When was the last time you checked Facebook? Twitter? Snapchat? Instagram? If you’re anything like me, it was probably recently. Perhaps you were led to this page because you saw my post about it on Facebook. For so many of us, social media has become a quick and easy way to maintain connections with people from our pasts, from college, from camp, and from high school, even if you haven’t spoken in years. We post photos of our children, our pets, our outings, and our meals. We can “check in” to different locations to alert our friends as to where we are – I’m at the mechanic, I’m at my kid’s soccer game, I’m at the dentist. But we don’t post many negative aspects of our own lives. It is the rare post that brags about a kid not cooperating with his bedtime routine and a rarer photo of your own bad hair day. So it appears to the outside world that our lives are fantastic. Only infrequently do we post about our own illnesses or the illness or death of a loved one, in which case the number of friends who respond with sympathy is sometimes used as a measure of our own self-worth.
When social media sites first arrived on the scene, there was a deluge of following and friending that happened, in an attempt to see who was the “most popular” based on the number of people you were connected with. This trend goes back to the MySpace era (yep, remember Tom from MySpace, your very first MySpace friend?). MySpace had a “Top 8,” where you could arrange your friends by order of importance. A Top 8 spot was prime real estate, and it showed the world where you stood with someone.
Although the Top 8 phenomenon is long gone, this same problem still plagues younger generations of social media users, who are growing up with technology at their fingertips. If a picture does not get a certain number of likes within a desired timeframe, the picture gets removed. There is etiquette that you, as a best friend, must like all of your friends’ photos and leave encouraging comments. If you don’t do it fast enough, there is anger and resentment.
Despite this, social media can have, and has had, an extraordinary positive impact on the world. Political movements have started and blossomed with social media. Someone started a Facebook group for the parents of my child’s incoming kindergarten class. Social media allows us to see that we are not alone, even if we are sitting by ourselves at our computers or on our phones. It provides us with an outlet to vent our frustrations and fears, while simultaneously allowing us to share our joy and excitement with others. Social media sites have let me maintain a connection, however superficial, with people I care about but who I don’t get to interact with much, and I am appreciative of this ability.
Social media, however, remains imperfect. If we only share the positive aspects of our lives, it is likely that others are doing the same. And offline, we don’t sit down to rank our friends, and we certainly don’t judge their worthiness by who tells them they look good. I am not the first person to examine the impact of social media on our lives, and I will certainly not be the last. As the internet continues to permeate our daily existence to the point that we are wearing it on our wrists (thanks, Apple Watch), it is important that we remember that social media is merely a microcosm of real life.