Reclaiming the Private Life in a Technological Age

Earlier this week, I was on an adventure with my partner that took us into this gorgeous hideout along a river’s edge. The water was so clear and deep that I could watch fish swimming just below me.

Delighted as I always am with anything animal, I whipped out my phone and tried to capture a picture. The sounds and smells around me receded as my eye took over my sensory processing, but I was frustrated to realize that my phone couldn’t capture what my eyes could.

At one point, I looked up and the fullness of the scene came rushing back into my awareness. I realized the experience was so much more intense when I wasn’t living it through a shrunken version on a screen.

Then and there, I pocketed my phone, deciding that I actually didn’t want to share what I was doing and seeing. No one would grasp what this place felt like through what little I could show in a picture, and trying so hard to share the experience with others was actually diminishing it for myself.

It felt like an epiphany.

Everything seems to be publicized these days.

We can read the break ups of complete strangers, find out the juicy details of how someone discovered their partner was cheating on them, or witness people proposing to their significant other, coming out to their parents, or giving birth to their firstborn child.

Increasingly, we’ve been able to watch people have emotional breakdowns, commit crimes, or defend against sexual/physical assault all through the spread of recorded interactions and “live” features of Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and good ol’ security cameras.

In many ways, life has become a performative art. Moments become about one’s followers and “friends” (loosely applied regardless of whether you ever hang out or converse), not about…well, the moment.

There’s nothing wrong with taking a picture to show friends or posting to social media about stuff going on in your life. It’s an important form of sharing that I don’t intend to give up.

But having the option to share any moment at any time can become a compulsion to share every moment all the time.

Sometimes, it’s good to step back and revel in the privacy of the moment—to let it be sacred, special, secret, or solo.

When was the last time you did something for yourself, just yourself, and didn’t publicize it? (Other than mundane shit like brushing your teeth and stuff.) If you find yourself struggling with coming up with an answer, maybe it’s time to stop curating Instagram and start curating your privacy.

Take a conversation off the screen and make it face-to-face. Pick something not to share on snap-chat and explore how it feels compared to the times you do share. Maybe even cultivate something in your life that never gets shared on social media—it’s entirely private, deliciously secret from the Internet (though maybe not secret from people connected to you in person).

While the Internet does a lot to expand the world for us, sometimes it also ends up disconnecting us from our inner world or from the tangible world around us. When we choose to disconnect from the screen, we reject the idea that posting a moment makes it “real.” #NoPicsBecauseIWasTooBusyLivingIt

 

Advertisements

It’s Not About the Narcissism

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.

“Hear me.”

“See me.”

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.

 

 

 

Social Media as Relational Hide and Seek

When I first left the cult, connecting with groups of survivors over Facebook was one of the few ways that I was able to maintain a sense of connection while being simultaneously shunned by many of the people I loved most. It was a lifeline, and I’m unashamed of how much of my time I spent on Facebook during those years.

However, Sherry Turkle recently delivered a TED talk about how social media can create the illusion of connection and intimacy while distancing us from each other as well as ourselves. Her talk hit a nerve with me. She mentions her former (and currently still surviving) hopes that social media and technology would provide ways in which we can deepen our self-reflection, thus deepening our intimacy with others.

But that’s not what she has been observing in our current trends. In her estimation, social media has become the drug that prevents us from recognizing how lonely we are or how vulnerable we are.

Social media has changed considerably in the six years that I’ve been using it.

Or maybe I’ve changed.

It’s kind of hard to tell because I am guaranteed to influence my own experience of social media.

It never occurred to me how much Facebook was different until I tried to switch to Ello. In the beginning of my Facebook days, I remember having actual conversations, some deep, some not so deep, and posting reflective thoughts…probably on the level of a blog.

But at some point, that changed. The format changed, but so did the posts. Which came first? I don’t think it’s possible to tell for certain. But there’s no denying that now my online activity consists mostly of watching silly videos, posting and/or liking pictures, and scrolling through an endless stream of meaningless information.

The deep conversations still happen, but not to the same degree that they did.

I’ve always been the person who defended Facebook whenever others criticized how shallow it was, how time-consuming, or how “not real human” it was…because my experience had been that it was incredibly meaningful. But in watching Sherry’s talk, I realized that my current use of Facebook has become shallow, time-consuming, and human distant.

At this point, I could probably go on a hiatus in order to focus on my real relationships. I wouldn’t be missing much of what happened in the time I was gone, and I probably wouldn’t be losing many relationships since I can contact most people in other ways…like by writing letters that say real things in them.

But more important to what Sherry is, I’ve noticed that Facebook is where I sometimes turn when I’m lonely.

As an introvert, there are times that I want to be alone. I become incredibly unpleasant to be around if I don’t get solitude to reconnect with myself.

However, as an introvert, it’s also hard for me to reach out when I want social connection, so in moments of acute loneliness, I hop onto the Internet to feel less alone. Part of that is from the habit of knowing that the Internet is where I would find comfort during my transition. I wouldn’t trade that aspect of social media for anything.

But Sherry  is right, I also sometimes use it to distract myself from my own vulnerability. There are times when I want to be around friends, but seeking companionship comes with the risk of rejection…

So I prefer to like a friend’s status, post a song that expresses my mood, or upload a picture of what I’m doing rather than pick up the phone and take the chance of hearing “no” when I ask if someone wants to hang out that night.

I long for the intimacy of close friendship, and I’ve worked hard to cultivate live friendships as well as the online ones. But at some point in the process of Facebook becoming the lifeline that kept me from being entirely isolated, it also became the barrier that keeps me isolated.

Sad, I know.

Especially since I know that most of my friends aren’t really rejecting me when they say, “no.”

But Facebook arranges it so that I don’t have to look into why it’s so painful and scary to face that because it has given me the means to pretend that I’m being very social and very open about my life and feelings without ever actually knowing who pays attention and who doesn’t.  It also gives me the means to hide from my own realization that I’m playing this game.

Thankfully, I think Sherry had the solution right. I can transform my experience of social media by transforming my relationship with myself and others. Rather than using Facebook (or Twitter, or Instagram, or Ello) to escape from my own loneliness, I can use it to deepen my self-reflection, to increase my vulnerability to my relationships, and to explore the incredible depth of real, messy relationships.