Sam Holstein

We Are Enslaved To Our Digital Selves

Modern man walks around in a state of hypervigilance. We are not merely experiencing our lives, but scanning them, assessing each moment with a critical eye for its worthiness. Worthiness for what? Worthiness of a social media post. Is the lighting good enough? Will this make my eyes sparkle? Will this look beautiful on a 2×2 digital square? Will it represent “me”? Will it represent “who I am”?

Think I’m exaggerating? Think this doesn’t happen to you? Call to memory the last time you went to the beach or to the mountains. When you saw a beautiful sight, what’s the first thing you did? I’ll bet you $10 that within the first ten seconds, you….

  1. Said “oh, wooooow”
  2. Whipped out your phone and took a photo for Instagram

Here’s another example. You’ve been falling for a certain someone for some time, and on a lovely date by the waterfront, you became boyfriend and girlfriend1. What was your first reaction? To take a selfie of you guys and post it. Oct 6, we finally found our way to each other. XOXOXO

I could keep going — taking selfies after haircuts, taking group selfies on nights out — but the list is endless. Social media has crawled its way into our worldview so thoroughly we don’t even notice it’s there.

We’ve all become Human Highlight Films — and the better the highlights, the better the human.

John Gorman, Why I Quit Social Media

Behaviorally, we’ve all developed a tic: when we see something postable, we reach for our phone and we post it. This process happens so fast and so subconsciously that we barely even take note of the fact that we’re doing this. We may do this dozens or hundreds of times a day without really processing it.

When you have social media accounts, this tic is frictionless and you don’t notice it happening. When I quit social media, though, the process was no longer frictionless. was jolted into awareness every time it happened because I couldn’t complete my tic; I had no social media to which I could post. For weeks I was jerking my phone out of my pocket, only to stand there dumbly and put it back without doing anything.

When Mel Burke, staff writer for the column Minutes, took a thirty day social media break, she noticed the same thing:

What I noticed during my purge was that I would pick my phone up 2–3 times in a fifteen minute period, stare at it for a moment before I realized there was nothing for me to look at, and then put it down. There are a lot of things in this world I love more than my phone and I definitely don’t poke, prod, or touch them that frequently.

Mel Burke, I Quit Social Media For A Month To Write A Novel — Turns Out I Needed The Break For Other Reasons

In these weeks, I noticed a theme to what I wanted to post. I didn’t try post any old pretty thing I saw. I tried to post things that encouraged people to think a certain way about me. The hobbies I took up, the places I went, the outfits I bought while shopping — indeed, my desire to even go shopping — were all influenced by a desire to shape how I was seen on social media. I wanted people to think I was beautiful, to think I was smart, to think I spent my life traveling to the mountains and oceans and envy me for it. It’s not that I just wanted to be envied — Subconsciously, I believed that if my Instagram made people think those things about me, then I was those things, and I wanted very badly to be those things.

It reached its peak one day when I was watercolor painting. I had painted something especially fine (by my own standards, at least) and felt an impulse to share it on Instagram. Only, I no longer had an Instagram.

I felt the most curious sensation in response, a feeling that the entire painting was for naught. A thought occurred to me, unbidden: if I could not impress people on social media with how good my painting was, what was the point of being good at painting?

When you are an active user on social media, the present moment takes on a secondary role as a never-ending stream of possible social media posts. When down the river of experience flows a postable moment, we pluck it from the river and stick it on our wall. Become involved with social media enough, and the present itself stops being the point of life — scanning it for posts does. At a subconscious level, we stop thinking of ourselves as who we are in the present moment, but who the sum of our posts appears to be.

I hope it goes without saying that that’s ridiculous. Whether or not you are something — beautiful, funny, or smart — has nothing to do with if you appear to be so on social media.

We all know this intellectually, but social media hijacks our brains and convinces our subconscious otherwise. We see photos of other people’s lives and while we intellectually know their lives are not like what we see on social media, our hindbrains do not. We start to see our social set as that of the people we follow on social media. Social mammals have an instinct to posture and position ourselves within our social set — and if we see our social set as being that of social media, we posture and position ourselves there.

These pressures didn’t make me change my major or alter my course in life (although it easily could have). For me, and for most people, the way it changes our lives is powerful but subtle:

A dozen decisions like that, taken over the course of a day, can completely alter the way you experience that day. Taken over a few weeks or months, and it can breed low-level anxiety, a feeling of being watched or judged all day, every day.

Because when you do this sort of thing, you are being judged – by yourself, on your own postability.

We’re all trying to find happiness and joy and those positive emotions in our lives. Feeling these things depends on losing ourselves in the present moment. But when we are experiencing the present moment with one part of our brain always alert and scanning for good posts, we are not losing ourselves. Quite the opposite.

If we want to have a hope of appreciating our lives for what they are, we need to take a conscious step back from social media and ask ourselves critical questions about what we post: Why am I posting this? What do I hope to get out of it? What will I feel if people like this post? How will having this post be liked or shared improve my life?

For me, the answers were always the same: I’m posting in order to project a certain image of myself into the minds of others so that they will see me a certain way. If they do see me the way I want them to, I’ll feel good. If they don’t, I’ll feel like I’m not what I want them to see me as. And it won’t improve my life one way or another, because living my life in order to get other people to see me a certain way can never bring happiness, regardless of if I succeed or not.

Like anything else, social media itself is not inherently evil. But the properties of social media (its judgmental tone, always-there presence, and creepy ability to take over your life) make it so that it’s very difficult to use responsibly. Take some time to sit down and consciously consider what you want out of social media. Or, indeed, if you want anything out of it at all.

Decided you want less social media in your life, but don’t know how to make that happen? I’ve written a (perhaps unnecessarily thorough) guide on how to extricate yourself from the grips of social media. Check it out here.

  1. Or boyfriend and boyfriend, or girlfriend and girlfriend, or non-binary-friend and… you get my point
  2. Which, surprise surprise, performing a kind of masculinity I didn’t want to perform was just as demoralizing as performing femininity I didn’t want to perform.