When I wake up to my alarm, my brain immediately buzzes at the thought of missed notifications. Like every other morning, I try to fight the urge to open Instagram and see what’s new. I should pray first—I know that the practice of devotion first thing in the morning brings focus and centeredness to the rest of the day, yet my brain keeps buzzing for the easy dopamine.
I grew up having devotion first thing in the morning and I know a lot of us still practice that today. It is believed that connecting with the most important Being before making contact with any other starts the day off right. You meet God before you meet the Devil, as they say. Mornings, however, have shifted in these times. Being connected 24/7 means the 5 to 9 hours we’re asleep is a respite from the endless flow of information we’re caught up in throughout the day. Waking up means it’s back to the regularly scheduled program, which is why I check the apps, my emails, Whatsapp, and any other notifications to see if I’ve missed something urgent. When I’m done, I feel better. I’ve fed the beast and can now start my day, until it’s time to feed it again.
Like many of the world’s people around my age with an internet connection, I have a complicated and compulsive connection with social media. When I was 13, I joined Twitter for two purposes: to rant about my life and fangirl. I was a staunch Belieber (he’s been following me since 2011, hey bestie) and made friends in that community that I have never met but still keep in touch with. In my early days on Facebook, it was the medium for a lot of communication and miscommunication. My “friends” and I were deep in it: a lot of posting, messaging, tagging, and poking but also a lot of misunderstanding. Regardless, it was important to us to be in touch as frequently as possible, so when Instagram came, we moved there. This was a different playing field. Instagram was all about what we could see. It was about the look of the outfit, the event, the boy, the girl, the destination. It became all about what made the frame and less about all the different stories behind it and we entered adulthood on that.
L’Adoration du Veau d’or or The Adoration of the Golden Calf (1633-4) is a painting by Nicolas Poussin, a leading French Baroque style painter who focused on religious and mythological stories. It is based on the Old Testament account of the Israelites and the golden calf they built while in the wilderness. Tired of waiting for Moses to come down from Mount Sinai where he had gone to talk with Yahweh, they asked his brother Aaron to make a new god for them. So, Aaron told them to bring him all their gold jewelry. He melted and molded what they brought into a calf and built an altar in front of it. Poussin’s painting is a depiction of the people’s celebration after presenting offerings to their brand new god.
“The movement, energy, and crowdedness of the bottom half stand in tension with the stillness and relative emptiness of the top half. Below, the arms of the worshippers stretch out to one another and up toward the calf, while above, the calf’s hoof, necklace, and eyeline all point back down, and so the gaze circulates between these two sights: the unmoving, dead idol and the lively ones giving themselves over to it.” - Excerpt from a commentary on the piece by Natalie Carnes, Associate Professor of Theology at Baylor University.
Beyond their impatience, the people had a desperation to have something concrete to serve as a constant reminder that they would be looked after. They needed something to fill the gap and created something they chose to believe was bigger than them, even though it wouldn’t exist without their resources. Social media as our gold-plated calf is the creation that has taken over its creator. We keep it alive with pieces of ourselves and it doesn’t stop growing because it doesn’t stop consuming us.
In a few years to come, I will have spent half of my life on social media. It’s already been a decade of reading posts in a poster’s voice until all of them sound the same. A decade of going somewhere and immediately thinking of how I can present it to my audience. It’s been a good portion of my teenage and young adult years spent analyzing why someone would say this in that way and what it Actually Means, why they would post that and why they wouldn’t. Half of our lives on these apps means that as young people, we only know how to be addicted and have no idea how to leave. And haven’t we all tried? We are equally as familiar with the deactivations and breaks and app timers as we are with the tension that comes when we try to manage this dependence.
One of the people I spoke with about this is Kysani who has been thinking of how much she shares online, from photos of herself to parts of her creative work. In some ways, the idea of giving so much out has made her feel uneasy but in other ways, she has been able to connect with others and not feel alone. This is the creative’s social media dilemma. We feel anxious about sharing online because of how intimate it is, yet we know the benefits of pushing it through and doing it anyway. We overanalyze our content and how it is received but recognize the value of the community we can cultivate by our sharing. Being able to reassess our relationship with social media means being able to make it work the way it’s supposed to, which is as an enhancer for what we do instead of an inhibitor. “Lately it’s just been about finding that middle ground between not being too exposed online but also not being hidden behind this cloak of sorts,” Kysani says.
A typical day for her starts with checking her phone for any messages from her family. When she gets home from work in the evening, she chooses between working out and cooking dinner.. or unwinding with social media. The easiest option usually wins and she finds herself going back and forth on the same apps for maybe three hours. In terms of relationships, social media helps her maintain a sense of familiarity with her long-distance friends and makes the distance feel shorter. Still, there have been some months where she’s deactivated her accounts for the sake of clearing her head and keeping herself away from the “oversaturation of everyone else’s ideas and sometimes, the exact same arguments over and over.” In my first two years as a university student, a lot of my social justice awakening was aided by content on social media. It was all about rage and urgency coupled with a deep frustration with the state of things. We held the core belief that everything was a problem. Fast forward a few years and I can’t really name something that riles me up or shocks me anymore— officially overstimulated from the overconsumption. A high population can relate when I say that I’ve had the discussions time and time again. I know all the debates, I’ve heard all the points, and I don’t think my brain can stomach it anymore. Conversely, we are jaded by making light of anything and turning everything into a joke. I know we act this way in response to the reality at large which feels beyond our control, however, automatically swinging from the strongest to the most detached reaction of what we are seeing is abnormal and harmful. We are exhausted from the extremes and the memes and it strains our relationships even though we are always in touch.
Candace Amos runs social and audience at The Daily Beast and describes social media as the “wild, wild west.” The apps weren’t there when she started in journalism 15 years ago but she’s now grown to have them embedded in her life. She normally starts her day by working and checking various outlets to see what news broke overnight. “First thing in the morning, I check Slack, I check Twitter, and then all of the other platforms. Sometimes I find myself on social media for half of the day.” She keeps up with a lot of newsletters to educate herself on what’s happening, soaks up the different types of content on Instagram, vents about the industry on Twitter, and frequents Facebook to see what’s going on with friends, family, and the 250 Facebook groups she’s a part of. While these are her typical habits, she is the only one in her circle who uses social media heavily; her fiance and friends don’t understand the fixation. “They love me and accept me, but they see it as a negative.” If none of these platforms existed, she’s sure they’d be happier.
Because she hasn’t grown up on this and a lot of her activity is connected to her work, Candace’s habits are different from standard Gen Z behavior where “real-life” is heavily confounded with what happens on the screen. “The algorithms know how to play on our emotions and fears as humans,” she says. Her concerns are mainly for the younger generation and how difficult it is to confront the challenges online environments pose to mental health. At four years old, her son is already exploring the internet through Youtube. “He loves Peppa Pig, but some guy on Youtube made a twisted version of it where Peppa Pig is evil and he’s been watching that without me realizing it because it looks like the cartoon.” Most busy parents know the role of platforms like Youtube in keeping kids engaged, but also recognize that better alternatives are needed. A lot of social media is just that: simple and convenient, offering the watered-down of whatever we need, whether it’s entertainment or intimacy. We know that the golden calf we worship is actually just golden-plated, but we can’t stop.
In terms of intimacy, there’s that gap social media seems to cover when it comes to relationships. Due to constant interactions, people (read: strangers) tend to think they know someone and how they’re doing simply based on the few random moments they see. I find myself constantly in conflict between sharing those tidbits for the sake of receiving a response versus keeping all of it—how I looked today, the weird things I saw, the cool things I did, and the mundane—to myself. Social media has facilitated the starts and ends of a lot of relationships with couples engaging very differently from how they do in real life, even when they spend most of their time together. Family members use the shallow connections to try and bridge gaps or pass over the unsaid. People share constantly but are strategic in how they keep certain parts of their lives private. We compare the next person’s carefully curated story to the full knowledge we have of ourselves, which pushes us down the impossible path of discontentment with the person we are to love the most.
One of the first things Michal shared with me was that social media is what you make it. She spoke about the weird balance between collective responsibility and individual responsibility, and trying to do what she can in her individual capacity to make sure she has a healthy relationship with it. She’s mindful of who she follows and interacts with so she frequently refreshes her online communities. As a photographer, Michal recognizes the importance of having a strong following but also being intentional about what and how she posts for her audience. “I recently had a female Eritrean photographer reach out to me on Instagram saying ‘Oh my God your work is so amazing. I’m so glad I found you.’ I feel uncomfortable sometimes about being vulnerable on social media but the reason I keep posting is it’s clearly having an impact.” Connecting with other creatives and getting inspiration from their content are the main reasons she stays active on social media. While we’re conscious of the fact that we are losing a lot to this black hole, we have hints of an ideal future because we’ve seen the positive side.
I’ve asked myself: What would my life look like if I spent more time in reality? If I lived more for what’s real and in front of me? I would probably be in a much better place than I am now. I imagine I would be much further in my journey to succeed in the various ways I want to. Yet, I also have to ask: if I take this away, can I really fill the gap? Will I be able to retrain my body to feel rewarded from a different source? From what? Being myself? Being with other people? Creating something from nothing? God? There will always be something that demands or requires most of our attention and, for the most part, we get to choose what it is. Whatever we repeatedly choose affects our brain functions, from how we process information to how we retain memory. So, I want to try something different. I want to allow myself to be bored, to feel like I’m missing things and to truly miss them. To fall out of shallow touch and meaningfully pick up from where I left off. I want to be able to be selfish with my experiences but also share honestly. The next time I’m out, I want to think less about framing my experience for my audience and more about staying in it fully. I want to develop a healthy relationship with sharing what I create, one marked by a willing openness and the belief that I work out of abundance and not scarcity.
We’re all born with a gap in our hearts that we spend our lives trying to fill. What will you choose to fill your gap? For me, I want my life to be filled with a deep connection with God and my inner self because that leads to who I am and why I’m here. Merely gold-plated, social media doesn’t offer what it claims to. It is a sham that stands in front of the real, precious gold: existence, connection, stimulation. We felt these things when we used to play in the backyard, write letters, and speak on the phone. Generally, we were present at gatherings and intentional with making contact, things that will never lose their value. As young people, we need to fight for ourselves and our chance to do better. This reality was passed on to us, but we don’t have to keep it as we continue to grow. We should do the hard thing today so that we can reap tomorrow. We can clear out the muck and grime taking up so much space in our lives to make room for who we really are. We can live slowly and thoughtfully, refusing to subscribe to FOMO and the idea that the world is spinning without us. We can relate to each other with vulnerability and truth, believing in the value of our relationships despite their nature online.