Small practical guide – Three questions we don’t ask ourselves about our social media use, but should
On average, an Instagram user interested in fashion opens the app 32 times a day. (Yes, you’ve read that correctly!) If these stats are currently only available for this app, think about how many times we open Facebook, YouTube, Snapchat, LinkedIn or other apps! How many minutes, in fact, do these platforms steal from us? And are all these hours on our phones well spent? How much of the information we receive brings us value? How much value do we add to those around us? How many pictures mark us positively on a daily basis? These questions, and beyond, are things that we need to address if we want to optimize what we get from the time we spend online, both for ourselves and for those who follow us. After all, if at the end of the day, after lots of screen time, we do not have more information or a better mood/energy than at the beginning of the day, that says something about the quality of the content for which we sacrifice moments with our families, minutes to read or moments of silence in the privacy of our own minds.
In the following paragraphs I have made a selection of themes to ponder on for those of you who want to use these social networks in a wiser way. Beware, this is an article with many (many!) questions whose answers may not be the most comfortable.
- What do we transmit through what we post online?
“Three more hours until take off, so ask me anything.” “Stuck in traffic again, awesome, what about you, reply to my Insta-sticker with your mood” “I’m bored so I am trying out all these new filters. Which one do you like best?”
We’ve come to share the most trivial things on social media, including seven daily cat stories, the supermarket shopping cart, the morning cereal bowl, ten quotes about how horrible Mondays are, freshly cut hair tips, running in the park at 6am, new microblading techniques, 27 stories from the same concert (obligatorily posted horizontally) or every corner of the hotel room, whether in a world capital or in an unknown village.
So what is the message of all these posts? The fact that we’re bored? Or the fact that we have enough resources for a semi-fancy hotel and a new hairstyle once a month? Or the fact that we can afford to go to the spa with a friend over the weekend and others do not? In fact, maybe everything is all about comparisons, and maybe that’s precisely why we have transformed social networks into spaces where people can show “I have this and you do not.” After all, why would we boast about our six pack in all the seaside photos, or pose with a new limited-edition office bag or the latest sports car? You may already get the hint about what I will talk about next, but I am getting ahead of myself. Let’s get back to the multitude of more or less useless posts we generate. Considering this crazy trend encouraging us from all sides to post on social networks, from a picture of a pint of beer posted in order to win a pair of sunglasses or a small cooler, to posting pictures for the chance of winning a giveaway with two lipsticks or a possible excursion to Paris, my two cents are that we have to tone it down a bit and think about how much noise we create in the social bubbles of the people around us. We do not have to post daily, in fact no one forces us to share every moment of our lives with the people who follow us, and actually it is not necessary to post Insta Stories when we are stuck in traffic, at a doctor’s appointment or in a queue, when we could have had this time for ourselves or for a book. Shocking, I know. Running away from spending time alone and listening to our own thoughts should not make us always stay on our phones and post things for the sake of posting and out of fear of experiencing the world in the absence of our screens. No wonder that the fear of being disconnected from our phones due to low battery or no Wi-Fi has recently become one of the most paralyzing fears that people experience.
In the same spirit triggered by the avalanche of shallow content, the New York Library (@nypl) came up with a solution to the question “Where are the real Stories?”, namely: Insta novels, a series of stories on Instagram where the page design of classic titles such as Alice in Wonderland or Kafka’s Metamorphosis is adapted to match the screens and habits of the present time. After all, since we spend so much time on social media networks – why not at least try to make it useful?
And as we’re still in the “Content” section, I would suggest a mini social detox exercise: If you would not post for a week, for example, how many people do you think would write to you because they would miss the content you usually post or distribute? 5? 10? 100? 1000? Moreover, how much do you think you would get back from your own life per week? 1 hour? 10? 24? Apps such as Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube are already allowing users to access their personal stats, such as the number of hours they spend each day using these apps, which is a sign that users are nudged more towards the idea of having mindful social media experiences, which to be honest is slightly paradoxical coming from businesses which make progressively more money as users spend time on them, but PR move or not, this is still a much needed feature.
Here is some more food for thought: Have you ever thought about what you are conveying with the content you post or distribute? What does it bring to the people around? If you would see content similar to yours online, would you be interested in it? What values does it transmit? You can also ask yourself the same questions when you decide to follow someone. What are the criteria after which you decide to follow a person or a brand? Their number of followers? Or is it based on the photos and videos posted from various islands in the Indian Ocean? Or do you look for a specific message? Or maybe you choose to follow an account because you think their posts are unique.
These dilemmas lead us to the next question.
- Are our perspective and content needed in the online world? How different are they from what already exists?
Along with the boom of blogs and Facebook pages came dozens of requests from our friends to like their pages such as John Smith Photography where we could access their digital portfolios from #weddings, #baptisms and #requiems. Now the phenomenon moved to Instagram, where everyone with a decent camera, whether professional or mobile (especially if it has been thoroughly cleaned beforehand) can become famous if they closely follow the steps necessary for a successful travel / fashion / make-up or lifestyle account.
Sadly, there are only few tried-and-tested grid recipes which still work on Instagram, delivering thousands of likes, and therefore contributing to the uniformization of the posts we get to see. Please tell me you have also realized this, otherwise why would all festival photos look the same? Or why would all the pictures of Milan or Venice be taken from the same markets?
Recently an Instagram account began to draw attention to this phenomenon of creative conversion into few seemingly banal ideas by making collages which demonstrate how similar the images are to one another and thus, how limited are the visions of popular Instagrammers. The account is called @insta_repeat and illustrates quite easily the visual and creative crisis through which we are going right now. Another visual approach that drew attention to the lack of personal marks and identity delimitation in photos was Oliver Kmia’s video compilation in which he outlined a story using only photographs taken from the internet, the result being a stopwatch motion video called “Instravel – A Photogenic Mass Tourism Experience“. Obviously, the video features #FollowMeTo pics, a trend started by the couple Murad and Nataly Osmann, photos taken in the wing mirror of the car, airport snapshots with boarding passes and passports and the ever present airplane wing shot cruising through clouds.
So, we can only wonder how different our content is to what we see posted by others. Do you think people would recognize a picture you posted if your username and face would be hidden? Do you think you have a recognizable personal visual mark? Moreover, while looking at your feed, how many pictures would you be able to assign to their true author without looking at the handle?
- For whom are we posting all these pictures and videos?
Say you would do an analysis of what the people you follow post. You would certainly see a few repeating patterns: perfection, happiness and superiority.
However, why and for whom do we take these perfect pictures? Why do we hide the less flattering parts of life and why do we want to be perceived as better, blonder, taller, thinner, happier versions of ourselves? Where did our self-confidence go? And what’s the purpose of all these photos and check-ins? It’s not like you do not remember that last week you were in the airport on your way to Athens or that you were brunching with a friend in a popular place in Montmartre or Manarola.
All this need for overly positive and pink self-representation cannot not be connected with our need for social validation and our desire to feel superior to those around us. Unfortunately, it is sad that the effect of these needs translates into the way we define and re-evaluate happiness in relation to the happiness of those around us, or better put, the happiness that we are allowed to see online.
Although the English phrase “Keeping up with the Joneses” is not a very recent one, thus demonstrating our need for generations to know what our neighbours are doing – if they are better than us or if they are happier than us, the fact that social media networks now allow us to monitor each other almost continuously, can lead to very toxic results. Unfortunately, I don’t think there is much more time left until we’re going to replace watching classic series on Netflix in favour of watching the never-ending show called Life of Others. And just like in a possible episode of Black Mirror, we may never get out of our house in order to see what our friends are up to.
This article was originally published in ELLE Romania, October 2018 issue, number 251