What happens on social media doesn’t stay there. After more than a decade of growth for platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, that much is undeniable. Social media has been sharply criticized for sucking attention away from the physical world and contributing to greater political polarization, but how it is changing our very selves — beyond compelling us to buy things, shortening our attention span, or causing our brains to offload the storage of literal memories to social media — receives far less attention. The so-called “crisis of character” acknowledged by pundits across the political spectrum overlaps greatly with the crisis of social media dependence. Social media use should be seen as a self-modification project, and one in which we become worse people.
In her new book, “The Weaponization of Loneliness,” Stella Morabito discusses how we use social media to feel connected, even though this connection isn’t the kind we actually need. It’s a “pseudo-intimacy” that “preys on our loneliness, leading us into the arms of social engineers who hope to mold our thoughts.”
These “various forms of pseudo-intimacy” achieved on social media, such as celebrity fandom and status-building, “are exploitable.” We’re the loneliest people perhaps in human history, and social media is leveraging that to keep us building mostly superficial connections in the virtual world.
What happens when we don’t have strong personal relationships in real life and become dependent on these shallow “substitute” connections forged on social media? “We lose our ability to self-regulate when we feel socially disconnected,” says Morabito, citing the work of authors John T. Cacioppo and William Patrick. A worse ability to emotionally self-regulate translates to worse behavior: Among the effects are greater impulsiveness, less empathy, and more anger.
What should seriously concern us about social media, then, is not just the addictive nature of it, which keeps us from looking up at the real world and connecting with it (the intake side of the equation), but how our output of content in social media apps, aimed at getting more and more of those “friends” and followers, has the power to recreate us as people.
Curating One’s Persona
Obviously, our increasingly polarized perceptions influence the things we say and don’t say. But that constant feedback from likes, reposts, and replies isn’t just keeping us in the app — it’s remaking us into a persona that is more optimized for social media and therefore less optimized for real life. The online persona may be perfectly retouched and carefully curated in biographical information and hashtags, but it’s more prone to outrage and trolling, less empathetic, less patient, more narcissistic, and more of a stranger-pleaser. It’s more prone to self-censoring and more prone to constructing a narrative about one’s life that isn’t necessarily accurate or helpful but earns more kudos, sympathy, and admiration on social media. And I know from personal experience, particularly during bouts of heavy social media use, that these traits aren’t confined to my online profile. They bleed into how I interact with people outside social media.
Whereas chatrooms of the early aughts were more of a virtual clubhouse of sorts, where people could certainly take on new personalities or explore different traits, social media has supercharged personal reconstruction projects because it is public. Not only are the profiles public, but so are all their relevant metrics. As a review of the literature on how the internet affects our brain published in World Psychiatry put it, “whereas real‐world acceptance and rejection is often ambiguous and open to self‐interpretation, social media platforms directly quantify our social success (or failure), by providing clear metrics in the form of ‘friends’ , ‘followers’ , and ‘likes’ (or the potentially painful loss/absence of these).”
Utterly Dependent on Feedback
The reconstruction of the self via the online world is utterly dependent on this feedback. The most radical and infamous cases of this involve transgender ideology. As Scott Newgent, a biological woman who regrets transition, explained, “These kids go on social media and make accounts with their FTM, MTF or non-binary descriptions. And then tens of thousands of strangers cheer them on.”
Negative reactions can even serve to drive a feeling of victimization, further enforcing the idea that they are a persecuted minority just trying to “live their authentic selves.” Those who get enough affirmation from this vast pool of “pings” may begin the project of remaking themselves in real life. Twenty thousand people on social already believe in you, right? What’s a few friends and neighbors in real life compared to that? Your “friends” on social have your back. They know this is who you are. If you turn back now, what are you? A fraud? A loser with no followers? You will be lonely again, and lacking affirmation.
Social media identity reconstruction can work much the same way with any kind of activism or political tribalism, too. Enough affirmation on social, a big enough, active enough network of like-minded people, and you may feel justified in real-world applications of your extremism — even to the point of violence. However it is you’re building your following and your engagement, your persona eats up a little more of your identity, whether as a super-MAGA Q-follower or a Kendi-ite “anti-racist.” The algorithm tells him provocative posts win attention. The dedicated followers tell him he is right (as long as he stays loyal to the tribe). The trolls tell him the other side is corrupt and evil.
With these as the main inputs, awareness of increasing intellectual and moral bankruptcy is diminished while improving social media metrics serves as vindication. The end-stage for a heavy user is a reduction from thought leader to meme-generator, to flag-waving for the tribe, to near-thoughtless promotion of whatever his political club is selling.
One’s Own Hype Man
This presents an existential problem for influencer “brand-building.” For most people with large followings, their brand is their persona. It’s not a kind of energy drink, a design service, or even a magazine. It’s their online personality. If big enough and attractive enough (in appearance, wit, humor, intellect), it’s hard not to self-perceive it as their core identity. For influencers, the potential for viral posts influences the way they act, the choices they make, and the things they say.
The 2019 Netflix documentary “The American Meme” depressingly depicts the way social media “brands” of the self engulf the humans behind them. As I wrote about it at the time, the perpetually intoxicated club-hopping “slutwhisperer” finally appeared to have outmaneuvered his exhausting and isolating mega-successful persona by building a wine brand — something “beyond his own personality.”
Even artists like musicians and painters still must relentlessly promote themselves on social media so they aren’t “forgotten” by followers or the algorithms. What does this exhausting routine do to the self, to be one’s own hype man day in and day out? Each time we post, social media remakes us just a little bit. Just a tweak, just a micro-adjustment. Mostly imperceptible from day to day, like aging. Yet when I look up from a long social session, am I more kind to my family? No. Am I more able to bear the frustrations of my young children’s fickleness? No. Am I calmer? Certainly not. And I don’t often gain any valuable knowledge in exchange for my time.
I’m not saying social media hasn’t driven any positive changes in the world. When my daughter was gravely ill in the hospital, empathetic Twitter followers (and many outside that) took up the call to prayer. Thousands prayed for Baby G, and God answered those prayers. Social is a powerful tool, but we can’t deny it’s corrupting us as individuals, and as a society.
Morabito told me this social media pursuit of attention “is a recipe for nervous breakdown. … It is extremely confusing as well as exhausting to go through daily life wearing that mask. But most of all, it is isolating. Not only do we end up more separated from others, but we also become divorced from any true sense of self. This has the snowball effect of making it even more difficult to connect with others. It’s deeply destabilizing for human relationships and society as a whole.”
Who among us, after more than a decade with a universe of attention-exchange in our pockets, can say social media hasn’t changed us? And who can say it hasn’t changed us for the worse?