By Katie Wilkes
I’ve had conversations lately that go something like, “I’m on a Facebook break right now. I had to go cold turkey,” or, “I just couldn’t handle all the noise and opinions. It was too much.” Others swear that social media is the best invention of our time and that we’re more informed because of it.
Is social media a divider, or is it a new unifier?
To me, the answer is both. It comes down to how and why we use it.
To be clear, I think social media is a brilliant development. If we could show our ancestors Snapchat, their heads would spin. Your grandmother may not believe that YouTube celebs can reach as many people as movie stars. And don’t get her started on that Instagram account run entirely by a corgi.
But just as it’s possible to have too much of a good thing, social channels deserve to be used with more thoughtful intention.
Twenty-four hours a day, people around the world are sharing their stories through these free tools that allow many of us speak our minds, chart pathways and create communities.
We can reconnect with long lost friends by simply typing in a series of letters. We can track down family members and relatives across oceans to learn about our heritage. We can rally together to sign virtual petitions that lead to societal breakthroughs.
We can even use it to help us find cures for diseases. The popular Ice Bucket Challenge of 2014 raised $220 million for research into amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. The funds directly led researchers to discover a new gene linked to the disease, getting them closer to finding a cure.
Social media has also helped shift perceptions of our world. The Humans of New York project, founded and photographed by Brandon Stanton, helps Facebookers see themselves in others. We struggle to identify with the world’s population of 7 billion, but when that number is broken down to individual lives all wanting the same things – love, connection and the best for our families – we can suddenly relate.
I have even seen how social media can help save lives. In the aftermath of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, I helped the Chicago Red Cross monitor and organize digital information via social media channels. One tweet was quickly traced to where a woman lay trapped under rubble. It was seen by the right aid workers at the right time and rapidly funneled to those who could help her.
But there’s a fine line between providing a supportive community and creating a destructive one. It has taken our ancestors (women especially) decades to win the right to be heard, and social media has given us a platform to use and share our voices for connection. We can’t abuse it. Having a voice is one thing. Having one that’s truly worth listening to is another. How can we avoid becoming just noise on a screen?
Call it what you want – filtering, masking, editing, selecting. We’ve come down to often trading our authenticity, courage and kindness for likes, shares and endorphin rushes. We post carefully cropped selections of our lives that will give us higher praise and good feedback. But that’s not life.
In posting only the highly edited stuff, we are showing the “best” versions of our lives to make us feel better in comparison to others. I’ve felt that comparison. I log off after seeing Jane Doe’s curated photos – her best angles, fabulous friends and harmonious life of cocktails – and feel like my life is a few shades duller as I turn back to a sink full of dishes and the dog hair on my dress.
This careful curation covers up our best parts – the quirky weirdness, the struggles and challenges. It’s no small feat to admit our struggles, but that’s the very thing that creates the connection we so desperately crave in between the beautiful vacation pictures and selfies. It’s the memories and their longevity tied to our Instagram photos that bring purpose, not their filters.
Something amazing happens when we post about our most vulnerable moments. There’s a “Hey! Me too!” factor that turns off the feeling of isolation.
Our bodies are hardwired for connection. That’s why we crave it. Social media can help satisfy that craving but only when it’s used intentionally. And while it can become a jump-starter for new friendships, it can’t replace the need for in-person connection entirely.
Katie Wilkes is the co-founder of Freeheart Creative, dedicated to connecting hearts around the world one story at a time. She lives in Chicago’s West Loop.