It’s become somewhat fashionable to rag on people about their social media use. If you take a selfie, “vague-book” about your bad day, or were unfortunate enough to be born a millennial, then someone somewhere is diagnosing you with narcissism.
But is our “attention-grabbing” on social media really about that?
Or is there something more primal at play?
When I was in the height of my grief, I probably posted about it on Facebook every day or two. I would write messages to the person I was missing, knowing that she wouldn’t be able to see and respond but others would.
There was something about the sad emoticons and encouragements from friends that made the pain feel just a little bit more endurable because it wasn’t borne alone.
There was something raw about the desperation to be seen in my pain.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from grad school…and in being a human myself…it’s that we all need to be seen.
Yes, I said need.
There’s something in the soul that cries out for that even more than it desires relief from pain.
Half the time at my internship, when I am with a client, I’m not actively doing anything other than listening. For that space of time, that person has my undivided attention…
…but more than my attention.
They have my promise that I will actively try to witness their pain and feel with them.
Because ultimately, attention isn’t the thing people crave.
Have you ever had attention without empathy? Perhaps when you felt the disdain of someone looking down on you or their self-righteousness contempt? It feels pretty shitty.
In fact, when I encounter someone’s judgment, self-righteousness, annoyance, or disdain, I actively avoid their attention. I’ll stop telling them about certain things or stop connecting with them at all.
I don’t want them to see me.
But being seen, truly seen, requires empathy and compassion—two things for which the world is starving.
Yes, people’s use of social media can be over-the-top, manipulative, and annoying. But “attention-grabbing” posts aren’t the problem; they’re the symptom. A symptom of a world in which empathy is scarce.
Society would sooner accuse celebrities of using their trauma as a “publicity stunt” than empathize with the pain they have gone through, and it isn’t much better for those who aren’t celebrities.
But since we created the atmosphere around social media, we also have the power to change it.
What if, instead of seeing narcissism everywhere we look, we saw people who simply need to be seen in their pain and in their joy?
What if, instead of rolling our eyes over the number of selfies someone takes, we compliment them on something we admire about them (not necessarily a physical attribute)?
What if, instead of groaning at the vague-book post, we chose to comment, “Sorry you’re having a tough day. I’m here if you need to talk.”
That doesn’t mean that we have to enslave ourselves to every ploy. There may be times when someone is genuinely toxic or consistently manipulative, and boundaries might be healthier. There may be times when the empathy pool is dry.
But we can change the tone of social media. We are creatures of conditioning after all, so positive reinforcement works. I suspect we’d see a more genuine side of everyone if our modus operandi was empathy rather than disdain—if we saw people rather than merely tossing out crumbs of attention.
Perhaps, we could actually make social media about the thing it was originally supposed to be about–connection.