You Are Not Your Numbers: A Social Media Rant
Today I watched a video that fascinated me.
In it, a girl is lit up like Christmas morning – oddly, it’s because she’s turned her back on what was helping her make money. Instead, she built a website dedicated to talking about how toxic it can be.
Let’s be real: most of us probably don’t immediately think the epiphanies of an 18-year-old model will be very relevant to our lives. But they are here, I think. Because she’s talking about social media.
Two reasons why Essena O’Neill is right and this matters:
- First, social media can be terribly emotionally infantilizing. They make it easy to revert to a high-school mindset: valuing yourself on other’s opinions, and basing opinions on shallow judgments.
- Second, social networks are advertising platforms. The purpose of a social network is to figure out how to make you waste more time on it. It’s just business. When you get something free, you’re usually what’s being sold.
These are simple truths, but ones we often forget. So, yeah. She’s glowing because she’s figuring out how to disentangle herself from that.
Now let’s be clear:
- One, yes, as the New York Times noticed, it’s totally possible that she might be taking a very calculated step to recreate her own brand. That doesn’t bother me in the slightest, and regardless, I agree with what she’s saying.
- Two, yes, much of my own career is thanks to social media, though in a very different way to hers. I get work, I get publicity, I write and lecture and present on it. Social media have been a big part of my job for a decade.
I’m not saying social media has no place. I’m saying that social media for NETWORKING is not the same as social media for SELF-WORTH. The former is incredibly valuable. The latter is incredibly destructive.
This spring I gave my social-media class a project called “Going Dark and Lighting Up”:
- “Going Dark”
- Part I: no social media for 3-24 hours. Write at least one page on the experience.
- Part II: no social media for 1-4 days. Write at least one page on the experience.
- “Lighting Up”
- Part III: take two social platforms and post at least once per hour for as long as possible. Write at least one page on the experience.
I wasn’t concerned with exactly what they accomplished (though I pointed out that the longer they tried, the easier it’d be to write about it) as much as I was looking for their insights.
They were great. But what I found surprising was how much their ideas lined up. This isn’t verbatim, but:
- Before the experiments
- This won’t be that hard for me because I don’t use social media as much as my friends.
- Upon beginning the experiments
- I couldn’t believe how often I found myself unconsciously and automatically opening social media.
- It was awkward and uncomfortable to watch everyone around me use social media while I felt left out.
- As they progressed
- I realized how much time I usually allotted for social-media use.
- (They found themselves going to bed early. Spending extra time at the gym. One girl realized she’d routinely taken half an hour before going out to get a good selfie.)
- While “lighting up” and being forced to overuse social media
- I felt obnoxious.
- I didn’t have that much to say.
- After the project, when they logged back on?
- I couldn’t believe how little I had missed.
- No one even noticed I had been gone.
And keep in mind, they could still text all they wanted – they just had to avoid Snapchat, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc. It wasn’t that they lost communication. It was that they lost their view into others’ performances, and their own sense of performing.
We are not as interesting when we are trying to be interesting as we are when we’re actually living.
As Essena O’Neill said, “Why is all of my time spent looking at other people’s beautiful, perfected, edited lives, and why am I spending all of my time trying to make my life look so edited and beautiful and perfect to the rest of the world? What are we doing?”
Nothing. We’re doing nothing. She called it “validation through numbers” and she’s not wrong. We perform – we act – we make ourselves impostors when we become malcontent with our actually interesting selves.
You are not numbers.
You are not “how many” – whether that’s how many people liked your picture, how many zeroes in your paycheck, how many times you made yourself sound admirable when you were feeling anything but, how many pictures make you look good.
You are the cool shit you geek out over. You are the moments of beauty you take the time to notice. You are the attention that makes the people you care about unwind. You are the conversations you’ve lost yourself in. You are your silliest ideas. You are the dire ways you have fucked up your life and clawed your way back. You are your mistakes and your sins and the way your voice vibrates in your chest and the way your eyes crinkle.
You are anything but numbers.
Social media can connect you to amazing people doing amazing things and it can help you in phenomenal ways. If you use it that way.
But it can also suck away your time and your confidence and your interest in your own actual life. If you use it that way.
You’re already a badass unicorn. Stop trying to prove it and just be one.