Like the average American, I spent most of my Thanksgiving break relaxing, watching football, eating my fair share of mashed potatoes and catching up with friends and family.
I also spent a lot of time on my phone.
Yes, having spent the past four years of my life bouncing from cheap brick phone to brick phone, I officially became an iPhone guy as of four weeks ago, diving headfirst into the world of mobile social networking. It’s safe to say that I’ve been addicted ever since.
During commercial breaks, while Skyping my parents, in the back of CS lecture, in between writing paragraphs of this column, on the toilet: It’s out, it’s on, and it’s perusing those photos from last night. Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter – got ‘em all. Each one is conveniently set to alert me every time someone messages me, likes my photo, etc., yet I still find myself constantly opening the various apps without prompting, and, when finding no new notifications or messages needing response, hitting refresh a few times, just to be sure. Still nothing? Then I’m browsing the Twitter feed, scrolling through last night’s Instagrams, possibly contemplating clever statuses.
One of my favorite writers has always been David Foster Wallace. And one of the ideas that has always been closely connected to Wallace’s work is that as Americans, we are a “nation of addicts.” Wallace himself, like many of his characters, struggled with drug and alcohol addictions, and for the longest time I always associated his notion of nationwide “addiction” with substance abuse. But I’m beginning to see that visualizing our country’s many addictions on such a simple scale is to court complete ignorance.
We are addicted to many things: alcohol, sex, football, reality TV, and, as I’ve discovered through my own personal experience, social media. And while my own level of addiction may be unique, I know I’m not the only one with Facebook open in the other tab right now.
The online social realm, while reflective of the outside world, has never been a very accurate recreation of it. Digital mediums are almost always bent toward exaggerating those parts of our real lives that are most attractive and envious, as we habitually fill our “profiles” with not what is most personal to us or best defines us, but what it is that we would most like to share with other people. It’s a digital playground that curbs personalities on the basis of strict societal (and, to a lesser extent, professional) expectations. Almost every Facebook post or photo is generated with the audience in mind – and I know I’m not the only one who has that little voice in the back of their head every time they take a picture at a party wondering how it would look through a filter, or how many likes it might generate. (Or maybe I am. That’s sad.) While social norms exist in every setting, they seem to be hyperinflated in a digital world that ties all of your interactions into one, mostly permanent, personal portfolio.
One of the great draws of Instagram, and one of the big reasons behind its recent popularity surge, is its ability to instantly “beautify” things for us, to remove the decision-making process behind whether to post a photo or not by taking our mostly bland, uninspiring photos and enhancing them with a variety of tonal filters, making them immediately presentable. It is extremely difficult to make a bad Instagram photo: It’s a social platform built entirely on artificial, unnatural beauty – that of the cloudy, just-off-of-reality photo.
The only social media platform that really encourages you to disregard most social norms and expectations, and dare to be weird just for the sake of being weird, is Snapchat. And what does it do with the spontaneous photos you take? Deletes them in a matter of seconds. There seems to be a subliminal admission in this, an admission of the dog and pony show of other social networks: when you Snapchat, it feels like you’re getting away with taboo, that you’re getting away with breaking the rules of social media – at least for a few seconds.
But what does it mean? What does it mean to be addicted to these various forms of style-over-reality communication? It’s not as if before social media everyone was best friends with everyone, having deep conversations on life and love that have slowly been replaced by reels of likes and comments. I certainly don’t want to come across like some old baby boomer who thinks Facebook and reality TV represent the downfall of our civilization. But I do think that there is something to be said about this specific addiction of our societies: the hyperactivity of social networks and their ever-present existence.
I think it’s drastically changing the way in which we inherently understand ourselves. I see my phone as a gateway from actual John to digital John (the line between the two Johns slowly disintegrating), a gateway into an easier world where things are mostly pretty and funny and ironic and clever and filtered. It’s a world I find myself escaping into constantly. It scares me how easy the temptation to simply sit and scroll through my various feeds takes hold, but what has helped me ease this fear is the very brainless act of continuing to scroll.
Where does it lead? It’s a hard question. I could think about it, or I could go back to my newsfeed.
Take a wild guess as to which I’ll do.
Snapchat actual John or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.