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I’m at an age where scrolling through social media means an abundance of baby pictures and, especially in these last few months, home ownership. There are certainly benefits to seeing the big and small moments from friends’ and strangers’ lives. We are communal people, and learning more about the lives of others can offer us inspiration, encouragement, and solidarity.

According to a 2019 research article in Health Education and Behavior, the benefits of social media tap into our innate need for others:

individuals who are members of a social network, as opposed to those who are not, have access to information, social support, and other resources such as other network members’ skills and knowledge due to their network membership or social connections. This, in turn, is linked to a variety of positive social outcomes such as trust and reciprocity that engender better health.

I love that the Internet community can teach me how to take apart and reassemble a vacuum cleaner so that it works better, start me on the path to learning a new language, and provide answers to my regular musings about the origins of random words. But for all of the good it brings, we’re probably also incredibly aware of the darker side of interaction with the Internet, and social media in particular. A 2019 article in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health posits that “the use of social media has created a new set of social norms when individuals try to create and maintain an online persona that complements their physical presence.” The article points to the negative effects of “over-reliance” on social media, which include “the obsessive and excessive use of the media, which is often associated with undesirable life experiences, such as reduced creativity, increased anxiety, and a neglect of the reality of life.”

This neglect of reality is key when considering our visual-heavy social media platforms. When speaking of reality there is often at least a verbal bifurcation of the “real world” and the virtual world (text lingo indicates IRL, after all). This isn’t to say that one can’t present real life online. But when it comes to life, can one truly convey the nuances of lived experience through a Facebook wall, a Twitter feed, or an Instagram grid?

This neglect of reality is key when considering our visual-heavy social media platforms. When speaking of reality there is often at least a verbal bifurcation of the “real world” and the virtual world (text lingo indicates IRL, after all). This isn’t to say that one can’t present real life online. But when it comes to living life, can one truly convey the nuances of lived experience through a Facebook wall, a Twitter feed, or an Instagram grid?

Probably not. The limitation of the photograph is that it expresses a moment frozen in time, and though a live-streamed video can convey life lived in real time, there is only a finite amount of space and content that can be captured by the camera, and at some point, the video ends. Even the names of our favorite social media platforms convey the instantaneous, ephemeral nature of our virtual worlds: Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok.

When a picture speaks fewer words

Art critic John Berger reflects on the inadequacy of media to fully express reality in his 1972 essay, “Photographs of Agony.” Though this piece was written well before the age of social media and focuses on Vietnam War photographs, the process of seeing and interacting with the photograph may bear some resemblance to how we interact with content in the virtual worlds we occupy:

Yet what is it that they [photographs of the agony of war] make us see?

. . . As we look at them, the moment of the other’s suffering engulfs us. We are filled with either despair or indignation…We try to emerge from the moment of the photograph back into our lives. As we do so, the contrast is such that the resumption of our lives appears to be a hopelessly inadequate response to what we have just seen.

If we were to replace the photograph of agony with a photograph of a friend looking delighted in a lovely space, perhaps surrounded by sweet-faced children, and if we were to replace the moment of another’s suffering with the moment of another’s joy, we may have a similar reaction to the one Berger describes above. As we proceed through feeds filled with photograph after photograph of delightful moments, there may be a strong temptation to compare our lives, and even despair about the disconnect between the lives we’re encountering online and those we’re currently living. Those we’re living likely feel less put-together.

And like the war photograph, it may be just as true to say that these photographs and videos we encounter online, and often take ourselves, are, as Berger says, “discontinuous with all other moments. They exist by themselves.” Think about the pause in the action of daily life required to snap a photo, to angle a camera correctly so that maximum light pours in on the delicious meal you’ve made or acquired, to tidy up a room or a space in a room in preparation for the photo, and to perhaps enhance a photo through filters. And even when we’re trying to be “real” and reveal a messy space, a personal struggle, or a failed culinary creation, what’s missing from this moment is all the others.

As humans, we’re wired to make sense out of the words and images we see. And in the absence of information, we tend to fill in the gaps. According to a 2019 article in Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications which focuses on how humans fill in missing information, we can experience these informational gaps even when we are alert and at attention in real-time situations, such as during a sporting event. This is because “Human observers are surrounded by a complex, dynamic and rich world producing a vast amount of information that easily exceeds the available attentional resources and the capacity of working memory.” And yet, the article continues, “human observers usually perceive their environment as a succession of meaningful discrete events.”

When it comes to the world of social media, it’s likely that we do quite a bit more gap filling. This is because the moments of life we’re observing online are only snippets, and rather disjointed snippets at that. What’s more, we’re often observing pieces of multiple lives in quick succession. Though the meaning we make about the lives of our social media friends and those we follow depends on other factors, too, like the depth of our relationship with them outside of social media, it’s important to realize our susceptibility to creating unreal stories about the lives of others.

More virtual, less reality

In a recent reflection on LitHub, Meredith Westgate notes the photograph’s ability to actually distract from real life, even when real life is being rendered. Contemplating the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, she, like Berger, notes the disconnect wrought by the photograph:

Much of what I saw then felt like one trending activity replacing another, a willed collective distraction and denial unfolding in photographs. Freshly baked banana bread cooling on the counter. Leftover scallions sprouting in a glass of water, catching the afternoon light. An attempt at sourdough. Tie-dying everything. Another failed sourdough.

Perhaps there was a purpose to this connection, a comfort in presenting the thing that we didn’t have—clarity. After all, a photograph presents stability in the most basic way that it cannot change. Even if once you finally dug into your banana bread, it caved into a gooey under-baked mess, the photograph always shows something appetizing, full of promise.

As we make our tweets and posts, as we add to our stories and grids, it’s equally important to realize that, like a museum curator who strategically picks and chooses which works of art will be on display, we, too, are curators. We can show the world only moments; how we are living life from moment to moment cannot be expressed online. Our online personas are much less nuanced than our lived realities and personalities.

This doesn’t mean social media is useless. When it’s operating well, social media invites us beyond the photograph or video—to express ourselves and know others more deeply, to not just observe, but to experience with them the joys and sorrows of life. Ideally, social media will lead to us sharing experiences in real time. But even then, it’s important to note that we won’t know the full extent of another’s life; even then we’ll be tempted to fill the gaps with our own stories about their experiences or our perceptions about how they are living their lives.

My hope, however, is that the more we come to truly know others (both online and off), the more we’ll realize that the grass isn’t greener in another’s life. We each have struggles and goodness we bring to the world. The profundity of this truth cannot be fully expressed on any platform, because social media cannot keep pace with our lived realities. Indeed, our lived realities are so multi-faceted that they cannot be contained virtually, thank goodness. Recognizing social media’s limitations, we are better equipped to feel at home in both our real and virtual worlds.