October 1

How Social Media Amplifies Our Need to Live up to Cultural Models of Perfection

We live in a world where everybody’s achievements are on public display. This parade of accomplishments amplifies our need to live up to a cultural model of perfection, leading to many toxic byproducts.

Vanity Metrics and Status Anxiety

For a platform like Facebook, the first measure of status was whether or not you’re in a relationship. The options were single, in a relationship, it’s complicated, engaged, or married.  From the very first measure, we’re separated into categories and put into lists.

This was followed by friend counts, likes, shares, and comments. The toxic impact of quantifying every aspect of our humanity is now nothing more than a product feature on most social media platforms. By using hearts as its primary metric, Instagram enables people to conflate attention with affection. To top it off, the addictive design of all these products preys on a human brain’s vulnerability to dopamine driven feedback loops.

Each social media platform has a hierarchy.

  • The people who have high status have to keep feeding the beast to maintain their status
  • Those who don’t have status keep feeding the beast in hopes that they’ll eventually become someone who does have status

The potential for status causes people to overlook the fact that the creators of these platforms could care less about your status. As long as you continue to the feed the beast, it gives them more of your attention which they can package and sell to advertisers.

Cultural Models of Perfection

We’re living in an age of perfectionism, and perfection is the ideal that kills. Whether it’s social media or pressure to be the impossibly ‘perfect’ twenty-first century iterations of ourselves, or pressure to have the perfect body or pressure to be successful in our careers, or any other myriad ways in which we place overly high expectations on ourselves and other people, we’re creating a psychological environment that’s toxic. – Will Storr, Selfie: How We Became So Self Obsessed and What it’s Doing to Us 

By creating a social hierarchy, it becomes easy to reinforce cultural models of perfection.  As a cultural model of perfection is reinforced on a daily basis, our status anxiety increases. We’re made to feel deficient in some way.  Somebody is always ahead of us in some way or another, which leads to the inevitability of comparison, which leads us to keep feeding the beast in hopes that we’ll finally measure up to a false sense of celebrity that is ultimately nothing more than an insignificant illusion manufactured for profit.

On the surface, our addiction to social media and digital forms of validation seems harmless. Even though its effects on the brain are similar to cocaine, looking at your phone doesn’t have the same social stigma as snorting lines of blow off the dinner table would. But the further we get down the rabbit hole of what social media is doing to our brains, the more there seems to be cause for concern.

We’re not just being programmed to click on ads. We’re being programmed with a value system that points our moral compass in a dangerous direction.  The false sense of celebrity made possible by social media fuels narcissism and self-obsession. It brings out some of our worst tendencies. It leads to envy, comparison, and a perpetual sense of deficiency. The inevitable byproduct is a rise in anxiety, depression, and a whole host of other mental health issues.

By 2014, 93 billion selfies were being taken every day on Android phones alone. Every third photograph taken by an eighteen-to-twenty-four-year old was of themselves. – Will Storr,

That’s a lot of people taking pictures of themselves to get attention from strangers on the internet.

Internet fame is a strange phenomenon because you can be famous for being famous.  Amassing fans and followers isn’t a notable accomplishment. Getting attention from strangers on the internet doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve created any real value.

A couple of years ago I hung out with a friend who had a popular Youtube channel. When I looked at her Instagram feed, I realized close to 90% of her pictures were selfies. Most of her status updates were “humble brags” about how much tax she had to pay, etc., etc.  There was a constant need to prove to the world how great she was.

The validation we receive from social media is based on nothing more than manufactured metrics that cause people to confuse attention with affection and inflated vanity with the value.  We value clicks over connections and eyeballs over hearts to such a degree that we’re becoming utterly unaware of the toxic impact of quantifying every aspect of our humanity.

When the people who have helped to build a product won’t go near their own creations and use phrases like “ripping apart the fabric of society” it should be a major warning sign to all of us. It might sound grim, but we’re on the precipice of creating a digital dystopia from which there will be no turning back.  Watch five minutes of this video on how China has taken most of the things that are features of on social networks and turned them into tools to organize and control society.

What Kind of World Do We Want to Live in?

  • Do we want to live in a world where we’ve wasted the potential of the internet?
  • Do we want to live in a world where narcissism and self-obsession are the center of our moral compass?
  • Do we want to live in a world where we’re more connected and more isolated?

Or do we want to live in a world where

  • We’ve utilized the potential of the internet to solve some of our most significant problems
  • Technology truly connects us face to face, allows us to know our neighbors and help each other

There are no easy answers to questions like these. It might require the demise and downfall of social media empires that have fueled the social media industrial complex.


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