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Thoughts on Online Personas

Hang with me for a second.

The universe is infinitely large and incomprehensible. Dr. Luke Davies of the Science Network in Washington, writes "The whole universe is littered with galaxies just like the Milky Way and Andromeda, and using our most powerful telescopes we can see light from galaxies that has taken more than 13 billion years to reach us."

When we zoom in just a bit, the Milky Way itself is thought to consume 200,000 light years, which I can't really explain, but which is, in lay terms, gigantic. Zoom in even further, to our own solar system, and the space it consumes is still baffling. Even our own planet seems incredibly vast, with nearly 197 million miles of surface area, 57 million of which is land. Zoom into a continent (the North American population was 579 million in 2016), a country, (the U.S. had a population of 327 million in 2018), a state (California had a population of 39.5 million in 2018), a city (Laguna Beach had a population 23,147 in 2017), and you'll likely realize that your life, in all it's splendor, is very tiny in the grand scheme of the aching, beating. endless universe.

Why then, do humans so consistently sweat the small stuff? We are self-obsessed to a point of irrefutable madness, spending an inordinate amount of time elbow-deep in minutiae. Self-obsession is nowhere more prevalent than the internet, where we consistently update our friends, acquaintances, and strangers about the mundane intricacies of our everyday lives. I wanted to know why some of us are obsessed with being seen, while others (although arguably fewer of us) crave absolute anonymity. Christine Crawford writes, "Safety, belonging, and mattering are essential to your brain and your ability to perform at work, at home, and in life overall. In every communication, in every conflict, we are subconsciously either reinforcing or begging for safety, belonging, mattering or a combination of all three."

Meanwhile, the internet is abuzz with people posting brazen selfies, flaunting their latest product or service, and playing on others' insecurities and disparate feelings of feeling unsafe, not belonging, and not mattering that are easier than ever to identify and manipulate. Crawford writes that those who exhibit fight/flight/freeze behavior are craving safety. Those with an "us vs. them" mindset crave belonging. Those who play the victim or constantly seek recognition want to feel as if they matter. All of this is incredibly normal, and has been playing out in human behavior for centuries. We need all three elements: safety, belonging, and mattering, to feel fulfilled, to be productive, to be happy, and perhaps most obviously, to avoid harm.

Fight/Flight/Freeze---> Safety

"Us" vs. "Them"---> Belonging

Seeking Recognition---> Mattering

Lorna Martin, in an op-ed for the Daily Mail, writes "There seems to be an increasing feeling in the world of: 'If I don't have an audience, if I don't have followers, if I don't have fame or even micro-fame, if my every movement and thought - no matter how mundane, uninspired or unwitty - is not shared, recorded and validated, then I am worthless, nothing, a nobody.' It raises the question of whether observing and recording our lives has become more rewarding than living them."

Martin wrote this in 2009, when Instagram hadn't yet launched and when Twitter was booming. As of April 28, 2019, there are an estimated 1.1 Million "influencers" online, unofficially defined by this set of 20 unique criteria. Of course, there are probably more "influencers" who perhaps do not fall within all the criteria. At any rate, these individuals have figured out how to earn a living by producing (sometimes) valuable content, and by appealing to the beautifully complex neurobiological impulse we all experience to feel: safe, belonged, and important.

To my original point, if we all zoom out just a bit, we would be able to recognize these human reactions and simply by recognizing them, attempt to disallow ourselves from succumbing to them. In other words, if we recognized that our need to feel important and validated were the underlying reason for ceaseless social media use, perhaps (emphasis on perhaps) we would attempt to limit our usage and rectify the underlying reason why we don't feel as if we matter. Of course, many (emphasis on many) people will not choose to look deeply inward, as it is painful and often humbling.

The internet relies on connectivity, and if we lived in a world in which we all felt adequately connected in our offline lives, perhaps the internet would hold less psychological value. Then again, the ceaseless, boundless inter-connectivity of the web is often more a virtue than a downfall. I don't claim to know a universal answer, but I do know that each person-you, me, your mailman, your third grade teacher-would do well to figure out why they have an online presence, and from there, figure out how much usage is personally healthy. I find the insatiable, constant, exhaustive, and consuming nature of social media antithetical to my nature. If I feel happy and engaged in the world around me, I rely upon social media far less. That realization is enough in itself; I don't need the internet or social media to make me happy. It is not where I turn for a sense of community or self, although it is a platform from which I can connect to others. For that, I am grateful. I am not, however, beholden.

The internet is colorful and loud and wonderfully distracting. It distracts us from feeling unsafe, from feeling as if we don't belong, from feeling as if we do not matter. Moreover, it can help us to feel safe, to find belonging, to build a platform that influences others so that we feel as if we matter.

Some psychologists find that the tendency to overshare personal information online is the crux of narcissism. Others think people might simply be lonely. Oliver James, author of the book Affluenza, suggests that people's desire to provide others with a constant stream of information stems from a lack of identity. Alain de Botton, author of Status Anxiety and The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, says constant updates are a way to ensure we are connected to someone or something in order to validate our own existence. John Grohol, a U.S. psychologist, asserts that social media takes normal, everyday socializing to a new level, but that it highlights nothing more than a historic, human desire to be in community.

Our relationship to others, to ourselves, and to our online personas do not exist in a vacuum. Just as we might remove toxic people from our lives, we should also remove toxic online personas, or at the very least, choose not to engage in dissatisfying or harmful online or interpersonal dynamics. The unhealthy mechanisms that play out online may be more noticeable, more prevalent, or more prominent than in concrete, 3-dimensional life, but the need to feel safe, belonged, and mattered has always existed. If we zoom out just a bit, we can see social media and online personas for exactly what they are: vehicles to enable rich (or vapid) connections with others that may be infinitely rewarding or undoubtedly damaging.

P.S. Check out THIS article from the BBC on the mental health outcomes of social media/internet usage.


Sarah Rose

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