In just one decade, social media has become an integral part of everyone’s lives. Over 1.6 billion people have created profiles, collectively posting hundreds of millions of photos every day, and tweeting six thousand times every second — indeed one recent survey revealed that Canadians socialize more online than in real life.
Which begs the question, if we’re all having such a great time socializing, then why does study after study indicate the country is suffering from rising levels of anxiety, stress, depression and even suicide? The latest research suggests up to 20 per cent — or one in five — of Canadians under the age of 19 are affected by a mental illness.
One explanation can be found in Professors Wiszniewski & Coyne’s groundbreaking contribution to the 2002 Cambridge University publication “Building VirtualCommunities.” Their now prophetic insight identified that increasingly when an individual interacts in a social sphere, they portray a mask of their real life identity.
Whether we know it or not, we’re all guilty of this — selling a different version of our identity on LinkedIn, than on Instagram. Posting differently on Facebook because PAW (parents are watching) than through Snapchat. Given the multitude of social networking platforms, and the countless permutations of friends, family members, or complete strangers that we interact with in each, we are never done selling our different public identities, all the while concealing our “real” identity.
This phenomena can be seen in the heartbreaking death of University of Pennsylvania student athlete Madison Holleran. While her Facebook photos and posts projected the identity of a healthy, successful, and popular student, Holleran’s struggle with mental illness led to her tragic suicide. University of Montreal professor Shalini Lal, who specializes in adolescent mental health, observed that:
“Everyone tends to express the happiest version of themselves on Facebook or Instagram …We have public personas on these social media platforms… So people may be comfortable expressing certain aspects of their lives with certain people, but not necessarily to 200 friends on Facebook.”
This constant selling of multiple filtered and fabricated identities online, leaves the majority of users on social networks feeling “ugly, jealous, and lonely.” Research released by the UK disability charity Scope found that almost two thirds [62 per cent] of Facebook and Twitter users found their own achievements inadequate when up against the posts of others. Such feelings of inadequacy lock users into a competitive arms race of trying to out-do each other by further self-promoting and amplifying a fabricated online identity.
Not surprisingly, a large captive audience of emotionally insecure and stressed people is the perfect environment to sell and promote consumer products. Feeling ugly and lonely? You need this acne cream. Worried about your weight gain? Buy these running shoes and a juicer. Falling behind in your career? These important books will change your life. The net result is a constant stream of strategically staged selfies that sell our fabricated online identity. Complete with digitally filtered skin, fabulous travel itineraries, and stockpiles of unread books — just to remind our “friend” that we really love life and if only they could be half as happy as the identity that we’ve constructed online.
One could argue that this isn’t really a new phenomenon. After all, the cars we drive and clothes we wear also project a certain identity. In the real world however, we can simply not look at our neighbour’s car. But in the hyper-accelerated always-on digital world we’re constantly immersed and being pushed information by the same neighbour. This is why social networks became a how-to in shallow humanity, conditioning us to become experts in dissociating and compartmentalizing our true feelings and identities. There’s a clinical term for people who excel in such environments — psychopath.
So the next time you type the word LOL, but don’t actually laugh out loud. The next time you “like” a friends post, that you didn’t actually read to the end. Or the next time you find yourself retaking a selfie five times, running it through filters to scrub perceived imperfections prior to uploading it — you may want to consider: is this the real you? Or have you accidentally fallen into a psychopathic training academy?
Still I guess being a psychopath can’t be all that bad for your career. In fact, if you want to run the largest social network in the world and earn $17 billion per year by making 1.6 billion people feel ugly, jealous, and lonely, it’s probably an advantage.