Shabbat, Status Anxiety, and Social Media

Shabbat represents a challenge to the norms that perpetuate status anxiety.

Image by RDC_design/ Getty Images

I never want to be reduced to a brand.   

Since high school, I have struggled with impression management, trying to figure out when and how I need to focus on being the person others want me to be, as opposed to celebrating the person that I am. While social media is hardly the only reason for this personal weakness, it certainly does not help. Alain de Botton writes that the twenty-first century faces an epidemic of what he calls “status anxiety,” a pervasive anxiety about the “place we occupy in the world.” Shabbat represents a challenge to the norms that perpetuate status anxiety, and a profound reminder about what is at stake when we choose not to play society’s game.

One of the most well-known prohibitions associated with Shabbat observance is refraining from using electronic devices such smartphones and tablets. While this custom is increasingly lauded in a digital age as a statement about the value of unplugging and breaking the treadmill of busyness so many experience, I would like to focus on a less discussed, but perhaps more powerful, reason to unplug on Shabbat: the need to take time to cease seeing ourselves as a brand to be promoted, and instead as individuals capable of being perfect just the way we are.

Alain de Botton writes in Status Anxiety that, “We envy only those whom we feel ourselves to be like–we envy only members of our reference group.” And social media is the great force multiplier of status anxiety. Because the people with whom we connect on these platforms are our friends, relatives, and colleagues, these same people can easily become objects of our envy, even if we love them. And because social media is a digital world of ubiquitous self-promotion, it can appear that everyone else has a life that is better than ours.

However, in an article for Wired Magazine, Clive Thompson argues that people tend to over-notice posts in social media uniquely aimed at their insecurities. Consider Facebook posts about new babies. Given the popularity of Unbaby.Me, you might assume that there is rampant over-posting about babies by new parents, yet Meredith Ringel Morris, a computer scientist at Microsoft Research, found that while parents with new babies actually post less on Facebook than their friends without children, posts about new babies are disproportionately liked on Facebook. Since the Like Button determines which posts should prominently end up in an individual person’s News Feed, posts about babies end up more prominently in the News Feeds of all Facebook users, thereby leading people to conclude that all parents with new babies excessively post on Facebook. To quote Thompson, “We don’t have a plague of oversharing. We have a plague of over-noticing. It’s time to reboot our eyes.”

The Talmud teaches that Shabbat provides a person with an “extra soul” for the twenty-hour period on Friday night until Shabbat ends on Saturday evening. One does not need to believe soul as defined by Western religion to recognize that what the Talmud means to say is that Shabbat is a day each week when each of us has the opportunity to utilize a double portion of our best selves. Shabbat is an opportunity to care about ourselves and spend time with the people who care about us not because of a glossy picture we post on Instagram or Facebook, but because of who we are at our core.

When I mentioned in casual conversation that I was writing a piece on status anxiety and Shabbat, I was amazed at how many people could immediately identify something they “over-notice” in cyberspace. For some, pictures of weddings, engagements or baby announcements were most distressing; for others, social events to which they never seem to be invited; for others, travel opportunities to exotic places that they could never afford. However, mentioning this topic to even a small number of people opened the floodgates for just how much our self-image and self-worth is affected by the picture we want to present of ourselves, and how easy it is for our lives to be found wanting when we take too seriously how others present themselves in the digital world.

When we unplug on Shabbat, we make a conscious rejection of the world of exhaustive comparison, and simply live as though nothing else matters but deep relationships and community. If we succeed in doing this, we will take one small step towards demonstrating Shabbat’s capacity to elevate every aspect of our lives, shaping a world that now, more than ever, needs a little less digital self-gratification, and a little more communal sanctification.  

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