The illusion of feeling special

Jun 05, 2019 | Posted by Cristina in Past Newsletters

The text below was first sent to our newsletter subscribers, in April 2019. If you enjoy it and want more, subscribe here.

Thanks to my father’s profession, an IT engineer, I had early access to computers and technology. I first learned how to use a personal computer when I was only three or four years old – that was in the early ’90s, so it was highly uncommon. I used the internet when most people didn’t know how a PC looks like, and even the fact that I was familiar with the acronym LOL brought a “geek” label from my school colleagues.

I also met most of my closest friends thanks to social media. I met Bobby, and together we went on to build what became one of the most popular blogs in our country. I’ve been one of the most popular women on social media in Romania, before the term “influencer” even existed. As a digital marketer, I’ve helped several tech startups and indie musicians start from scratch and grow huge online communities.

Obviously, I recognize the benefits of digital tools. I’d be a hypocrite not to! Their fundamental mission is good – or at least it was in the beginning.

But it’s not about digital tools. It’s about human nature and how we’ve personally used and abused them.

As humans, we have certain needs that we need to fulfill every day. We can do that in a constructive way, but there are also some ways that are harmful for us. For example, we can feel special by holding a workshop for the first time and over preparing for it, but we can also feel special by gossiping about others.

The more needs a social media network checks for us, the more addictive it is. And the most successful businesses today are the ones that are the best at distracting us from what we want to do, from doing deep work, from accomplishing our goals.

We can’t take back control if we don’t understand how these mechanisms work from a psychological point of view, so here are just a few of those ways:


1. SOCIAL MEDIA = PORNOGRAPHY -> FANTASY

“Pornography is chemically indifferent from the actual act of sex itself. You’re creating a situation where, unlike the real world – where you’re very lucky if you do everything right, you might be able to sleep with one woman one time and be very lucky that you did it. With pornography, you can get that same chemical reaction 30 or 40 times within a day if you want to.”

The quote above belongs to Canadian entrepreneur Liam Martin, it’s from a conversation we had last year about the harms of social media. Yes, there’s a connection between social media and pornography, as it triggers in our brains a chemical reward that’s similar to doing the real things.

It’s much easier to do things online. It’s much easier to form new relationships and friendships or promote your work – especially if you have an introverted personality, as I do. Why confront people and have difficult conversations with them, when you can just send them a message?

It also causes anxiety: we’re always looking at what others do, how perfect their personal and professional lives seem to be, and forget that we’re only seeing a glimpse of what’s really going on, a curated and extremely filtered version.

We have no idea what’s really going on behind the scenes and, usually, the rule is this: the harder someone tries to signal something in the digital world, the more skeptical you should be about it, as it’s a distorted version of reality.

Think about the couple that always floods social media channels with photos of them every day on social media, looking happy and in love like it’s their first day together. Nobody is that happy in real life! Quite the contrary, most of the time this is a huge warning sign (and they’re probably lying to themselves as well, not just their Instagram followers).

The same goes for professional “experts” and “specialists”. Those who use most of their time to talk on social media about the amazing work they’re doing, are usually those who are considered frauds by the true experts (who are too busy making things happen than praising themselves on social media).

I’ve also seen the ugly side of the music industry. Successful artists who were posting about their industry colleagues, their competition, congratulating them for their accomplishments, just to signal that they’re part one big, happy family. The reality was that they couldn’t stand them and were extremely jealous on their success.

And then there are the brands who communicate publicly how much they care when a national tragedy happens, when what they actually talk about behind the curtains is: “how can we take advantage of this to make people like our brand more?”. Yes, that’s the harsh reality that we’re living in. Don’t fool yourself, these things do happen.

Joe Gagliese, co-founder of one of the biggest influencers agency in the world, said in an interview that he always feels like he’s living in a fake world, where “nothing feels tangible”, and what he does for self-care is limit social media – he’s not on Facebook. Yes, someone who creates social media campaigns for brands, works with digital celebrities, limits in his personal life the very medium he’s pushing in his business.


2. SOCIAL MEDIA = DRUGS -> EGO

Social media networks are among the biggest drug dealers on the planet, cause they provide us the BEST drug in the world: they make us feel important. They make us feel special. They feed us the illusion that other people care about us.

News flash: they don’t.

Sure, there are a few who really do care about us (either on a personal or professional level). But how strong is that relationship if it depends on your social media activity?

If tomorrow you stopped posting on social media, would all those people care? Would they notice? Will those thousands of followers call you or drop by, to see if you’re ok? (these are real questions, that I was asking myself 16 months ago, after closing my Facebook account and was feeling like a drug addict).

On social media, we all think we’re small Gods. As Ryan Holiday was saying in his amazing book, Ego is our biggest enemy, as it prevents us from learning and developing our talents. It makes us stay stuck in a comfortable bubble, blind to our own faults or other points of view.

It’s easier to get validation from social media. There’s instant gratification: right away you are notified that people liked what you posted, you received comments and hearts and shares. But it’s also addictive, it makes you want a new dose right away. A bigger dose.

When you’re building something with a long-term perspective, you put in hard work, but sometimes you don’t get any kind of feedback back for months, even years. Starting your own business takes 1000 days of hard work until you get back to the level of income you enjoyed in your corporate days.

I’ve experienced that firsthand with this newsletter. It’s been almost two years since I started writing it, pouring my heart and soul into these emails, sending them week after week, and not getting any reaction for more than a year.

Yes, it’s hard to convince someone that your keystrokes are valuable enough to win a place in their email inbox, to give you their time and attention (and I can’t thank you enough for reading this). On the other hand, clicking the Like button is much, much easier.


3. SOCIAL MEDIA = VARIETY -> GAMBLING

As humans, we’re built to become obsessed with novelty. Scrolling through social media feeds, news websites, checking our email or instant messaging apps are among the easiest ways to feed our need for variety (and even buying and reading new books, instead of re-reading the good ones).

Every time we check our social media news feeds, we wait a few seconds to see the updates. Sometimes we’re rewarded, we discover an interesting thing, we learn something new, and other times we don’t.

These are called intermittent variable rewards and they trigger dopamine in our brain, an addictive pleasure hormone that’s part of our reward system and gives us a feeling of satisfaction. It’s way more addictive than if we “won” every time we did this.

So we keep on refreshing, eager to consume more and more information. We become digitally obese, just as sugar consumption makes us crave for more sugar and makes it harder to exit the endless consumption.

***

Our brain is similar to any other muscles. If we always use it to resist the urge of using social media networks or checking our email, consuming superficial information, it will tire. We’re fighting desires all day long, but we have a finite amount of willpower that becomes depleted as we use it.

Multiple studies have shown that the mere presence of our smartphones in the same room with us reduces our cognitive capacity. Even when we aren’t using them, we aren’t looking at them, they are face-down or powered off altogether.

If our brains are always entertained by information, or resisting the urge of consuming more, it affects our ability to focus, to memorize, to read books. We get tired and lose the ability to make important decisions when they truly matter.

The future belongs to those who can resist these distractions, disconnect from digital noise and handle information overwhelm. And they’ll also live longer.

As with any other addictions, realizing there’s a problem is only the first step in the process.

I invite you to have an honest conversation with yourself. Analyse how you personally use social media and ask yourself: what are the needs that you satisfy by using those channels? Are there any other ways that you could meet those needs?

– Cristina

Further reading: The Rise of Anxiety: how hyper-connectivity harms our brains.

The text above was first sent to our newsletter subscribers. If you enjoyed it and want more, subscribe here.

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