I had a snapshot of the darkness within social media. Mass provocation resembles organized crime or a brazen form of online guerrilla warfare.
When I was viciously trolled on Twitter, I resorted to the apt no-answer response, following the popular, “don’t feed the troll” memo. Thus, a collision course was carefully avoided.
Still, I had a snapshot of the darkness within social media. Mass provocation resembles organized crime or a brazen form of online guerrilla warfare. They appear out of nowhere like a swarm of grasshoppers and target one individual at a time. As a group, they thrive on a strong sense of belonging, acting according to group norms. Maybe deep down, we’ve never really evolved from our hunter-gatherer days. We always hunt in packs.
“Where do you live?” asks a troll. No matter how brave you are, you pause momentarily to consider the larger implications of this more than veiled threat. Then you remember this is how women were targeted on social media. Nothing extraordinary about that. You skip to another tweet.
With the volume of activity on social media, the diversity of chatter, and the constant ebb and flow of trends, it’s hard to decipher the noise. We wonder if tweets and posts really make us happy. If the poster is happier than the passive scroller. Researchers have often warned that mindless scrolling on social media could make us unhappy. However, a recent longitudinal study has advanced a contrary view. Spread over nine years, the study found no correlation between the well-being of adolescents in Germany and their use of social media. Another three-week study of adolescents aged 13 to 15 found that browsing can lead to positive, negative or no effects in individuals, depending on a range of dispositional, developmental, social and situational factors. In short, it depends.
It goes without saying that our use of Instagram or Facebook cannot simply be an exercise in self-inflicted pain. It should offer some joy, no matter how fleeting, like that piece of chocolate you savored so much knowing you might regret later. How else could we explain the more than 2 hours of average daily social media usage.
The notion of happiness is more than just a basic human emotion. Psychologists, sociologists, economists and now governments are preoccupied with the idea of happiness. In the United Arab Emirates, improving happiness has been the driving force behind citizen services. Happiness has become central to governance and how we assess progress. From this perspective, social media has implications for our overall happiness given that it is so ingrained in our daily lives. Despite numerous studies, experts are divided on whether social media makes us happy in the long run.
However, there is a consensus that social media is a place to demonstrate our happiness. The UN World Happiness Report has ranked Finland as the happiest country for three consecutive years. A recent research report titled “#Happy: Building and Sharing Everyday Understandings of Happiness on Instagram” investigated what equates to happiness on Instagram for Finnish users. Researchers have found that happiness on Instagram is associated with the seven dominant themes of social relationships, material possessions, free time, nature, physical appearance, pets, and success. The study took care to describe this daily happiness as that which is “built” on Instagram. Social media posts allow us to connect with socially accepted notions of happiness. My posts about a rooster I encounter on my morning runs always elicit a happy response.
Social representation theories suggest the inseparability of the individual from the social, so that people passively reflect the shared values of the group. For example, amid the panicked cries for help during the second wave of Covid-19 in India, the funny messages were rarely seen. Earlier in the year, when British celebrities posted their destination photos, their still-checked-out backcountry followers were unimpressed.
The Instagram study showed that our carefully curated happiness on social media is caught between the three dichotomies social-individual, relaxation-pursuit, and immaterial-material. A sense of pride is associated with ‘self orientation’, while gratitude is associated with ‘other orientation’. Our own wall is largely a collection of happy timestamps of when a meeting, birthday, trip or meal was memorable. Because happiness is driven by online scene, it’s hard to say whether social media drives happiness.
After Covid-19, our overall focus moved beyond happiness to a desire for well-being, which is a broader perception that life is going well. There is a sense of purpose and balance in work and life. Yet a constant state of well-being does not occur in the best of us. We try anyway.
Our persistent striving for well-being can be hit-and-miss, as social media is essentially an echo chamber of our own emotional predisposition, even as we seek updates. There is also a conforming algorithm pushing us.
When we use social media constructively, connect with friends, offer advice, provide support, and show empathy, we tend to experience greater well-being. It has also become our coping mechanism during the pandemic. Users had a nuanced response to social support on social media platforms during quarantine. A study of French users showed that the social support provided on Instagram and Twitter was positively correlated with life satisfaction. Surprisingly, the social support provided on Facebook was quite the opposite. Support on Facebook is thought to possibly reactivate emotional trauma. This explains why some people quit Facebook or become inactive when they experience a loss in the family.
Overall, social media tends to reflect the mental state we are entering. The duality of social media is what makes it such an alluring place. Despite the widespread trolling, we constantly go from station to station, looking for life-affirming stories and happy endings. It’s sometimes hard to rationalize the rabid swapping of barbs with the joyful likes and shares. Yet, over all these years, social media has come to reflect life in all its colors. Ultimately, Twitter or Facebook balances good with bad.
Shalini Verma is CEO of PIVOT Technologies. She tweets at @shaliniverma1.