Phone hot and heavy in your exhausted hand, you scroll down Instagram, the fourth (or is it fifth?) time you have done so in the past hour. You pay close attention to posts by female account holders—they set the standard against which you measure yourself. Some girls make you feel like Princess Buttercup (rare), others a big green stinking ogre (torturously frequent). Some women appear so rich and successful, with their marble apartments and glossy jobs in fancy faraway places like London and New York, that it fills your chest and stomach with a hollow despair faintly resembling hunger. Others have so many followers and fans that thinking about it makes your head spin. On the flip side, some have so little, or post such poor content that you are instantly elevated, in your own twisted head, from poor imposter to plush super-master.
It all comes down to comparison and self-perception, the root of all glee, all unhappiness. And the issue at hand is social media, created to help us share our human experience and connect in so doing but in reality used by most (I speak for my generation at least) to show off, present themselves and their lives in the best light possible, through selective posts and even more carefully selected filters—even photoshop when basic editing doesn’t do the job! The exclamation mark conveys my shock at the action of others but reader, I am guilty of the same crime, driven by the same sick desire for validation. ‘Look at me,’ the sick need to be liked, in both senses of the word, seethes like the green-eyed monster of greed and envy it is.
But how many likes is enough, when there is no limit to the number of likes a post can receive? Is the girl holding the cocktail in the picture with 48,367 hearts having more fun, living a more fulfilling life than the girl who posted an amateurish shot of her Coke, earning her a meagre 12 hearts? More importantly, must we always compare ourselves to others, in terms of not only looks but also wealth, success, popularity, possessions, so on and so forth? Are we not tired of feeling like a divine fountain of gold one second and the next, after scrolling down that same social media feed some more, a brick shithouse devoid of all beauty?
The stupidly simple thing we all know is that, behind all those gorgeously curated galleries filled with seamlessly executed shots, are human beings who cannot possibly be living perfectly happy, perfectly healthy lives with their perfect spouses, children and pets in their perfect houses. Perfect, perfect, perfect: the word is sickening, the thought obsessive. Yet, far from being repelled by our misguided perceptions of perfection, that which does not exist, we seek to be perceived by others as perfect. They appear perfect, so must we, the inner voice whispers, spontaneously inspiring a gigantic game of Whose Façade Is Better across the great World Wide Web.
The Web is great; thanks to social media the spread of knowledge, information, and wit is faster than ever: global news and shocking celebrity revelations spread like wildfire the second it trends on Twitter; major events are live-streamed and accessible worldwide; sassy tweets and call-outs gain more approval than editorials by verified journalists; witty, wickedly humorous memes are created and shared across different social medias, recreated, parodied (making some a parody of a parody), referred to, then meticulously catalogued by millennial Tumblrites in the form of gridded or bulleted meme calendars. In fact, the merits of the Internet are as infinite as the goods and content available on it, for anyone’s purchase and consumption. It can even launch world tour, book deal and magazine cover studded careers and take you to the White House, if your YouTube vlog goes viral.
Yet, what makes us laugh out loud, teaches us about other peoples, cultures, and the issues facing society, makes shopping and term papers a breeze, is also terrible, dangerous, cruel, and relentless, a force that not even user safety measures devised by the very people who created the social medias can fully control. There is cyberbullying, driving youth to suicide; there is the romanticisation of mental illnesses, promoting self-harm and beautifying death; there are sites that attempt to spread terrorism, neo-Nazism and white supremacism; anonymity breeds open vitriol; shopping includes the purchase of child pornography and drug paraphernalia—I can go on but you get the idea, and have plenty more of your own to add.
The danger of constantly comparing yourself to others on platforms built for self-publishing and self-expression, tame when held against terrorist recruitment sites but toxic nonetheless, especially for the young, belongs to this ugly side of the Internet. But for Gen Y and beyond, staying offline is not an option. Not when, at the end of the day, it is fun to share snippets of your life and connect with similar individuals. And not when everything is done online these days, from banking and job application to home entertainment and communication with friends and family.
My advice to my peers and myself, where toxic comparison is concerned, is to bin the better/worse than thous and the please like mes as swiftly as you would a blurry photo, because social media is exactly that: imprecise, incomplete snapshots of lives of people you will never meet and know. Feeling shit about yourself will not make your life any easier, and feeling superior will not make you better than the people you deem inferior. Log off once in a while. Be kind to yourself. Be kind to one another.