How Social Media is Ruining Our Lives — A Source of Modern Anxiety

8 min read 

“A slut on Tantan, a composed thinker on Soul, a workaholic on Wechat and a cynic poet on Weibo.”

Recently, I have talked to many friends and colleagues about the anxiety and the sense of fragmentation brought by different social apps. If your soul can be split into several parts, than every app is a vessel for a piece of your soul, a Horcrux. In this internet era, the real you is already hidden behind several layers of filtering and processing.

Forced acceptance of unwanted information

“They must be together somewhere. I knew it, son of bitch.”
From morning til dawn, I have been sitting with my friend Lisa in a cafe for hours, ready to comfort her. Pale-faced and hyperventilating, she seems to be in great pain, both mentally and physically. I suggest that she takes some anti-anxiety pills.
“But how can you tell?”
“Because I can see from the apps that they are both 2 kilometers away. They must be together.” One month after they broke up, she’s still using different dating apps to monitor the whereabouts of her ex (who has been cheating on her for months) and the new girlfriend. A terribly tormenting hobby if you ask me.

the Tinder-like Tantan (source: anfensi.com)

They met each other on Tantan, a Chinese dating app with the same user interface as Tinder. The app can show a person’s location, how far away they are from you, which is both soothing and disturbing at the same time.

I know words such as “forget about them” is never comforting in these moments, but I couldn’t help but start contemplating what social media does to a person. Just one single click would give you access to every detail of the other person, regardless of whether you want it or not. Forced acceptance of unwanted information.

The eternal anxiety brought by unreplied messages

“Why didn’t he reply?”
“So trust me when I say if a guy is treating you like he doesn’t give a shit, he genuinely doesn’t give a shit. No exceptions.” That’s the famous quote from the film He is Not That Into You.

He is Not That Into You (source: Daddy Issues)

Romantic films and novels have corrupted us so that we firmly believe that those who don’t reply or are slow to reply to our messages don’t give a damn about us.

The unreplied message syndrome is unbearable. It’s like a gigantic black hole ready to break your ego and crush your self-esteem.

“Well actually I have to admit that if I don’t get an average number of likes or someone I care about doesn’t reply to my texts I get a little anxious at first. But then I try to realize what it is doing to me.” Molly admitted during the interview. She is Italian, 22 years old, one of the few young souls with a introspective spirit.

On New year’s eve, I sent an acquaintance “Happy new year, Mr.” And for 20 hours, I got no reply. It’s weirdly annoying that I began to pay so much attention to this person only because he didn’t reply to my message, a greeting message sent out of courtesy. Again, it’s an ego thing. Later, I found out that he thought it was a group message.

Take aside all the force majeure elements including dead phones, no internet access, sudden earthquake or time travel, the reasons for not replying to messages are nothing more than:
1 the topic you raised didn’t interest the receiver in the way you expected;
2 he or she is really occupied at the moment and doesn’t think replying to this message is more important than what they are doing right now;
3 The message carries such significance that the receiver cannot answer it without days of deep contemplation;
4 He or she doesn’t really want to talk to you because they simply don’t care or they hate your guts.

And anxiety caused by unreplied messages usually goes back to the person’s ego, whether you value yourself as deserving other people’s attention and replies.

In the psychology classic Status Anxiety, Swiss-British contemporary philosopher Alain de Botton wrote,
There is something sobering and absurd in the extent to which we are cheered by attention and damaged by disregard. Our mood may blacken because a colleague has greeted us absent-mindedly and our calls have been left unanswered. And we are capable of finding life worth living because someone has remembered our name and sent us a fruit basket.

The hard truth is that, the ultimate cure for this stressful situation would be to delete this person who doesn’t reply, or to delete the apps once and for all.

Rebuilding yourself on different apps

“Why are you more talkative on Soul?”
“Soul is a treehole, it’s different.”

the app Soul (source: zhuanlanzhihu.com)

Soul is an app in China designed for users to find their “soulmates”. I downloaded it for several days and talked with numerous people. But as soon as you transfer your friends there onto WeChat, a more commonly used platform in China, things take a different turn. I don’t understand. It’s the same person hiding behind the same screen, but suddenly the personality changes as a result of the different social environments.

Words are wind, remember? It’s just the forms of communications. nothing more than that.

source: Amatopia

The essence of social media is actually rebuilding yourself, using stories, words and pictures to rebuild a life that is not an exact replica of the real one. It’s more of a cleaned up and whitewashed version.

Over half of the interviewees mentioned that they wouldn’t consider the person portrayed on their social media to be the “real me”.

“I feel like I tend to pretend to be extra strange and say inappropriate stuff I normally wouldn’t say on social media. Different platforms obviously reflect a different me. On gaming platforms there’s one character, on Facebook there’s another.” Adam said, a Taiwanese guy who spent most of his life in Canada.

The two biggest social media platforms used in China right now are the twitter-like Weibo and the almighty Wechat, which is so multifaceted that it’s almost impossible to compare it to any international social platform, but for the sake of simplicity, let’s say it’s like Facebook. Most of the interviewees who are users of both apps mentioned that Weibo is sort of the last resort of free expression. It has a higher degree of anonymity, it’s pretty safe to assume your posts won’t be read by your boss or your old high school crush. But that, of course, depends on how many of your friends actually follow you on Weibo. In contrast, you wouldn’t post a picture of yourself smoking knowing your parents check your WeChat posts every now and then.

“The persona is that which in reality one is not, but which oneself as well as others think one is.”

According to Carl Jung’s psychological theory, the persona is the public image of someone. The original word persona means mask, the mask we wear in public in order to impose a certain image of ourselves: father, mother, chief, artist, president, etc.

Carl Jung (source: 天天心理)

The internet is also a public world, with risks of unwanted exposure, except that it is a virtual one.

Jung believes that the persona enables people to present themselves with various personalities, usually in line with social expectations and giving others a good impression. On the other hand, the personality mask also serves as a hidden true self. Personas are necessary for the survive in a social context. It enables us to communicate with a wider range of people, even people you find repulsive. People wear different masks in different scenarios, we all adjust our social behavior depending on who we’re talking to, whether they are your parents, friends or mere nodding acquaintances.

That explains why we also tend to put on different masks on different social media platforms.

“Social groups are unpredictable, and you learn to speak what people want to hear, be it devil or saint.” Jonas, local Beijinger, said. He is a pragmatist and utilitarian, apparently.

Status anxiety — filtering out the ordinary moments

“Every one has a certain degree of vanity, and wishes to leave a good impression on others. This is, of course, understandable. And filtering yourself is mainly about caring about what other people think of you. So I filter out the ordinary moments of my life.”

Stacey (26, documentary maker) answered when questioned about whether she thinks social media such as Wechat has a filtering effect. Of course, we would post fancy moments of our lives, success, luxurious restaurants, traveling abroad, and sweet moments with our loved ones, all that we are proud of in life. It’s not about showing off, more about a status anxiety.

Again, Alain de Botton, depicted this in his book Status Anxiety,
When people of the same status as us have something better than us, we begin to doubt that our status is lower than him, and we get worried. The essence of showing off is to alleviate this anxiety, and support and stress your status with all the worthy things, which can be Gucci, Hilton hotels or traveling.

Appearing to be less ordinary enlarges the distances between individuals, and the essence of lessening distances between individuals goes back to the desire for love and admiration. There is nothing wrong with wanting people to love us.

“Every individual is independent and alone, and building relationships are meant for sharing resources. There is no love, only illusions.” One Soul user told me. He is 30 something, divorced, with a kid in primary school. He is a pessimistic thinker.

Maybe it is time to close our social media apps for a while, and if not, try to put out more of the mundane moments of our lives.

Featured photo credit to mediablazegroup


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