You, my friend, are having a really good day. A great day, in fact. You had a good night sleep, woke up refreshed, kissed your significant other for a little longer than usual, and hit the road early in your leased luxury SUV to beat the traffic to work. There was even enough time to pack lunch. Man, that’s going to save some hard-earned money. But it doesn’t stop there. That coworker you secretly hate—the one with the super loud voice and cloying laugh who everyone else loves—is out sick today, and you get an email notifying you that the meeting with the boss you weren’t quite prepared for was moved to next week. Now, the whole morning has opened up. You don’t normally think of yourself as especially religious, but an undeniable feeling of being blessed washes over you. Can today get any better?
You think, The world is my oyster, and laugh to yourself because you really hate oysters. You’ve got a couple of hours and nothing to do. You could do actual work, but you really don’t want to ruin a good thing. So you pop on the Web at your desk. You decide to catch up with friends on social media—and let work pay for it. You little schemer, you!
End of great day.
For the next hour, pictures of friends with countless strangers, ads that poach mindlessly from your search history, and a never-ending spiral of sensationalist article titles shared by friends and A.I. algorithms carpet-bomb your senses. The endless assault of the social media scroll is both energizing and overwhelming. You learn that a terrorist attack halfway around the world killed dozens and that a baby giggling while taking a bath in the sink makes you laugh every time. A friend that died over a year ago is still getting more friends posting on their profile page than you get on yours. You learn that scientists think that grapefruit might hold the cure for cancer (although perhaps only if you’re a mouse), that two friends who don’t know each other ate at the same restaurant last night, and that the Greek word hamartia, coined by Aristotle him-damn-self, means “fatal flaw.”
Let’s face it. You know what social media does to you. You’ve actually chosen to bombard yourself, you masochistic bastard. That familiar feeling of disconnection by connecting, of voyeuristic pleasure mixed with all your personal information being tracked by big brother, of getting snippets of news curated by other equally disengaged people but not actually reading enough to be informed, of trying to come together after tragedy and taking sides when things get political, of an immense community of people just like you really needing something that only social media cannot quite fulfill.
Why do we do this to ourselves?
Maybe we’re all afraid of being alone. Maybe we need a sense of community more than an actual one. Or maybe the world is overwhelming and having control over when to let it deluge us makes us feel like a walking contronym, both helpless and powerful at the same time.
Perhaps Marshall McLuhan predicted this contradiction:
Could it be that Facebook and Instagram are not what we need—but rather we are what they need? Was McLuhan right that media is an extension of ourselves, and that there are consequences to extending ourselves with technology? Could it be that social media is simply a more efficient way to externalize our crazy, wonderful, emotional selves?
Or maybe it’s just our hamartia.