Social media is pervasive. I have approximately one friend who has never set up a social media account (outside of LinkedIn) and likely never will. One. For anyone under the age of 65 with at least a 3G connection, social media has become the air we breathe. According to the New York Times, people are spending close to one hour a day on Facebook. That is three times longer than its nearest sticky rival, YouTube. It is also longer than people spend exercising or reading. In fact, they found, it is nearly as much time as we spend eating and drinking each day. One might argue that we are placing an equal value on social media as we do the lowest level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
What have we become…
I work in digital marketing and, over the past ten years, have lead social media strategy across three global brands. For me, taking a social media break could be professionally crippling. So, while I’ll likely never shut down completely, I completely understand the desire to take a step back. Or, rather, take a more measured approach.
A few months ago, I read an article about the signals we offer up each time we engage on a social media platform. It’s something most people rarely consider, but working in this field, I thought I’d run an experiment. For one month, I stopped liking anything on my Facebook feed. I only commented on things I really felt passionate about or where I could add value. This experiment accomplished two things: It gave Facebook fewer casual signals and more meaningful cues for the people I truly wanted to hear more from. The second thing this experiment lead to was real conversation. Once I commented, others would respond back and I’d get notified. This evolved into real dialogue, which felt good. It felt closer to talking to someone in the flesh again.
All that said, if you’re going to be in the world of social media, learn how to play the game. You can teach the platforms who and what to serve you. Your actions are everything. They’re not scanning your irises (yet). The more you engage with a diversity of topics and friends, the more interesting and representative your feed will be. Your choices are your curation tool.
Back to the topic at hand. Is social media serving us an edited version of our lives? There is no doubt, no question in my mind that most people have learned to only share the positive, the beautiful, the funny, the heartwarming; and my favorite, the humblebrag. Years back, when people were first dipping their toes in social media, I remember a few people sharing real health issues, terrible children stories and imperfect muffin top photos. Now, the only time you see or hear of that is when there is a story of redemption and a list of five fun ways to avoid said experience.
So here is the problem…
The things that you would say to a friend or a neighbor or even a coworker, you will never write on Twitter or show on Instagram. This is what’s making many of us depressed and anxious and lowering our self-esteem. We know intellectually that it’s all a filtered version of life, but we still absorb it in our body. We still feel badly that we can’t afford that vacation to Tulum.
It’s not going away. Stepping off the treadmill of social media doesn’t solve it nor is it sustainable to opt out. Too much news, pop culture and life happens online now to wall yourself off from it forever. So, what do you do?
You balance. Like every other part of your life. You don’t go years without a cookie but you also don’t eat a cookie every day. Social media was never meant to replace your social life. It was never meant to replicate face to face interaction or coffee with a friend. And the problem is that it has begun to do that for some people. It’s the lazy person’s way to have friends. But social media is not healthy in a vacuum. It compliments real-life friendships. Even if you meet someone online, you eventually will need to physically see them in person or the relationships can only evolve so far.
Social media is a tool. It’s a tool to keep in touch with friends scattered across the globe. It’s a tool to share photos of your kids with their grandparents when they can’t see each other at birthdays. It’s a tool to network for future jobs or business partnerships. It’s a tool to learn from luminaries and brilliant minds. But it is not everything. Don’t treat it as such. Don’t be fooled into thinking it is real life or it is representative of the real world. It is merely a mirror of the cues you have given it. And just like most things in life, you have the choice to let it hold as much power as you want it to. Or not.