Is it possible for you to have healthy relationships with and on social media? What does a healthy relationship look like in this digital landscape?
I think by this point I’ve deleted Instagram about 10 times. It’s a habit: I get so depressed I end up logging into my web browser, typing in my user + password to then find the ‘privacy and security’ selection before hitting the “Disable your account?” button. I delete my Instagram and then worry about not having an Instagram until I log back in maybe a week or so later.
I can tell you when I first used Instagram in high school, I didn’t mind it I was using Tumblr as my primary ‘platform’ so I wasn’t too concerned about how I presented myself on Instagram. I posted things I wanted and liked other user’s posts as I scrolled through my feed. I can’t explain it to you but the digital landscape of Instagram felt different at that point in time. Maybe it was the algorithm, maybe it was the lack of the ad-driven content, and maybe it was the fact I wasn’t too concerned about how my ‘feed’ or ‘profile’ looked to others. I don’t know what changed but how I consume social media and the disconnected feeling I have is something that has been bothering me lately. I want to believe there is a way to survive this digital landscape without having this lingering feeling of inescapable toxicity.
I am concerned with our relationships on/with social media and how it warps our ideas of what relationships are/should be. Rather than focusing on some ‘fake positivity’ idea, telling you to check on your friends online (based from the twitter movement of *friendship* I find to be highly problematic) or telling you to delete social media apps from your phone, I want to take a more realistic approach. Functioning without social media can be incredibly hard and sometimes we do rely on social media for news, jobs and community. Talking about the problem and offering insights on how to create healthier relationships is a more balanced solution. I want others to be aware of their digital personas and the relationships they have with / on social media. I want others to be aware how these relationships can affect our physical and emotional well-being. With this awareness, we can actively change the way we interact on and with social media, which I hope will eventually change how social media exists entirely.
What type of relationship do you have with and the people on it? It’s a question that I recently started asking myself. I think it’s because the relationships with and on social media have become so normalized that I didn’t realize I could, or should ask these questions.
Most social media apps are coded to have a feed that’s based on a following-love-retweet-repost-messaging platform that forces participants into an algorithm that affects their visibility. The creation of your digital self is dictated by this before you even make your first post. The suggest content on social media platforms are based from your geographic location and the information already gathered through ad databases. Our relationships that we have, or create, are limited by the extent of the algorithm, your immediate physical place, and aesthetic (by ‘aesthetic’ I mean how one is visible online. This can encompass your content, the way your profile/bio reads, your interactions with other accounts online and what content you re-share/re-tweet).
It’s true that your aesthetic is the most important factor of your digital relationships with others and yourself. Your aesthetic, I think, also causes most of the stress and frustrations within your relationships online. How should you look online? How do others react to your profile online? Who should I be as a user in a community that is much larger than my immediate location?
In general, your digital visibility can cause distress when your physical life is not truly reflected in the way your content, or posts are consumed. How should you compartmentalize your daily thoughts and life into an aesthetic — especially if you aren’t ‘doing something’ daily, or don’t have the emotional energy to message someone back? For example, Instagram’s landscape always encourages users to be “doing something” through the use of the story feature — where you feel the need to keep your followers constantly up to date on your status.
The root of social media’s push for user productivity (due to the influence global capitalism and surveillance culture has played on the Internet) has changed the way we create, view and act in our relationships with our families, friends and strangers. If you take a step back and realize how fast we can create multiple relationships online and end them just as fast, it shows how easy it is to not have a genuine relationship that one needs to survive.This type of power is something that did not exist before the Internet, and though the impact is still primarily on younger users, as social media expands so does the age demographic using it, too.
Online relationships have turned into commodities that feel at times very transactional. People are seeing others for what they can ‘do for them’, manipulating others for social media clout only to abandon them after they lose their productivity or cultural relevance. Relationships are fast, superficial and nothing else. Why should you care more about this person for any reason other than their content? Social media has reinforced a capitalist agenda onto the way we engage in our communities online by forcing us to compete with each other for continued relevance. This diminishes the fact that we are more than our aesthetic and productivity online; we live our daily lives in a racialized, gendered society.
This can also be extended to the way users interact with social media itself. The cycling of relationships and the constant pressure to be connected online is not normal. We are being conditioned to disregard our own mental and physical well-being to become commodities for a social platform that tries to make us forget we do have a voice on a digital landscape. By Google definition, relationships are “the way in which two or more concepts, objects, or people are connected, or the state of being connected”. Social media should not be a one-sided system, but it often is, which makes users feel more isolated than connected.
For me, social media can oftentime becomes something similar to an emotionally abusive relationship:
- The relationship is in the beginning stages and everything seems fine. Actually, it may be more than fine — it’s great! You love them and they love you and it’s a cycle of love! (or likes!). You post all the time and you share, tweet, and post your thoughts with freedom.
- The relationship starts having its problems. You get less attention, less love and you’re persuaded to work more, do more for this other person. You start feeling like you’re not good enough and sometimes your love (aka content) is stolen and others get the praise for your work. Sometimes you can’t say what you want in fear of being punished (censored), or if you do, the punishment causes you to lose more than you expected ( accounts being reported/deleted, people losing connections for jobs + opportunities, or posts being removed from the platform by trolls). You realize that you’re not getting enough support unless you hashtag (where you are then categorized by the platform), or pay for advertisement (forcing you to commodify yourself even more).
- By this point you know you have to leave. You dislike how empty you have become and that you can’t keep up posting anymore. So you leave. Then you come back because you miss it. You miss how the first stages were before it went bad, before everything fell apart. You think this is going to work again and it will be different. (But it won’t.)
I’m not saying there aren’t good qualities to social media or the Internet, nor am I not needed saying everyone feels this way, but from what I have encountered, it is a common occurrence. Realizing this “abusive” cycle can help understand how to better take care of yourself and how to interact with others in a healthier way.
How do we now recenter our humanity in our digital visibility and have relationships that put our needs before our productivity first? How can we make use of our daily existence in a way that makes us feel connected digitally rather than feeling stressed or drained by anxiously trying to figure out what or if I should post? Below is a list I made for myself in regards to how I exist and interact with others on social media. They may not be perfect for everyone, but I do hope it will help someone.
- Stop falling into the traps of productive culture. We don’t need to always be doing something, posting online, or sharing. It’s okay to take breaks and sometimes not say anything at all! You can post at your own speed, whether that be an abundant amount or barely at all. You don’t need to express yourself in the way social media wants you to either. It doesn’t make you less of a person if you have less followers.
- You don’t need to know everything that is happening. Surveillance culture has programmed us to want to ‘know’ what’s happening around the world and follow the next biggest trend. It’s okay if you’re not up-to-date on things, or your friends online. It doesn’t make you a bad person. You don’t have to overwhelm yourself with the amount of information that is currently being posted, or talked about. Also, you don’t have to post everything, or anything about your life if you don’t want to. You can be a private person,while keeping up to date on things you like without the urgency to be in the ‘know’.
- Evaluate your current online relationships. Ask if they’re making positive or negative impacts. If they’re making a negative impact, then unfollow, block and move on. You don’t need to ‘like’ everyone. Everyone is not your friend and everyone doesn’t have to be. Sometimes it’s okay to only follow your friends, or people you trust especially if you are a private person. On the other hand, the relationships you do find positive, find the good qualities of those and use them as a baseline for who you choose to enter your digital life.
- Evaluate your social media apps and presence. Again, ask if these apps are making positive or negative impacts on your mental or physical body. If there is a negative impact ask yourself if there is a way to fix it — whether the solution becomes cleansing your follower lists, changing your bio, deleting photos and/or leaving the app. Trying to find a new app may help from feeling like you have to ‘stay’ on a certain platform. Your real-world success doesn’t always have to be tied to your Internet presence.
- People have lives outside the Internet. As simple as the statement is, people do forget the stranger they just followed because they liked their account, or the troll they just told off, do exist outside the Internet. They have real lives and based on who they are, they may be dealing with more than what may appear online. Real oppressive forces like militarized-nations, anti-Black violence and LGBT hate that can and do kill people, affect those who you follow online, too. It’s important to keep this in mind that people do not owe you their time, or energy when they have situations they have to handle outside the Internet.
- Not everything is about you. Even though social media does tell you that your individual voice is important, it doesn’t mean you’re the most important thing to someone else. Care about others online just as you would in real life. It’s fine to care about someone or something passionately, whether that’s through a compliment, donating to their GoFundMe and/or posting about them. You may never know how far your care, words, and donations can help someone, rather than focusing on only your needs, or your success and social status.
- It’s okay to post about your feelings. Social media has created a culture for users to post primarily about positive aspects of their lives. Despite this, we do not have perfect lives and we don’t always have happy days. You can post about your struggles, your mental illness and things in your life that aren’t too perfect (while being mindful of those you may trigger). If you are centering your digital platform on your life not strictly as a business account, you have the right to talk about the sad things!
These are only a few steps that will hopefully make you more aware of your presence and impact on/with social media They’re not perfect rules but I try to keep them in mind as I scroll through Instagram or Twitter. Social media may be terrible in certain regards, but as it becomes more unavoidable it is important to find healthier ways to use it.
TY to Felix and Kendall for reading and listening me rant about this! (: