People tell me I'm a digital native. I was born during the '80s and that apparently gives rise to the digital native condition. But I'm not so comfortable with the term; it doesn't sit quite so snugly on my shoulders.
Sure, I've grown up with computers, but I didn't really have my first mobile until I was 16, and even then I had no one to contact other than my parents (who had bought the mobile more as a tracking device than a form of social interaction) because my friends were late to the digital world.
I remember a time before Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, emoji's, instant messaging and memes. I remember when my friends used to ride their bikes passed my home to see if I was there -- now, we always know where everyone is. Sometimes because it's self-reported (on a social media platform) but also because we can send them a quick text.
So the term digital native is a little too loose for me, the date range is too baggy around the sides. Whether or not I'm a digital native, I am a social media addict. I love to hate social media and love to love it. Like any good roller coaster relationship, there's lots of drama involved, and peaks in the hate or love department depending on mood, level of overthinking, general cynicism, desire to be part of the group and desire to be outside of the group.
On Tuesday, after giving a presentation in Sydney on digital media, I started to really unpack our obsession with social media (yes, you deduced correctly, overthinking had reached a chronic state). Flying back to Canberra, I watched as people desperately checked their social media accounts before the flight departed (me included) and then did the same seconds after we landed (again, me included).
I have several theories around why we're social media obsessed. None of which would surprise you, dear reader, but let's recap for posterity.
We live in an unprecedented narcissistic era. Given our rise in fortune and leisure time since the industrial revolution, we're allowed to deeply consider the 'me' in the situation. Who am I? What do I want to do with my life? Am I happy? How can I describe myself? We are the central locus within any discussion. Social media allows us to indulge in the inner (and outer) narcissist. How can I take the best selfie? How can I curate content to represent the real me? A full-blown case of narcissism is required for any fulsome social media account.
Hot on the heels of narcissism and perhaps walking hand in hand with our beautiful self is brand 'me'. People no longer represent themselves as people, rather as brands. We perceive ourselves as a brand, with a particular look and feel, a brand story and even in some cases, a tagline. Identity has become mixed in with the concept of brand, creating a rather powerful human marketing concoction. Social media provides us with a ready platform to propagate our brand.
We need to be entertained. Back in Roman times, the ruling classes subdued the masses with panem and circences (bread and circuses). These days we subdue the masses through gluten-free bread and social media (I'm not sure if there is a Latin translation for this one). Let's face it; the majority of us aren't struggling. We turn up at our nine to five, pull our paycheck and are apathetic about the vote. We're not up against it anyway, which leaves a whole heap of time to cry: "Entertain me!" Social media fills this void.
Let's look back to our forefathers and mothers, congregating together around a water hole and building shelter. Since the beginning of time, we've known that 'congregating' was vital for survival -- the age-old adage, safety in numbers. We like to be part of the pack, the group, the herd.
Obviously, we also want to identify ourselves as different (a unique snowflake), but we also want to be part of the group -- accepted, not shunned. Not only does social media allow you to be part of a community, but you can also benchmark your status against other members of the group. Who has the most likes, shares, re-grams etc? Who is leader of the pack?
This was my list of drivers for our social media addiction. On Tuesday though, a fifth notion struck me right after we landed (and perhaps aided by a glass of vino).
Was our social media addiction really dictated by the need for our lives to be tethered by a narrative?
Hear me out. A while back, a philosopher told us God is dead, and we agreed. The upheaval in our social status caused by the industrial revolution and other bits and bobs meant movement between social classes, which, in turn, meant we could be anyone or anything.
With that possibility came a loss in identity. Organised religion didn't present us with a broader narrative, a reason for our lives, and nor did our jobs or families. We were rudderless, adrift -- suddenly exposed to the chaotic nature of our existence.
The reason we like to watch movies is because there is a beginning, middle and an end... a narrative. Unlike our lives, things happen for a reason. Life, on the other hand, could well be a random series of jobs, lovers, emotions and thoughts -- no definitive intention, aim, or motive to it all. Enter social media. It provides us with that structure. We curate the content of our lives, weeding out the ordinary, boring or too sad bits and generate an actual narrative around our lives. One that gives us purpose and meaning. We have an actual story! It all means something!
Not only is someone witnessing our lives, but they are elevated to a grander narrative status.
Like Anna Karenina, and the days of our lives, so are our social media accounts.