Life & Culture

The Problem with Social Media, by Willy Ndatila AKA @WilliamCult

To coincide with Mental Health Awareness Week, Willy Ndatila shares some thoughts on social media and the effect it can have on our lives

  • TextWilly Ndatila

The word ‘sharing’ has a warm, fuzzy feeling attached to it; it conjures up a picture of a family or friends sitting around a table, perhaps enjoying a meal. But if something is perpetual and endless, it’s not sharing. If people’s day-to-day activities and favourite images are ‘shared’ daily, or even hourly, it’s broadcasting.

Today, social media users have effectively become independent media outlets. And this includes Jackie and her cat. The device in her hand has a camera capable of taking pictures and videos, and sharing them; she uses the same platform as broadcasters like CNN and has the same tools at her disposal.

The configuration of apps like Instagram combines every form of media that preceded it: text, image, video and live TV. If you follow 200 people, you’ve effectively got 200 channels sitting in your pocket. While some are naturally more interesting than others, all of them put a relentless demand on your attention – which no one has in limitless supply.

People working as air traffic controllers or Wall Street financial analysts have jobs that involve multiple screens, which demand that they process a huge amount of information every day. This can result in a kind of information overload and a form of stress which often culminates in a mild form of depression. Social media – with its constant stream of images and information that you have ‘analyse’ in a short time span – can lead to a similar information overload and feelings of depression.

Meanwhile, the excessive consumption of imagery is often coupled with what is known as ‘cognitive dissonance’ – dissonance because the small screens moving on your feed depict diametrically opposed subjects: Jackie’s cat, followed by a disaster area, followed by a shoe, followed by something with the hashtag #PrayFor. All demand your undivided attention, and a response. By sharing the same platform, these things can become meaningless which, for some people, can make life itself feel meaningless. (One way to bypass this dissonance is to look at each account individually.)

In a similar way to TV, social media can offer an escape from your immediate surroundings, it can alleviate boredom and dull the pain of a bad day. But the anxiety to see everything and be seen by everyone must be avoided in order to have a healthy and more enjoyable relationship with these apps.

However enjoyable, excessive consumption of most things is unhealthy. We live in a time of cultural overproduction driven by the ‘attention economy’ and the proliferation of platforms. The fact that there is an overconsumption of media is merely a side effect of this.

The difference between man and beast is not language or communication – animals, even insects, communicate. No, a crucial difference between us and animals is our ability to represent ourselves. Throughout the history, we have employed a range tools and techniques to do this, from cave paintings to photography and film. Technology has given us new and inventive ways to represent ourselves, but the problem is that everything from people to artworks is measured in likability, views and popularity – not their intrinsic value or beauty.

The more we overvalue images, the more we devalue reality unless it’s captured on our devices and shared on social media. We exchange the enjoyment of a moment, person or a place for ‘likes’ and comments and, in the process, turn our lives into content.

Unsurprisingly, this warps our relationship with life in general. As some tribes believe that photographs can steal your soul, the commodification of your life can take a big chunk of our souls in the long run. The question to ask yourself is: can this moment or my cat be enjoyed without the ‘likes’ and comments I might get out of it?