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Social media has been around for almost two decades but we’re only now beginning to understand its impact.
Since 2003 when Friendster launched, social media usage slowly altered users’ self-perceptions which changed our society. Social media isn’t good or bad, but not understanding how it affects us makes us vulnerable to its negative consequences.
In this two-part blog, I outline how it changed our self-perceptions and some of the societal implications of social media. Here, in part one, I delve into how social media altered our expectations of ourselves and others. Part two examines the links between social media and narcissism and how that changed society.
We Self-Objectify When We Self-Narrate
An important identity shift happened when social media took over our culture. People became narrators of their personal and professional lives. With the usage of social media, there was the expectation that everyone becomes a broadcaster. The result is that social media changed our self-perceptions because having to present ourselves across platforms makes one more self-conscious.
You are no longer just a person doing stuff; you are a person doing stuff who has to communicate how, where, and when you are doing stuff. And how you bundle that story of your life reflects and shapes your self-perception because people react (or don’t) to your narrative. Quantifying your actions into posts is a kind of self-objectification. You’re commenting on yourself in front of an audience. Even when you comment about others on social media, it’s typically about you in relation to that person or story.
Of course, taking part in social media is optional, but for anyone who wants to expand their network of friends and business contacts, being on social media is critical. And the skills we once only expected TV and radio professionals to have—the ability to message, promote, and tell interesting stories—are now requirements for broader socialization.
There’s never been another time in history when your ability to package and broadcast yourself can determine who your friends are, who you date and marry, and what work you get. Yet, that’s what has developed. Social media savants trade up in love and money.
Social Media Savvy Gets You Paid
Brands pay people who excel at social media (a.k.a. influencers) vast amounts of money to get their brands’ products and services in front of influencers’ followers. And the trend is only getting bigger. Influencer Marketing Hub reported influencer marketing expenditures are expected to grow to $4.14 billion in 2022, compared to $3.69 billion in 2021. And over 75 percent of brand marketers intend to dedicate a budget to influencer marketing in 2022. But while influencers are making bank, their followers can suffer from watching all those constructed narratives. Seeing people’s edited, filtered, and curated Instagram lives can leave us feeling wanting.
We Compare and Despair
There’s an old saying, "Don’t compare your insides to someone else’s outsides." The updated version is, "Don’t compare your insides to someone else’s packaging of their outsides." Scroll through Instagram and you can feel overweight, underpaid, and that your life is pedestrian. What’s closer to the truth is the average person doesn’t have the media skills (or time) needed to produce a fabulous Instagram life. And all this comparing ourselves to others has led to increases in anxiety and depression. Jacqui Taylor-Jackson and Ahmed A. Moustafa published The relationships between social media use and factors relating to depression in October 2020, which reviews the research that correlated social media use to depression, self-esteem, anxiety, and loneliness. Bottom line: there are a lot of correlations between social media use and feeling crappy.
And the self-perception and societal shifts don’t stop there.
We Think Our Opinions Matter
Another effect of social media is that we now think our opinions matter. There was a time when your thoughts about a person or organization had no impact. You could hate a TV show, the phone company or editor of a paper all you wanted and your opinion didn’t change how any of them operated.
Social media changed that. Our opinions now have value. Reviews can make or break a brand, which is why so many companies encourage people to write them. Positive reviews boost sales. Too many negative ones can signal a brand is in trouble.
The positive effect of social media is that individual consumers no longer feel insignificant to companies. Back in the day, when you didn’t like something, you wrote a letter, put a stamp on it, mailed it and hoped for a reply. The nature of social media as a digital public square has made companies far more immediately responsive and accountable.
The other side of this culpability is many people feel entitled to rage on social media when a brand does something they don’t like. With the power to amplify one’s feelings, we can condemn the actions of any organization and encourage others to judge it, creating a digital wave of hostility with real-world consequences.
Many organizations have come under fire on social media when someone decides they don’t agree with its actions or policies. People work at those companies and depend on them for their livelihoods, so social media ragers should exercise their powers thoughtfully. Most people who don’t know a world without social media think expressing opinions in a public forum is an inalienable right, instead of a new privilege. With privilege comes responsibility. We gained the power of social media but didn’t receive an owner’s manual explaining its liabilities, consequences or responsibilities.
Part two of this blog (which I’ll post next week) examines links between social media and narcissism and how that’s changed society.
Social Media and Anxiety and Depression
Regulating Self-Image on Instagram: Links Between Social Anxiety, Instagram Contingent Self-Worth, and Content Control Behaviors
The relationships between social media use and factors relating to depression
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