Social Media is Killing Daring Individuality

Image by Tommy Ton

“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

― Howard Thurman

I would like to discuss one of the most powerful forces in our modern society. A force so great it can swing political votes, ignite revolutions and make the average person a celebrity in minutes. It can also destroy your reputation overnight, is highly addictive and can cause depression, anxiety and loneliness.

I’m talking, of course, about social media and the impact it’s making on how we express ourselves.

To say it’s influential is an understatement. To give you an idea, as of 2020, there are 4.5 billion people using the Internet and of that, over 3.8 billion are active social media users. That’s half the world’s population and this number is growing by 9% (3.4 million) each year.

YouTube and Facebook are the two most used platforms, with people now watching 1 billion hours of You Tube daily. Instagram recently recorded 500 million daily active users (majority female) with over 100 million photos and videos uploaded every day.  

This means, we are focusing a large amount of energy on platforms that showcase only a small version of ourselves, not to mention these platforms rely heavily on our approval stats; user views, image likes and follower count. So how much are we really willing to be different in the face of being unfollowed or unliked?

As humans we are hardwired to fear rejection and yearn for belonging. Neuroscience tells us that emotional pain and physical pain are the same to our brain.

“The fear of rejection is one of our deepest human fears. [We are] biologically wired with a longing to belong, we fear being seen in a critical way. We’re anxious about the prospect of being cut off, demeaned, or isolated. We fear being alone. We dread change.” John Amodeo Ph.D., MFT

Numerous studies have been done on the varying effects of social media, including the direct correlation to depression and anxiety, lonliness and low self esteem. In an interesting study by Harvard University researcher Trevor Haynes, he delved deeper into social platforms like Instagram and Facebook and the effects of their design to purposefully trigger the reward chemical dopamine in our brain to cause addiction. He highlights a comment by Chamath Palihapitiya, former Vice President of User Growth at Facebook, “I feel tremendous guilt” he admitted, “the short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works.”

Another study looked at the effects of social comparison, concluding “…that people feel depressed after spending a great deal of time on Facebook because they feel badly when comparing themselves to others.”

And while we’re on social comparison, Alice G Walton from Forbes notes on a new study on body image and young women; “making any kind of comparison—not just to people who you think are more attractive or smarter, but also people who you think are less attractive or smart (or anything) than you—is linked to poorer well-being.”

In a sea of FOMO, addiction and social comparison, I wonder how much we feel free to express ourselves clearly and without filter as we chase the dopamine hit of social approval. Are any of us willing to be daringly ourselves in the face of being outcaste?

I read a brilliant take on social media’s charm by Sarah Holland-Batt in an article she wrote for the Monthly Magazine called Radical Ambiguity.

She wrote, “Social media incentivises us to perform appealing avatars of ourselves that are wittier, more likeable and attractive than the real thing. The more this narcissistic prism – and, at times, prison – of identity rules us, the less leeway there is to express self contradiction and ambivalence.”

She goes on to say “We enjoy the overconfident self-caricatures we perform online; we are rewarded for our efforts with endless breadcrumbs of affirmation in the form of retweets and likes. But along with these Pavlovian inducements to perform our ever-perfecting selves comes a downside; the internalisation and adoption of unobtainable standards. There’s always a better self we could be becoming”.

Over the years, I observed a change in online self-expression through my career in the fashion industry. From the year 2005 (when I was a student) to 2015 (when I left fashion) I saw the fashion world shift its gaze from the creative geniuses of big name designers to the every day person and their #ootd.

Before social media and Instagram, blogging was starting to take off and I remember by 2010 bloggers were seriously a big deal. The world couldn’t get enough of these everyday people and their everyday opinions. Technology had given us access to what people were liking and now. I remember this time because as a designer it was imperative to keep up with bloggers in order to keep up with trends.

Pretty soon, bloggers became Influencers and were pulling in big money from brands in exchange for sponsored content. Bloggers were replacing celebrities front row at fashion shows and everyone wanted to know what they were wearing. It was a job that no-one saw coming and had everyone scrambling for a piece of the pie.

What followed was an onslaught of even more everyday people trying to ride on the wave of their success by posting similar looking posts, selfies and brand “shout outs”. It became hard to know who was posting sponsored content, who was faking sponsored content and who was actually genuine.

Everyone was posting what everyone was liking, therefore everyone was posting what everyone else was posting.

­­Fashion, in my opinion, had become about social media and online fame, rather than creativity and genuine self-expression. Suddenly everyone wanted to know what outfit fashion blogger Susie Bubble was wearing or what denim shorts Instafamous Elle Ferguson had on today. It became ordinary.

All this is not to say I don’t believe in the positive power of social media – it provides us with a global platform of community and free speech – two crucial elements for freedom and democracy. But, if we combine our need for approval with it’s highly addictive design, it’s easy to suggest that we are perhaps, unknowingly, feeding the algorithms of both our devices and our minds.

While we’re busy reproducing photo’s with nice filters to show everyone how fabulous our life is, we are missing out on discovering what we are capable of as human beings, which includes vulnerability and as Sarah Holland-Batt says, self contradiction and ambivalence; actually living. We need to unshackle the chains of social approval not only for our own sake, but the sake of world’s advancement in needing people who have come alive.