February 19, 2014
I just watched the excellent documentary “Generation Like” by technology and media critic Douglas Rushkoff. (You can watch online.)
Teens (and many adults) are struggling to be popular. The documentary quotes Haymitch Abernathy of The Hunger Games: "You really want to know how to stay alive? You get people to like you." Sounds familiar.
Teens are shown fretting about which profile picture represents them in the best light and therefore will garner the most likes. But with tech tools come hidden values. Teens are used as free labor by corporations to shill their products. Teens in turn get popular by liking and interacting with popular brands, so the cycle feeds on itself.
"Selling out isn't selling out, it's like getting the brass ring" (Jason Calacanis, Inside.com)
"Teens don't even know what selling out is anymore" (Quart)
This last is demonstrated in a series of interviews with teens. Social media, I've been told, is a tool. Many of my friends use it for social and political organizing. But it's also used to expand corporate influence. There may be some sweet spot for progressives, such as corporations aligning with certain values (like Gay rights in the Rainbow Oreo campaign, or Coke aligning with diversity) in order to amass the greatest popularity—so maybe it's not all bad. However, we’re often left with unhealthy products being marketed by appealing to deeper values—a problematic mix.
What I'm most concerned with here as a psychiatrist is the quest for popularity, and the flip side of that quest - being excluded and feeling shame. If we're not popular, there's often a subtle introject that there's something wrong with us. I think this shame mediates much of the well-documented dissatisfaction of social media. (Studies have also shown that increased time on Facebook is correlated with increasing dissatisfaction with friends, a form of exclusion.) And to avoid that shame, we’ll do anything. We’ll seek to become social media stars—or we may vacillate between social media use and unplugging, never understanding what it is that’s frustrating to us.
At the extremes, the quest for popularity has obviously pushed people into distorting themselves. For most of us, the glow of popularity is short-lived. How we like ourselves depends on something completely different than our popularity—or it should. Is this changing for youth? Certainly, when I interviewed candidates applying to my alma mater, I saw teenagers working to establish themselves, understand the world, and come to terms with themselves. Social media were only a part of that exploration. There are many things weighing in on the side of relatedness—but this balance is in flux. Some studies point to significantly increased narcissism and a drop in empathy among college aged youth during the last 10 years. I believe this is a very good study, but other studies argue against this conclusion. The story is still being written.
"Social media is a tool," people say. To which I say, "so's a screwdriver—but you wouldn't use it to change a light bulb." There are things that social media is good for, but its core proposition, that it will help us relate, is problematic.
I don't think we can ever be truly related, accepted or acceptable through the screen. This requires love and presence in the real world. We can't be whole persons online–we can only expose facets of ourselves. We come closest to wholeness in relationship. The quest for popularity is not relationship. It's too self-centered for that.
I'll have more to say in my book Facebuddha: Transcendence in the Age of Social Networks. I'm still looking for an agent. But ironically, following me on Twitter (@going2peace), liking my page on Facebook, or especially, signing up for my occasional newsletter at www.RaviChandraMD.com—will help me get my book published and into the world. You could use #genlike to join the conversation on Twitter.
Thanks for reading, thinking and sharing. I look forward to your comments.
© 2014 Ravi Chandra, M.D. All rights reserved.
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