On social media, there is seemingly only one type of happy. Whether it’s a single woman surrounded by her #squad of besties or a loved-up couple entwined on a beach in paradise, happiness is projected as uncomplicated, cinematic and like it’s a constant state of being. Showing the world that you are happy and that all facets of your life, from your career to your wardrobe are on point, has become social media’s ultimate status symbol. And while we can all be envious of an influencer’s handbag collection, it pales in comparison to our feelings of abject disenchantment when we compare our own life, full of its hotchpotch of experiences to these streamlined success stories.
Why images have more power than words
One of the biggest issues is that we aren’t being open enough about the fact that social media is indeed a game – one where we play with ideas about our sense of self. While most people are aware, at least conceptually, that our digital identities aren’t identical to our everyday realities, there is a disconnect. Many people have suggested this is down to the visual nature of many social media sites. Instagram and Snapchat have been found to be the most damaging platforms among 14–25-year-olds, in terms of their impact on health and wellbeing issues such as anxiety, depression and self-identity, and this is said to be due to their image-focus.
We all know the phrase “a picture speaks a thousand words”, but there’s rigorous scientific back-up to prove that our brains process information gleaned from visuals in a different way to that from words. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, Allan Paivio developed “dual coding theory”, which suggests we have two distinct cognitive processes – verbal and visual. He claimed that images have an advantage over text as they generate both verbal and image codes in our brains, meaning we are more likely to remember them and form more meaningful associations. By the 1980s, influential market researchers Terry Childers and Michael Houston had discovered that image-based advertisements required less exposure than verbal ads to resonate with the public, proving once again that we’re more likely to take on board messages which we’ve consumed visually.
The reason Instagram clichés receive so many likes
Even though we can write and talk about how much these images are embroidered, our minds still find it easy to recognise, and then internalise, what we see. Familiarity with certain visual cues also stimulates faster recognition, meaning the emotions that these images can generate have an increased potency. This might go some way to explaining why social media “clichés” and trends like sliced avocado on toast or identical tourist shots continue to receive such high engagement – we like them, because we already know them. Whereas once avocado was just a fruit, now it automatically symbolises status, relevance and consumerism, things that many of us aspire to. We’ve become so used to viewing images that we recognise and desire – identikit smiling shots of time-worn moments which overwhelmingly project the most positive sides of our identities. The more we see them, the more we believe them.
The problem with #wanderlust
Our depictions of travel on social media have become an area in which homogeneity – or a relentless sameness – has started to be seriously discussed. Travel in the digital context is an important identity marker, especially for young people. Keen to display their worldly and curious characters, prove that they are wealthy enough to globetrot and affiliate themselves to the aspirational lifestyles they see their social media heroes living (some of whom appear to be in a constant state of motion around the globe), for millennials especially, travel has become about much more than a two-week summer break. When many won’t be able to afford to buy their own home until they’re in their sixties, travel becomes a far more tangible life goal to invest their savings in.
Importantly, where you choose to tour in a sense defines the kind of person you are. Whether it’s a five-day circuit of Santorini’s swanky infinity pools, a road trip to hipster-looking lake houses in upstate New York or a pilgrimage to the waterfalls of Bali, your spot on the social media trail reveals your tastes and says a lot about what you’re trying to project from a personal brand point of view. Indeed, in 2017 a UK home insurance survey found that the “Instagrammability” of a destination was the primary booking motivator for 18–33 year olds – well ahead of cost and personal development. The problem is that all the pictures have become identical: iconic tourist destination in the background, woman with her back to the camera wearing a cute dress from Réalisation or Reformation, clutching at a straw hat. When you travel to any picturesque spot in the world today you encounter lines of young women trying to recreate the same images. Even if you’ve never been to Italy, you’ve seen that picture before; you know it, so you’d probably like it.
“I often find myself feeling sick to my stomach when I have to post a new picture,” Sara Melotti, an Italian travel photographer and blogger with over 40k followers on Instagram, explained to me. “In my field, you quickly realise that everyone’s content is basically exactly the same. What people do is research which images have generated the most likes in the past and then they’ll recreate a duplicate shot for their own feed. They don’t care about travelling as an experience, they just want the picture to show everyone where they’ve been and make sure they get enough likes to feed the social media algorithms. Every time I post a picture of something a bit more unusual – but still beautiful – it doesn’t get anywhere near the same engagement. It’s depressing that it’s only the images that people recognise that get the likes, and if you want to build your numbers, that’s what you have to post. Creating this kind of soulless content doesn’t just make you feel bad – it can completely destroy your self-esteem and sense of who you are.”
What the majority of people on social media appear to want is more of the same
Conformity is rewarded by both the community and the system – what we “like” most drives the algorithms, which in turn feed us more indistinguishable content which we happily consume. The general, appeal-to-all, lowest common-denominator visuals are making our world view increasingly bland, and while there are other vantage points to be found – including all kinds of amazing rebellious and subcultural content – you have to actively seek them out. And it’s not just travel, it’s all aspects of how we express ourselves: décor, weddings, how we dress, the art we like, the food we eat, even our politics.
Social media has become an echo chamber of mainstream and predictable content through a process which has been described as the “memeification of human experience”. For older users who have seen the world through different lenses, it’s easy to dismiss the social media window as just one take on the world. When you’re a teenager who spends every possible waking minute scrolling, the understanding of what exists outside these limited trends is increasingly lacking. The impact this can have on identity formation is obvious: expectations, benchmarks and important signifiers of individual identity are being channelled through a very narrow funnel.
Happiness is something that nearly everyone wants to project, whether they feel it or not
Happiness and fulfilment also feature heavily in this funnelled vision. While not a traditional identity marker, in the same way as, say, sexuality or ethnic background, being identified as happy is one of social media’s ultimate status symbols. Conversely, admitting struggles with contentment can lead to different character labels spanning “authentic” (to fans) to “difficult”, “attention-seeking” and “unstable” (to trolls and, worryingly, life insurers). The “smiling depressive”, described as a person whose inner turmoil is masked by outer cheerfulness, has found a new platform to display a “winning at life” front.
Nearly 20 per cent of two thousand women surveyed in a US mental illness report said the stigma they felt about their depression or anxiety had led them to share a photo on social media for which the caption didn’t match what they felt inside. The procession of bright smiles, #blessed captions and blissful family shots are pretty much the exact opposite of what you see staring back at you on your Monday morning commute. But it’s easy to believe that everyone else is joyful when you spend too much time scrolling and forget that another, somewhat bleaker, real-life context exists.
Remember that contentment is not a constant state
One of the best ways to deal with the ways in which social media can make you feel like you’re far less happy than everyone else is to remember that contentment is not a constant state. It’s something which ebbs and flows, and unless you are heavily medicated, no-one can hold on to it 100% of the time. However privileged you are, however #blessed you may be, no one is immune from life’s tragedies. Heartbreak, rejection and struggle are universal experiences, because life is not a computer game and no matter how much money you have or how beautiful you might be, there are guys who will ghost you, friends and family who get sick and crappy situations to navigate in both the professional and personal arenas. Just because many choose to edit these out of our social media projections, doesn’t mean they don’t exist—more that people are selective about the way they advertise the less photogenic sides of their lives. If it looks too good to be, it’s because it is.
If someone makes you feel like rubbish, unfollow or mute them. But then spend time seeking out another account to replace it, with someone who’s life inspires you. There’s no point culling your following list if you’re not going create a more positive environment for yourself. You choose what you consume – no one else. Social media offers us all an incredible opportunity to support each other and spread a positive attitude, so spend time actually interacting and posting encouragement—if we want these platforms to be a healthier, happier environment, we’ve all got our part to play.
Why Social Media is Ruining Your Life by Katherine Ormerod is out now, RM70.40
From: Harper’s BAZAAR UK