Thinking about social media

I work in social media. Several (and a bit) years ago, in an unusual show of optimism, I believed it would change the world. Twitter promised to break down walls: in a few hours of surfing, you could find people who were just like you and people who made you look at things in a completely different way. Geographical borders ceased to exist. Things moved faster. I met people that have – in a wonderful way – changed and enriched my life. The world seemed, simultaneously, to grow and shrink, and I did not feel quite so alone.

After the first few years, I retreated a little. Constant conversation is tiring and I ran out of things to say. My online world had helped to make my offline world fuller: I barely had time to keep up. And social media changed too, I think. Twitter seemed to grow so large that it lost its intimacy, for me; and, as the million different uses for social media emerged and evolved, it also seemed to get a lot noisier out there.

I moved, therefore, from the world of blogging and Twitter to Facebook. To a space that was full of familiar faces, that required a little less effort and was a little bit safer. Twitter became something that I dipped in and out of to keep in touch with what was going on, but in which I had no real place. There are only so many times that a piece of content can be shared and I am under no illusion that the minutiae of my daily life is interesting to anyone other than – or even – me.

Where as, before, the electric jolt of empathy that Twitter afforded – realising that you think and feel the same as other people do is immensely powerful – constantly amazed me, it gradually started to feel like I was talking into a vacuum or reading an endless stream of dramatic stories or anecdotes that were far funnier but also far more removed from anything going through my head.

So it goes.

More recently still, my feelings towards social media have become increasingly confused. Yes, I still believe that it has opened up the world and, yes, the speed and ease with which you can find out the latest headlines or stumble upon a fascinating article or keep in touch with people is something I value immensely, but –

It’s not the real world and, sometimes, it makes the real world harder.

There has been heaps of research into the effects that Facebook can have on self-esteem, numerous examples of people whose lives have been made or broken on social media. There has been far more rigorous and intellectual debate on the impact of social media than mine – and yet it has felt important to try and work out my own relationship with the medium.

This has not been as easy as I anticipated.

On one level, social media strikes me as a communications channel – your relationship with it depends on how you use it and what you want to get out of it, be that 25% off at Gap, the latest news served straight to your twitter feed or what your friends have been up to on a Saturday night.

On another level, it seems a far more powerful force in people’s lives. Its presence does not stop in an inbox. It is harder to switch off. It is harder to limit your relationship with it to your own personal actions when you’re currently faced with a window into other people’s lives. It evokes far more emotions, far more frequently, than things like emails or letters or even a phone call do.

Clearly, and as with so many things in life, the experience that you have of social media seems to depend – unsurprisingly – on your own state of mind at the time. If you’re feeling that your life isn’t going in the right direction, Facebook can offer as much confirmation of this as you look for; if it’s all bright and sunny, sharing this can be an additional bonus. Arguably, if you use social media to reach out to people, it can also be a way to pull you out of those grey moments – but this process can sometimes backfire when you spend hours talking over what’s going wrong in your life rather than getting on with things and trying to fix it –

And this is where my confusion comes into play. Because social media is not black and white, nor is it static. It is like an ongoing world that you can watch or participate in or ignore, filled with people that you do know or think you know or would like to know – or not know –

And it is hard for it to not be all-consuming. Hard not to let it be the thing that you check first thing in the morning or reach out to for validation or use as a scourge when you’re feeling low –

Or at least I find it so.

And so I suppose that it’s the very qualities that have made it so popular – the fact that it plays on our curiosity, our desire to know what is going on, our need to stay connected – which have, latterly, made it so difficult for me. Drawing a healthy line in these desires is difficult and, even if you decide to take a step back, the other people in your life are unlikely to.

So I have – very long-windedly – started to realise that you have to think about this relationship in order to make it work for you. You have to pause, sometimes, and consider what makes you feel good and what makes you feel bad, what is helpful, what is real –

What is real is especially important, I think, not just because the truth is sometimes harder to decipher online, but because life is absolutely for living – not for hiding from – and social media can help you go either way.

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