Born in one of the last identifying years of the millennial generation, I have had the profound fortune — or misfortune — of growing up alongside the evolution of “Big Social.” The networking platforms that have changed our world — Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram — came of age as I did. And for 15 years, I have shared my life online and looked onto others’, mesmerized by a never-ending parade of digital show-and-tell.
Facebook dominated high school and most of college. Excited proclamations about which college or sorority a person chose became routine, as did albums of school dances, weekend happenings and family vacations. Later, Instagram showed up, in a more commanding format, and late adopters like myself thought, “What would I even take photos of? My life isn’t that interesting.” The answer, evident today, is “everything” and “yes, it is.”
Before the advent of Big Social, humans were not yet omnipotent beings. Our knowledge of other people’s lives was confined to conversations and observations within the square miles surrounding our homes, school, work and extracurriculars. Now, thanks to algorithms and a collective impulsivity, I know my friend’s cousin recently got engaged at a picnic on the beach in San Diego and my writing instructor from 2016 has a cat with a birthday coming up. When speaking with friends, framing questions with, “Did you see…?” is rhetorical and obsolete. Yes, you saw and so did I. While standing in an elevator. While heating my lunch. Two minutes after my alarm rang, scrolling from bed with one eye open.
Extending ourselves online is embedded in modern culture, and I am a modern woman. But while looking on Instagram at the infected C-section scar on the lower abdomen of a food influencer-turned-mommy influencer, I wondered if social media will ever phase out of our lives. Will those of us who have graduated from spying on prom photos and brunch spreads to adult milestones like marriage, homeownership and children ever retire from social media? Is the next phase of “growing up” to stop sharing?
Pamela Rutledge, a media psychologist specializing in technology’s impact on individuals, society and brands, thinks probably not. And we don’t have to. Despite “digital detoxes” succeeding juice cleanses and widespread advice to leave our devices behind for a fuller, happier, stop-and-smell-the-roses life, she says social media isn’t bad. For young people figuring out their places in the world, it’s developmentally appropriate. For the rest of us, it’s a great tool to actualize our mid- to top-tier Maslow needs: belongingness, relationships, esteem and creative expression.
Clinical professor Karen North of University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Communication agrees that growing older does not lead to a rejection of on-screen socializing. “There is no stage of life where you can’t make a strong argument for there being a vast digital world available, no matter how quirky or esoteric.”
Getting the green light to gaze and post and scroll from those with a doctorate may be surprising, but research finds it is not that we’re on social media — or the amount of time we spend on it — that is significant. It’s how we use it. Whether for social gain, intellectual capital, entertainment or escapism, “these reasons are legitimate. It doesn’t have to be capital letter important. It only has to serve a purpose you endorse,” Rutledge says.
Broadcasting my Sunday hike or the viral recipe I tried that briefly inflated my culinary ego may feel small and lame, but it’s an effective way to share a moment with the people I care about. For the average social media user, the shared experiences we have with most of our followers assigns our audience value. And showing value to those we value feels good. Proving worth to our community has always been critical to our survival. So has knowing where to be seen.
The urge to download TikTok and invite-only newcomer Clubhouse is primal. “Social proof” is the psychological concept that we’re hardwired to copy the behavior of the masses because it must be correct. It’s how we figured out which berries were safe to eat, Rutledge says. Social media isn’t nutritious in the way foraged fruit is, but our curious nature is hard to inhibit.
That’s why we open the apps, though which ones may be shifting. Time spent on Big Social by Gen Z and millennials ages 12 to 34 has been waning, according to a comprehensive study by Selfhood, a global insights platform by creative agency ZAK. Fatigued by curated news feeds and mood manipulation, they’re turning to more intimate communities like YouTube and Twitch to make “real friends,” rather than hoard followers and likes.
It’s not the first time the pendulum has swung from one side to the other. In ancient Greece, Socrates cautioned the invention of writing, the earliest “content,” would enable society to rely too heavily on private text and not the truths of public discourse. Today, the opposite is true. More than 3.5 billion people worldwide and 7 in 10 Americans use social media, each of us with a dedicated voice and wellspring of personal information available to whomever wants it.
Unless you’re Cal Newport, a Georgetown computer sciences professor, accomplished author and social proof outlier who has owned not a single social media account in his 38 years. There are few left like him, enigmas exempt from the gravitational pull of their phones. But Newport believes there should be more — and has dedicated part of his career and identity to encouraging others to reverse engineer their lives to pre-social media. In his TED Talk, “Why you should quit social media,” he smartly addresses three common reasons why we claim we can’t abandon ship: It’s fundamental to modern life and to building a reputation, and it’s harmless fun. His rebuttals? Social media is an addictive, elective technology not all that different from a casino slot machine draining our time, disrupting our autonomy and providing little — if no — tangible reward.
He predicts a wave of “digital minimalism” will wash over us all soon, like the rise of health-conscious culture after the obesity epidemic of the 20th century. Veganism, paleo and Crossfit are part of a societal response to being fed up with processed foods and the vices that erode our “natural state.” “Named philosophies,” as he calls them, or simply committed lifestyles, emerge when an issue becomes so severe that the “forces behind it are too strong for just good intentions and advice to solve,” said Newport in an interview with GQ. “Digital minimalism” is this: Reduce time online, invest in a small number of meaningful activities and happily miss out on everything else.
One thing everyone can agree on, from technology enthusiasts to neo-Luddites, is the need for greater privacy. Discretion is trending — most people I know who use Instagram for fun have their account set to private — both in limiting access to soft data like filtered photos with punny captions and hard data like our age and what we like to buy online. The Cambridge Analytica scandal revealed that those sitting on stashes of data are ripe to play naughty, and it’s not trolls and hackers but institutions with an agenda, too.
If socials, big and small, propel your goals by facilitating education, pleasure and connection, then you’re doing it right. If they distract from responsibilities or breed self-comparison, it’s time to reframe. The latter is inevitable, says Rutledge, and to expect people to not compare themselves to others is unrealistic. The challenge comes in knowing how to see yourself in relation to another. A tennis player looking at Serena Williams may doubt her athletic ability without arms as toned and lean, but another may be inspired to build muscle.
I thought by now, in 2021, as an adult removed from the grips of youthful decay, I’d be off social media. I would have dissolved my accounts or embraced a more impressive pastime or found a separate, precious home for my fondest memories. But true adult behavior can simply be learning how to use social media well. As our priorities mature, our tolerance for engagement does, too.
“For (technologies) that stick with us, at some point they settle in and find a place in our lives,” says North. “The digital world and beyond has found its way.”
Which means it’s a mindset, not a login, we retire. We no longer want to fit in. We want to find what fits us.