Relationships are perhaps the most important things that we have in our lives. Whatever challenges we face, whatever joys we experience, the ability to share them with the people that matter most to us adds significantly to the colour and texture of our lives.
Families, friends, lovers, colleagues – all have a significant impact on our quality of life.
In the modern world there is another relationship that, for many, has taken on an increasing role in recent years: the relationship with social media. It’s important to take a step back to consider our relationship with social media from time-to-time; to consider whether the relationship is a positive one that enhances the quality of our lives and those that share their lives with us, or whether there is a cost of our use that we may not be fully aware of, a point at which social media becomes anti-social media and social networking becomes potentially damaging social comparison.
My own relationship with social media has changed in recent years. Initially it was limited to Facebook where I would post my random observations on life, photos documenting various crimes against spelling and grammar, things that made me smile and things that made me think. With friends scattered around the country and family on the other side of the world Facebook was, and is, a great way to keep in touch, the magic of modern technology crossing oceans to maintain day-to-day connections that would otherwise be impossible.
Since the birth of my blog my relationship with social media has changed. Twitter and Instagram have joined Facebook as daily time consumers and the purpose of my posts, well, they actually have a purpose rather than being, in the main, spontaneous and random. Social media has been the means for communicating my writing, a conduit I hope for my words to reach others for whom they might make a difference.
I deliberately use the word ‘communicating’ with regards to my writing, rather than ‘promotion’. The idea of self promotion doesn’t sit easily with me (contrary to what you might think!) and I tend to view the things I write as independent of me, enabling me to promote them on their own merits. This bit of mental gymnastics may seem a bit odd to you but it makes sense to me! Ahem, as I was saying…
In promoting my blog on Twitter and Facebook I have reached thousands of people from across the world, made new friends, and enjoyed new and unexpected experiences (and from Instagram I’ve been promised thousands of free followers; thanks).
But like all good things there is a downside too and it is important to ask ourselves how we are consuming social media and if in turn social media is in fact consuming us.
Two of the most precious commodities that we have in our lives are our time and attention and, unsurprisingly, where we choose to direct these has a significant impact upon our quality of life.
In a world of inequality and constant demands it is true that no matter how rich or how poor, how busy or how bored, we all have the same 24 hours in a day available to us. Now, I don’t know if it’s my age or whether it’s the increased pace of life but time certainly seems to pass a lot more quickly these days and this seems to me to be another reason to consider just how well I use the time available to me.
Living in a chaotic world the need to feel in control of our lives can be great but how much do we control our use of social media and how much does social media control us? How much of our use is ‘mindless’ scrolling and liking, much like flicking through hundreds of sky channels without ever settling on something to watch? And how much of this is driven by a fear of what we might be missing?
At an unconscious level I suspect this to be a big factor, but when we bring it to our conscious awareness it really bears little scrutiny – I mean, what is it that we are really missing out on? If it is something important that relates to somebody that is important to us then we will find out one way or another anyway; if on the other hand it is the daily trivia of people’s lives – something we humans have a natural curiosity about, from twitching front curtains to buying gossip magazines – well, we managed to survive without knowing what a friend of a friend had for lunch and how much he loved his wonderful partner (to the moon and back, in case you wondered) before Facebook, I’m sure we can find a way to manage again.
This may all seem a bit churlish and far be it for me to tell other people how to live (I’m by no means perfect) but our use of social media isn’t just a personal matter, it gives loud signals to others too. How much of our time with others is truly spent being with them? How much of our attention is hijacked by the psychological dopamine hit of new notifications? How many times during our day to day interactions do we signal to others that their presence isn’t as important to us as what someone else thinks of the photo we posted earlier?If we are not careful we may find that our real life relationships become strained, as tending to the more tenuous connections offered by the constant presence at our fingertips frays the strands of our attention in the here and now of actual conversation.
In the dilution of our attention we risk not only our relationships but also our connection to the world around us and to the reality of our inner lives. How long can we comfortably sit with ourselves before reaching for our smartphones? Are we losing the ability to truly enjoy this present moment, to fully immerse ourselves in our experiences, in the urgently felt need to timeline our life instead of fully living it?
I’m not suggesting that sharing precious moments on Facebook is a bad thing, and of course, nobody is denying that it is nice to feel popular, funny and appreciated as people like and comment on our updates, but there can be a fine line between enjoying such approval and coming to rely on the validation of others for our own self esteem. Is there a risk that our lives’ precious moments have their gloss tarnished by a muted online reaction? Maybe not for those of us that lived in a time before social media existed, but what about our children who know only of a world in which likes and shares carry a social currency whose full value, and cost, we may not yet know?
We all know that Facebook lacks the light and shade of real life, that what we present to the world via social media is a projection of our best selves and a highlight reel of our day-to-day lives. This has led some to refer to ‘Fakebook’ which is a little unfair, after all does that really differ in any way from the family photo albums that we created in decades past?
But it is a natural inclination for us to compare our lives with the lives of those around us – both consciously and subconsciously – and unlike family albums we get to see these countless idealised versions of life, sometimes for hours a day, at times when our own lives may feel very far from ideal. Such exposure can add grit to the many scrapes that we will experience along our paths.
And what about the version of our own selves that we portray on social media? What is it that we are telling the world about ourselves? What are we telling our employers, our colleagues, our clients, our children? As the boundaries between the various roles we play in our lives become ever more blurred it becomes increasingly important that we erect our own boundaries, to protect the various domains of our lives from the potential wreckage of collisions between the public, the private, the personal and the professional.It may be no coincidence that alongside the growth in social media has been a growth in the concept of mindfulness, the act of paying more attention to the present moment – to your thoughts, your feelings and the world around you – that is increasingly being linked with improved mental wellbeing.
Maybe it’s time for us to consider how mindful we are being in our use of social media, and to determine whether the amount of time and attention that we are investing is really an investment at all, or whether it is costing us something far more important.
The Universal – Blur