In 2008 I created a Facebook account and entered into the world of social media for the first time. Most of my friends had already made one, and like most other middle school kids, I figured I would be missing out if I didn’t make one too. At that time Facebook was all about how many friends you had – the more friends you had, naturally, the cooler you were. It was the one of the earliest stages of using social media as a tool to build ‘social capital’. The second social media account I made was on Twitter, which a close friend of mine encouraged me to make to follow athletes, musicians, and celebrities. I remember not fully understanding the concept of a platform that only allowed you share 140 character blurbs, but all the hype was enough to get me on board. Next came Instagram, which I viewed as a more creative-oriented supplement to Facebook. I joined LinkedIn as a requirement for my summer job before my senior year in high school despite not having legitimate professional experience to populate it with for at least another two years. Last came SnapChat, which I joined because the prospect of being able to send a picture that would magically delete in 10 seconds or less sounded too good to be true.
I’ve now spent a total of 9 years bound to social media, and after having experienced the ups and downs inherit to any relationship, I’m just recently coming to understand how to use it as a tool that adds value to my life. As my use of various platforms has evolved over time, it’s become clear that social media is a double-edged sword.
On one side, I’ve found it can create value and enrich my life by connecting me with meaningful content that I care about. It allows me to stay in touch with friends and family from anywhere in the world, engage with communities of common interests, and stay up to date on the news via the media outlets that I want to hear from. I use Instagram and Twitter exclusively to curate content that is relevant to my interests. The content I consume from Instagram tends to be more creative, whereas the content I consume via Twitter tends to be more informative. Personally, my Facebook is a mess – I have over 2,000 friends, the majority of which I don’t know. However I have an older brother that exemplifies exactly how I wish I used Facebook, and moreover, how I believe it should be used universally. He uses his Facebook not as a broadcasting platform, but at a sophisticated storyboard for his life. He posts photos and videos of trips he and his family take, benchmarks in his son’s life, and shares a link to an article here and there. He maintains a small, personal network that works to his advantage in two ways: A) his feed is full of relevant content, and B) he can feels comfortable posting whatever he wants. His profile is a genuine reflection of who he is and what’s going on in his life. I’d argue that’s seldom to come by, and that doing so requires a highly tactical approach to engaging the platform.
The other side of the social media sword represents the potential to be sucked into a black hole of nonsense. The practice of using social media as a tool to build social capital has exploded in recent years, and it’s become a toxic game that continues to grow in size and influence. There is substantial part of the social media landscape filled with wackjobs and narcissists who have leveraged these platforms to further their own twisted agendas. Participating in this environment creates pressures, expectations, and anxieties that cloud the reality of what’s important – and it has been proven to damage the mental health of younger generations. For example, take the “pics or it didn’t happen” mentality that consumes so many social media users. In Jason Silverman’s article for the Guardian titled “Pics or It Didn’t Happen – The Mantra of the Instagram Era”, he comments:
“Sharing itself becomes personhood, with activities taking on meaning not for their basic content but for the way they are turned into content, disseminated through the digital network, and responded to. In this context, your everyday experiences are only limited by your ability to share them and by your ability to package them appropriately – a photograph with a beautiful filter and a witty caption, or a tweet containing an obscure movie reference that hints at hidden depths.”
Simply put, a profound distinction exists between social media that adds value to one’s life and social media that does not. At the end of the day, it’s not the platforms themselves that determine value, but how they are put to use. It’s important that each individual examine how they personally engage with social media to avoid getting caught up in a world of nonsense and instead leverage it as a tool to enrich his or her life.