effort to connect with friends and family back home. These things made me much happier than social media ever did.
I cannot tell you what will make you happy. You just gotta go out in the world and do you boo-boo. But I can tell you what I think will make you more unhappy.
More time on social media.
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