When the platforms originally decided to make this kind of information visible, they probably deemed it an easy way of showing who and what was popular, but the consequences have been profound. We might pretend not to care how many people are paying attention to us, but pretence is all it is.
Every Christmas Eve I do a project on Twitter called Duvet Know It’s Christmas where people share pictures of the makeshift sleeping arrangements they’re enduring at the family home, and while my tone has become slightly weary – it began back in December 2011 – I care deeply that it does well. When bands that I play in publicise concerts or new releases on Facebook, I find myself constantly checking in to see the reaction. On Instagram, I post pictures of my six-month-old son in the knowledge that he’ll be showered with compliments. But is this healthy?
In 2016, Instagram’s then CEO, Kevin Systrom, admitted that our neediness could be problematic in an interview with the Wall Street Journal: ‘We need to have a place where you feel free to post whatever you want without the nagging fear of, “did someone like that or not?”’ In 2018, Twitter co-founder Ev Williams also expressed regret. ‘I think showing follower counts was probably ultimately detrimental,’ he said. ‘It really put in your face that the game was popularity.’
Critics have long observed the way that our pursuit of recognition has exacerbated some of social media’s most damaging psychological effects. I’ve certainly felt it. There have been a few occasions when I’ve posted something online that has received a load of attention, such as my March 2019 mash-up of former House of Commons speaker John Bercow singing the name of the MP Peter Bone to the tune of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. (Don’t ask.)
As it gained millions of views, I felt validated, almost important. Then I realised I’d put my head above the parapet, and a bunch of people I’d never met were going to tell me how dreadful I am. At the same time, I knew I wanted to maintain the kudos I’d earned. As the recent Instagram controversy shows, we get upset when our numbers drop and our audience goes elsewhere. And if we can blame the service, rather than our own failure to capture the zeitgeist, all the better.
Social media services make us fret about our visibility, but they ultimately don’t care how many likes or followers we have. They just want more people to spend more time on the platform. Over the years, various techniques have been deployed to achieve this, perhaps the most significant being the so-called ‘infinite scroll’, which ensures that there’s always a never-ending stream of stuff for us to look at.
Its inventor, Aza Raskin (who has publicly apologised for coming up with it) estimated in 2019 that it ‘wastes about 200,000 lifetimes per day,’ and it can often feel gruelling, somehow empty. While the platforms claim that they are neutral entities whose nature is dictated entirely by users, their design decisions, intentionally or not, affect our mood, shape our behaviour and even change the way we perceive ourselves.
The photo filters built into Instagram and Snapchat are a prime example. Their aim was probably to make photography more fun. But by giving us the ability to doctor images of our faces – which, let’s admit it, all of us using those platforms have done – we ended up presenting idealised versions of ourselves to the world.
The resulting (and mistaken) perception that everyone else seems more beautiful than us has caused a downward spiral of self-esteem and an uptick in people choosing to have cosmetic surgery. Even aside from filters, our natural tendency to portray ourselves in a positive light on photo apps – which results in a highlights reel that bears scant resemblance to lived reality – can cause all kinds of envy and resentment. The comparisons we make often happen subconsciously.
But when I see friends sharing pictures of their amazing holidays or fun-packed weekends, I know I experience FOMO: fear of missing out. In essence, I worry that I’ve made the wrong decision about how to spend my time, and I’m not alone. In 2017, the Royal Society for Public Health found that photo-sharing apps were particularly detrimental to the mental health of young people.
Similarly detrimental – to all of us – has been the unexpectedly eager way we share and spread bad news. Scandal is thrilling. Pile-ons make for compulsive viewing. We like it when the reputations of our heroes are dismantled. We quickly bond against common enemies. Negative reviews are more stimulating than positive ones. And this unpleasantness has a compelling quality to it. I often find myself unblocking people who I blocked because I found them irritating, purely to see what they’ve said recently that seems to be irritating everyone so much.