Molly Keane on the hold that social media has on us and why, in an effort to connect, we’ve become disconnected…
In my ‘perfect world’, I live in a beautiful house by the sea and the woods. I go for walks along the shore every day, and I wake up early to catch the balmy orange sunrise. I read books in my back garden, soundtracked by the gentle chirps of birds and I get kissed by the breeze and the sun. I cook with what vegetables I have grown in my own garden. People, and time, move slowly. Friends call around for homemade scones. I go hiking on the weekends with my dog and my picnic.
My phone blinks and a notification sound drags me out of my daydream. ‘TIME TO BE REAL!’ it prompts. I open the camera, and take a photo. I’m at my desk, answering emails. The tone of an email from an advertising agency I receive is life-or-death urgent, veiled in false politeness. God, they’re so serious. Bleep. My instagram notifies me that I’ve been tagged in a comment. I edit some pictures. I should really stretch my legs, I’ve been sitting here for hours. I put the kettle on. I open Tiktok. A mother is showing what her very cute six month old baby eats in a day. Scroll. A young woman brings you to the gym with her. Scroll. Americans don’t know European capital cities. Scroll. My easy-to-make vegan lasagne. Scroll. What I spent in six months backpacking around South-east Asia. Scroll, Scroll, Scroll. Now I have a cramp in my arm, and I need to boil the kettle again.
I spoke with Roisin Kiberd, author of The Disconnect: A Personal Journey Through the Internet, about the pressure of the online presence, living under technological surveillance, and finding balance. This ‘perfect world’ of mine that I often dream about is one where social media does not exist. That being said, I have social media to thank for a large amount of my career growth as a photographer. Not only do I mindlessly scroll to procrastinate, I also am in a position where I need to utilise it for work, to build my online presence and reach new people. Roisin says:
“Every writer dreams of no longer needing the internet. I don’t use social media much these days… I do find myself wondering, though, why I’m not using it – is it because of a political stance, or is it laziness, or a lack of self-confidence, or some kind of underlying depressive apathy, so constant as to be almost unnoticeable?”
This feeling of vulnerability, or the fear of it, is something that everybody who has ever posted to Instagram, Twitter, Tiktok or any other online platform has experienced. Now, across a huge number of career sectors from fashion and fitness to nutrition and parenting, social media is completely necessary for the success of a business or brand, but at what personal cost? It promotes the need for perfectionism; a need to present as your most productive, creative, and engaging self at all times. A fleeting thought or image shared in a second is archived forever. Your data is sold to big corporations. Your ads are tailored specifically to you. You post, you scroll, you click, you buy. Repeat.
“Creativity also comes with exposure, and vulnerability, and the likelihood of your words or images living on the internet for years. We’re in an age of almost universal and constant self-fashioning…But it’s also all being filtered through surveillance capitalism, which, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say, is more vast and invasive and powerful and sinister than pretty much anything since the pre-Reformation Catholic Church,” says Roisin.
The algorithm gets to know you, your audience grows, you cater your content to what gets the most engagement, and suddenly, you are sharing much more of your life, far more frequently, than you ever promised yourself you would. Nuance is lost for the sake of getting the news as quickly as possible. You put up a post you think will do well that doesn’t. You wonder why. Bleep. Your iPhone screen time was up 27% this week, for an average of 6 hours, 14 minutes per day.
“There’s an odd kind of moral hygiene that comes with living under technological surveillance – you begin to feel like everything has to be shared, and that there must be a moral, or lesson, to take from every life event,” Roisin remarks, and this I have found to be true. People overshare. People begin to believe they are well versed in a topic they have researched only on social media. Strangers argue, one-upping each other and fighting to be proven as correct. Social media encourages the need to be highly critical of everything, and everyone, as Roisin says:
“I’ve also noticed that online, stories tend to more easily fall into having heroes and villains – emotions are heightened online, and it’s hard to sum up anything more nuanced in a caption, or tweet, or even a news headline. That might be something the Tiktok generation has to overcome.”
How do we, the Gen Z’ers and millennials of the world, or the Tiktok Generation as Roisin so aptly refers to us, overcome these heightened emotions and the loss of nuance in this digital age? Is the infamous and trendy ‘digital detox’, a complete cold turkey divorce from social media, the only solution? Would saying goodbye to our online presence affect our work negatively, or would we become more productive and creative with our output without the continuous bombardment of the content of others?
Of course, a lot of us would delete social media for good if we could, and indulge in the idea that in doing so, all of our problems would be solved. But I’m a photographer, I think to myself. My work needs it. Without social media, nobody would remember who I am.
I fantasise about my ‘perfect life’ by the sea with a house and a garden and a vegetable patch almost every day. I read about how to live off the land and become a beekeeper or a gardener. The fact of the matter is, though, I’m hooked. So many of us are. I had to block Tiktok on my phone so that I could finish writing this article.