“Please, please, please upload! Come on! You CAN DO IT! Yes, yes, yaaaaaaas”, I shouted excitedly at my rather nonplussed laptop screen. It, and the five geckos, seventeen thousand mosquitoes (who had been merely laughing at the mosquito coil and my repellent for the last five hours as they continued to snack on me) and the cat all seemed to be underwhelmed with this performance.
I’d been trying to upload my second last assignment of my Masters for about half an hour, by connecting my somewhat dodgy data on my phone to the laptop. After the frustration, the begging, the pleading it finally managed to connect and upload the assignment.
It got me to thinking how far the internet had come in creating opportunities and connections. As a millennial (lets not say much more about that) I grew up through the Internet’s progression from beeping modem to smartphone. My undergraduate degree was during the painful and not well executed introduction of online learning – an exercise in frustration if there ever was one. Now, I study online, apply for jobs online and connect online. Businesses and communities thrive in the internet’s digital environment.
As an adult, my experiences leaving home have each bought new ways to use technology. My first trip (almost 10 years ago!) to live for the summer beside Uluru, Myspace was still a little bit of a thing, no one I knew had a smartphone and Facebook was just starting to take off in Australia. I could text my friends back home for cheap and call my parents on a regular call. When I left for Sweden the following year, email and Skype were my best friends, with costs for international texts too exorbitant to consider doing. I even sent regular postcards to my folks. When I came to Tonga in 2010, Facebook provided me a great and cheap way to keep up with friends on their walls, but chatting hadn’t really taken off, but I usually used my local phone to text home. Now, I have data on my smartphone that can connect me instantly and cheaply through a number of applications like Viber, Whatsapp and Messenger to friends anywhere in the world, I can share images and links to my hearts delight and make video calls with ease (as long as the internet is cooperating).
Despite all this, the degree to which I have felt connected during these times, has been roughly the same. The quality of the connections we have digitally is not necessarily improving with the technology. Humans are driven for connection, but with the advent of technology that provides us instantaneous connection, we can get cheap thrills without much labour. A quick “like” here, a text there, people can feel like they are connecting to their friends without necessarily engaging at the level at which you would face-to-face, or even through correspondence like letters, where someones handwriting and scent could give you a tangible reminder of their connection to you.
This happens both due to our outputs and inputs online. My social media feed, which I have taken the explicit decision to be a place of positivity only and interesting (admittedly sometimes arcane) articles. I don’t exclude the unpleasant or the sad for the purpose of shaping a stylised life, but in order to reduce the negativity I put out into the internet. But the effect may be the same. Seeing pictures at the beach, the theatre, on holiday, with the occasional funny meme presents into the world a life lived with a sunny disposition. It hides the mundane, dreary or displeasing, for who honestly wants to take a picture or post about these things? Further, who really wants to see them? I’ve had too many conversations where someones confessed, that they’ve stopped following a friend or acquaintance when their social media becomes too much like reality media. That’s why the clever kids over at Facebook invented the “unfollow”.
In terms of our inputs, how often are we actively engaging with our friends online? Mindlessly scrolling through feeds gives you a ill-formed idea of what their life is like, but throwing a lol, a heart or a like in, is easy to “keep in touch”. Similarly, a quick text to say hi, without engaging in a conversation, is like knocking on the door, saying hello and walking away. The drive for human connection is a strong one, and our social media consumption gives us the impression that we are connected, when in fact, we may only be seeing a part of someones life, the highlight reel.
Connection is vital for our physical and mental health. To a certain degree, connection is the way that we have always had our needs filled before those needs were commodified. We needed others for shelter, for food, for warmth and for protection. Now we can sell our labour and purchase housing, food and a comfortable life. For the majority of human history, our family and friends, were co-located nearby and those connections were generally not commodified. This has changed in recent times, with the creators of Facebook, Snapchat etc successfully creating businesses and commodifying human connection, with relatively little backlash from their users, who still believe they are organically connecting. Its unclear to me, at what point social media will encroach too far into our lives, and when we begin to consume this with more consideration.
On the positive side, it creates the possibility to continue to extend the life of our friendships that would have otherwise faded into memory. This takes work still, but the ability to instantaneously contact my girlfriends around the world, glimpsing into their lives. This is most effective where we are able to chat frequently, sharing both the mundane and the special. These times are deeply nourishing, like a rich soup filled with vegetables, warming on a cool winters night.
On the negative, we spend a great deal of energy scrolling mindlessly, fooling ourselves into believing we are connecting. Most of us are indeed just bombarded with articles, memes and updates, where we get snippets of information. This is junk food, quick snacks to get us by between meals of proper conversation and connection. Its Pringles, delicious, addictive and ultimately unsatisfying.
Recently I have sought to institute a couple of different techniques to more mindfully consume social media, so that its less Pringle, more soul soup. I mean, like any snacking, its often easier to fall into the readily accessible hit rather than slaving over vegetables to create something more nutritious. But I think, like vegetables, spending the time consuming whats good for me creates the possibility of a better life, in which I’m more connected and ultimately happier.
Some techniques have included:
- Using a feed blocker – this means if I think of someone, I normally have to go and consciously look on their social media page, which feels a bit stalkery, so it normally turns into sending a message or reaching out in a different way.
- Removing the app on my phone from time to time to break the habit of checking mindlessly. This has the added benefit of focusing more on those whose company I’m currently in.
- When opening up social media, sending a message to couple of different people every day to let them know I’m thinking of them.
- Setting up group chats – its so much fun to get that blow-by-blow everyday experience of how things are going.
- Designing my days where I’m near decent internet to try and get on a video chat.
How do you consume social media? Do you feel its a Pringle in your life?