It starts off small, harmless as a kitten meme. You think, One hit, that’s it and I’m done. The next week, you’re back for more. Two hits turns into ten turns into two hundred. Months later, after your weekly fix has quickly became a daily habit, you’ve got unshakable cravings and rampant paranoia. To get rid of the shakes, you start taking larger doses, but pretty soon you realize you’ve hit the wall of an addict, where nothing means anything anymore, the high you’ve been chasing now a series of plummeting lows. And all of a sudden you find yourself up in Harlem, skinny and gap-toothed, blowing some homeless drug dealer in the back of a Cadillac that belongs to neither one of you. Proverbially.
Friends, I’m not talking about pot or crack or crank or coke or smack; I’m talking about social media. And it’s killing all of us.
My first experience with social media was just a hint of what was to come, hell in its BETA phase. Sophomore year of high school, a computer program called Class Board was unleashed upon our school like a virus. Class Board was simply an online message board where bitchy, vengeful teens could air their poorly-worded grievances to the world… anonymously.
By today’s standards Class Board was a joke. In 2000, it was revolutionary. Before Class Board, if you wanted to drag someone’s name through the mud, you had to whisper behind a back or yell across the lunch table. There was accountability for your slander, and to take that risk, you’d have to think long and hard about the potential consequences. Unless, of course, you were just a bitch, in which case you didn’t care about consequences. Either way, there was some amount of gumption involved. You had to feel the nastiness stew in your belly and form into words in your mouth. You had a real, visceral connection to your thoughts and feelings. Consequently, more often than not, you bit your tongue.
Unsurprisingly, this anonymous, won’t-ever-be-held-accountable form of gossiping was like catnip to my fellow teenage comrades, whose interests at the time did not stretch beyond passing the SATs, getting laid (if you could call it that), and destroying their latest enemy.
Class Board lasted for all of two weeks at my Catholic college prep school. “Money doesn’t buy you class, Kelly Troost” and “Melissa Monaghan is sleeping with Coach Wade” were not phrases my “in-the-Marianist-tradition” teachers wished to incorporate into the curriculum. With CIA-like precision, the school lobbied the Gods of the Internet to take the website down, where it thenceforth lived forever in our minds as the scandal of a lifetime. We were once again forced to talk shit about each other the old-fashioned way: in person and on landlines.
But there it was: the crack in the dam in the days before the deluge. We were like puppies subjected to the secondhand smoke of our pothead owners, naive and accidentally exposed.
With this isolated exception, my generation graduated high school and entered college unscathed, saved from the horrors of today’s younger generation, who are doomed to look back at their over-documented adolescence with the public shame of a hanging trial. To understand what I’m talking about, revisit a journal of yours written any time between the age of eleven and nineteen. The evidence of your underdeveloped, emotionally-retarded brain—some heated clash with your parents over a car ride or a movie ticket—will make you wonder how you were even able to tie your Sketchers in the morning. It’s horrible. Trust me.
It was another four years before Myspace became a phenomenon. Like any other nineteen-year-old, my reason for signing up owed entirely to a crush on a boy.
Until this point, I’d used the Internet predominately to check my Yahoo account, pirate music, and download old covers of SPIN to print out for no real reason beyond killing trees and wasting my dad’s printer ink. With Myspace I was offered carte blanche access into the life of The Boy.
And this, friends, was the best thing that had happened to computers since Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?
Within weeks, I had a perfectly-curated Myspace page, complete with hot pink backdrop and sketches of gothic butterflies, an ironic representation of myself. I added friends, spied on boys, researched bands – all of which took up a disproportionate amount of time I did not apparently find valuable in the slightest.
Still, for whatever reason, social media felt harmless. FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out, a real disorder in our current day in age) was but a creationist twinkle in Mark Zuckerberg’s eye. Though I sincerely liked Myspace, I never felt as though I needed it. There was no incessant checking of my feed on my Blackberry. Messages could go unread for weeks. It was, by all means, as healthy an addiction as codependence.
And so I was surprised when everyone started dumping the embroidered, gilded Myspace for the Spartan flatlands of Facebook.
Who would have thought such a plain-faced, seemingly innocuous thing would become the very bane of a generation?
I was in New York at the time, living in the West Village for the summer with two Indian boys who worked in finance. It was Amrit who forced Facebook on me. My profile was adorned with a single, grainy photo of me sitting on a bed, taken with Amrit’s shitty Blackberry and the tagline “Amrit made me do it.” I had an account; I would leave it at that. I avoided checking it at all costs and refused to post anything, believing that a person did not need multiple social media accounts. (At present, I now run four blogs, a Twitter account, a Tumblr, an Instagram, and two different Facebook pages. I was much, much cooler in 2007.)
Resistant at first, I gradually weaned myself off Myspace, as it became clear that I was living in a ghost town. Comments went out into the ether, with no response. Pictures posted to little to no avail, no adoration or fanfare.
Facebook, on the other hand, was a boomtown. Rampant sharing of great music, photos of dinner parties, invitations from friends of yore just wanting to catch up. Every day was like opening up the yearbook of the most popular girl in school, showered with the grasping affection of a sea of nameless, faceless minions. Party invitations from people you didn’t even know. The praise that came without reservation. Hearts and thumbs, icons of easy support. The likes, the likes, the likes.
Likes are the crack cocaine that built Facebook. And likes are what will destroy us all. This is the tipping point, the crest of the bell curve, the end of the good and the start of the crash.
Allow me to explain.
Throughout life, we crave the approval and attention of others. (See Katie Levisay’s Jeff The Fish for more.) In fourth grade, you wanted nothing more than the praise of your math teacher. In tenth grade, you wanted the attention of a boy. For most years, you’ll pray for the approval of your parents, for better or worse. And now, in this digital age, our approval-seeking has jumped off the scale, everything turned up to eleven. We’re inundating the world with self-promotion because we have endless avenues to express ourselves. Want to see what an amazing life I’m living, how much fun I’m having, how beautiful my friends are? Check out my Instagram feed. Want to know how popular I am? See how many Twitter followers I have. Want to know the music I listen to or the political topics I’m passionate about? Add me as a “friend” on Facebook. Want to experience the way I see the world? Read my blog.
This is me by proxy.
This is my soapbox.
I am an entity but not a real person.
That is okay.
We don’t need diaries or boyfriends or girlfriends or good friends. If someone won’t love you in real life, you can find droves on the Internet who will “love” you with seemingly unconditional, reckless abandon. It will be some meaningless number but for the time being it fills a void. You can be Lady Gaga with her harem of affectionately and condescendingly named “Little Monsters,” which is really just marketing jargon for “Little Sheep.”
That’s what social media has always demanded: sheep.
For a while, years even, everyone was OK with this. Perhaps we were less sheep than we were voyeurs, a collective of extremely involved friends. But there was a tipping point, right around Facebook’s IPO, when the collective mood soured. Then again, maybe it was just me.
I stopped caring what everyone was doing because I was no longer able to absorb it all. Not to mention that phenomenon that scientific studies are just beginning to explore: depression caused by social media. Facebook was bumming me the hell out.
Everyone was getting older. People were getting married, having children. The friends who were more successful than others were reaching that point in their careers when disposable income allowed for vacations to Anguilla, trips to Paris, check-ins at fancy hotels. Facebook’s landscape transformed from the Come One, Come All boomtown to the controlled access community of Have and Have Not.
Facebook, the pretty cousin of Class Board, with a smiling face and the invisible net of admiration and support hovering over a bottomless pit of What Are You Doing With Your Life.
The high was wearing off. It was like that moment that happens between Friday night and Saturday morning, when—after a blur of dancing in the dark and making out with strangers and drinking gin and doing blow, laughing about everything and talking about nothing, powerful…unstoppable…limitless—you look around and everyone has gone home. You’re standing alone in the middle of a room, your nose bleeding uncontrollably over your Stella McCartney dress and your Alexander Wangs.
Facebook became that thing about which an increasing number of users lamented, bitched, and grimaced. Mandatory rolling of the eyes accompanied any story that started with “I messaged him on Facebook,” aware of how infantile the whole thing had become.
Or I thought it had. Or I hoped it had.
Because there’s a problem, and the problem is addiction. We’re all in too deep.
A thought is no longer allowed to live inside one’s head, given time and space to linger: it must be posted to Twitter. It must be quickly digested and responded to, spread across the Internet like some brilliant seed. It’s not enough to keep it to yourself, to share it with three people at your proverbial lunch table.
Your genius is worthy of the entire cafeteria now.
And so we keep searching, scrambling, posting. Photos that were once kept in boxes, tucked into envelopes with amber negatives, are put up for the world to see, to love, to praise. And with each one of those likes—those ridiculous, hideous goddamn likes—we get our cheap high, that illicit kick of serotonin.
Must we all be so involved?
This consumption of everything is consuming everyone.
Boorish, nastily insecure creatures that we are, we have gladly been consumed. We’ve eaten from the trough, sipped from the cup, come to a free dinner without the expectation of having to pay. We’ve signed away, quite literally, ownership of our lives. Instagram briefly intended to use our images for advertisements without our consent. Facebook mines our data and sells it off to whomever it chooses. High school students bully one another to death from the comfort of their parents’ living room. Kids leave suicide notes not on bedside stands but on Twitter feeds.
The user inevitably becomes the used.
The drug’s effects have begun to eat away at the body, rot the teeth, erode the gums. You’re losing weight, ironically disappearing despite appearing everywhere. People are concerned about you. You are concerned about you. But you keep going back, scratching that itch that stems from unseen depths. You scratch and scratch and scratch until the skin breaks, because nails cannot reach through to that bottomless pit of wanting that lives inside of you. You’ve been chasing a high that has never existed, because it was cheap and easy and undeserved. You realize that now. It took you a decade, but you’re there.
And so you stare in the mirror, vowing to give up. But there’s that computer sitting on your desk, your phone on the sofa. Endless access to one million things that maybe, just maybe, will make you feel better about your life, right now, just for a moment.
One last time, you think… one last time…
NOTE: During the composition of the initial draft, the author checked Facebook six times, looked at seven pictures of a recent ex-notfriend (a person falling into the category of being neither boyfriend nor friend), watched Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own” video twice, watched an interview with fucking-bat-shit-crazy Quentin Tarantino, watched a video of designers during New York Fashion Week and what they listen to while designing, listened to music herself, fielded emails, and scrolled through her Instagram feed three times. The author declines to comment on subsequent exposure to social media during the four subsequent drafts.
For more from Jenny Bahn, check out an interview with her on Biology of the Blog.