The latest update is that I joined Instagram…again.
Over last few years, I have had a rocky relationship with social media. There was a time when I was fairly active. I found it fantastic to stay informed about almost anyone I met. To learn more about people and their interesting lives. To see the myriad possibilities of life. The earliest trigger to my social media anxiety was a negative comment from a dad’s friend on a picture. That picture actually had the most likes ever and I was riding high on self-confidence (or validation). From his perspective, my picture was seductive and inappropriate, but from mine, I just felt I looked beautiful in it. The picture was from my college farewell. I went to college in a big metro city with a super glam crowd, where one is mostly invisible. This was in contrast to my life in a much smaller city where I had many friends and supporters. So, of course, it felt good to get the attention on social media. One could view this as being shallow (as I judged myself initially) or as an effort to fit in and be seen (as I realize now). Actually, it was special to me because it symbolized my evolution from a small town to big city girl. In my imagination, the picture was not offensive, but I could also see why someone from my hometown could judge it that way. If one adult felt that way, I reasoned many others would feel similarly. While I was trying to find my place in a new crowd, I felt that I would lose my approval where I was previously accepted. I feared that I may have unknowingly created dislike and disconnect. With these dilemmas bothering me, I deleted my lovely picture. And with that, all the associated emotions.
From that point on, I started questioning my online presence. Thinking twice before posting anything. Occasionally, emotions ruled and I had lapses of judgment in posting something which I should not have. I gradually started keeping a distance from social media to avoid hurting sentiments (especially cultural) unknowingly. Parallelly, my life kept changing dramatically as I experimented with my career options and moved geographies. I got a sense that people from my prior life could not relate with me as much. For better or worse, my personal and professional choices have been unconventional. With every choice, there was a new and old life, always with stark differences. With the rate of changes in my life, the differences compounded. Perhaps everyone’s life, in general, takes unique form with time. But in my case, social circles hardly overlapped; I moved to newer places but my connections did not. Perhaps that is the cost of treading your own path. You start from scratch at every step. One thing I learnt the hard way is that very few friendships stay the same without physical proximity. I have come to accept it as a natural course of life. Actually, that is when social media hurts – when you see your old gang moving on without you and you gradually fade away from those hangouts. Anyhow, my unique circumstances meant that I had to take extra efforts to build new and reliable relationships with every change. I was surprised to learn how hard that can be after college. So, I looked to social media for help. But it was challenging to strike the right balance between adapting and retaining identity. Social media is primarily about identity, about your “personal brand”. I found myself increasingly unsure of what I wanted that to be.
As social media started picking pace with Snapchat, Instagram, etc., there were concerns and rising awareness on digital privacy and safety. Social media was turning into a platform for vanity and aggressive self indulgence, which started to bother me significantly, especially as I struggled to find meaningful relationships. I found it odd that people were constantly posting content but did not have the time to chat on a personal level. Conversations could not go beyond small talk. I gradually realized that it is not just me who feels this way but our society is collectively going through this. I came across various articles and books that described how internet has distorted our psychology and social skills. I also work in the tech industry where data privacy issues are top of mind for everyone. There were scandals such as Cambridge Analytica and several lawsuits against Facebook which made me super wary. It is a scary thought that some people with access to your information can know the inner workings of your mind better than yourself. It means you can be unknowingly manipulated. The more these technologies entered my life, the more anxiety they created. No imagination is far fetched now. You don’t know what Google Home is doing with your conversations even when you’re not interacting with it.
Considering the personal dilemma of identity and the general issues of privacy, I thought I needed to engage differently with social media. I tried multiple strategies – limiting time, unfollowing content that triggered negative feelings, following limited but credible channels, being mindful of what I post, using separate profiles for specific purposes. But as I distanced myself from the noise, I would realize I craved connection and audience, especially living in a foreign country. Also, I would feel like the odd one out whenever I socialized in person. It felt as if everyone was into selfies, filters and hashtags except me. I felt grown out of that phase but also abnormal due to the same reason. To feel normal, I would try to become active on social media only to be frustrated again. I would get annoyed seeing excessive posts, double lives of people and creepy promotional posts that seemed to stalk all my online activity. I would then reduce my exposure again and the cycle repeated.
Last year, I watched the documentary, Social Dilemma, on Netflix, that earned great popularity. I thought this could be the start of changes in social media behavior on a mass scale. Motivated, I deleted my personal Facebook and Instagram profiles. I was considering that for a while and the documentary provided the impetus. I thought I was done for good this time. And I did stay away for a long time. I still had two public profiles – one for my dog’s pictures and other for my reading/writing interests. I thought that I would be able to get the most out of social media through these. It worked for a while until I missed the personal updates.
So as you read in the first line of this post, I re-entered the dopamine kicking world of social media. This time I rationalized it by saying that I am missing out on social life during the pandemic. I am missing friends and I want to know what they are up to. Like every time I rejoined in the past, I have renewed intentions. But the difference this time is that I have decided not to quit again. Because the summary of my experimentation is that whether you love or hate social media, you cannot escape it. Most of the communication in the world runs on social media, most of the people connect on social media and as long as that is the case, you will be left off if not part of the bandwagon! One cannot ignore the essence of social media which is to connect and that it does very well. Fallacy in my thinking was that the concerns around social media are starting to threaten its existence. I still feel that the concerns are pretty serious for our society. But there is no other option to switch to. Facebook is almost a monopoly and that will likely not change in the short run. I actually did not regret deleting my Facebook profile (yet!) but then my existence continues on Instagram and Whatsapp. Fortunately, I have managed to stay away from Snapchat, TikTok and if there is anything else! I guess I am not opposed to the idea of social media but to the way it operates and to its addictive presence in our life. Commonly agreed solutions are to alter the business models somehow and establish more regulation around artificial intelligence or basically, usage of data. That sounds good in theory but is hard to articulate in concrete terms because these platforms support significant chunk of our economy and that influence is ever growing.
As a concept, social media is here to stay since it is so closely tied to our identity and ability to express at scale. Speaking of identity, I want to share some very beautiful, apt and relatable lines by Jhumpa Lahiri from the afterword of her book, Namesake.
“The Namesake’s great themes are change and becoming, inventing, adapting, assimilating, adjusting to new states of being. It is about how life’s direction can be interrupted. It is about wanting to be something other than oneself. The battle with myself, my origins, my place in the world, goes on. New identities, languages, and settings have been incorporated, former habits and passions have made space for others. Were I to stop fully waging this battle, I would cease to know myself, and my guess is that I would stop writing.
Now that I too have rooted myself, as an adult, in two different parts of the world, I can no longer live, wherever I am, without feeling, just as Ashima does in the opening paragraph of the novel, that “something is missing.” This complication, both logistical and existential, has been a choice on my part. And like many of the important choices we make in life, it has also been a need.”
Jhumpa wrote this afterword to her book fifteen years after it was published. What she described below is exactly how I feel when I read my older blog posts.
“Thumbing through the pages, as my eyes fell on random sentences, I no longer recognized myself, while at the same time recognizing, also remembering, how I had been, how I saw the world, how I described and interpreted it back then. And I hope that the reader, like me, will continue to recognize that impulse in all of us, of whatever origin or identity, to know, or even to become, people other than ourselves.”
It is fair to say that we evolve, we reinvent, the world accepts us and we become less judgmental. So, I can also share the farewell picture that I deleted without any guilt now 🙂