The moment we wake up, our social media usage begins. We check our newest Instagram, LinkedIn, and WhatsApp messages, we commute to work while commenting on a shared picture of a sunset, and share a picture our tidy desk when we finally arrive at work. Everyone else seems to engage in the same behavior. We will have spent 1.483 days or approximately four years on social media if we assume that we will spend two hours per day for fifty years on social media. These numbers alone call for a critical analysis of our social media usage. To gain a deeper insight into this multifaceted subject, I invited my longtime friend and sociologist Marcel Fortwingel to an interview.
Claudio Marseglia: You recently obtained your postgraduate degree in Sociology from the University of Tübingen. During your study time, you were abstinent from all social media platforms. Now you recently created a new Instagram account. What kind of impression do you have about this platform and its users?
Marcel Fortwingel: I find it fascinating how quickly you can get in contact with strangers from all over the world and that there are countless interesting information and accounts that correspond to personal interests. It is easy and comfortable to share experiences and to exchange information with people around the world. However, I see two aspects as very critical. The fact that there is new content every second you check into Instagram and that you can only stay relevant if you regularly create content. It is difficult to put Instagram aside.
On the other hand, more worryingly, there is the fact that 90 percent of the content is staged and shows only a small part of the real life of people. Namely, when they are on vacation, succeed, achieve and are happy. Unvarnished truth and everyday life moments, which are not always perfect, will be rarely found. I think that can give many people a kind of experiential pressure and compulsion to perfectionism. Therefore one should deal with all media very critically and reflected.
Claudio Marseglia: Your impression is that people only want to share the best aspects of their lives. Why are people obsessed with perfectionism?
Marcel Fortwingel: We live in a society that is based on experiences, adventures, participation and consumption. Hence, we are part of this society as long as we consume, experience and participate in the countless activities that are offered to us. If we do not, we run into danger of being perceived as boring. To avoid being perceived as boring or monotonous, we seek to experience and share the best holiday, the best meal and the best activities that shall always get closer to perfectionism.
This phenomenon goes far beyond social media. Just have a look at advertising and at those who are role models for many people. No one is perfect, but they all convey the illusion of perfectionism which ultimately exerts pressure on all other people because no one wants to be less handsome, visit a less luxurious hotel and eat less delicate food. The fact that there are countless others wo seek the same perfectionism and always try to outperform the other, reinforces and intensifies the ideal of perfectionism. What is absurd about it is that most people know that this perfection is only illusionary but still they seek it.
Claudio Marseglia: What motivates people to share their lives at such a detailed and frequent rate and is perhaps social pressure involved?
Marcel Fortwingel: On the one hand, it became easier than ever before to share moments of your daily life. You neither need financial resources nor great knowledge. The only thing you need is your smartphone. Hence, technical requirements are very low nowadays and there are no real barriers for most people to share their lives.
On the other hand, a certain need to share information about our lives emerged in todays society. I would not call it social pressure since I did not use most social media platforms for a long time and still were able to participate in social activities and maintain friendships. So, there are no radical social sanctions for not participating in the social media game. However, the fact that most people participate in social media limits information and possibilities for those who do not. And this is what is essential: people who do not use social media are in some way outsiders. Hence, the desire to be a part of it, to belong to the majority, plays a crucial role in the decision whether to participate in social media. Once part of it, you will get to know the rules, norms and procedures of social media rapidly and either adhere to them or become an outsider even within social media.
Claudio Marseglia: Could one argue, based on the quantity of people who constantly use social media for attention seeking and validation, that we generally live in an age in which self-esteem issues are the new norm?
Marcel Fortwingel: Yes, in today’s society there are self-esteem issues that are strongly connected to the circumstance that we compare ourselves with other people more than ever before. Social media intensifies this problem due to the fact that all self-esteem that is build through social media highly depends on others. If we want to be successful, we must appeal to other people. Thus, I would not say that social media is responsible for todays issues with self-esteem but social media intensifies this problem by shifting the focus away from ourselves and towards others. By defining ourselves through others, external perception becomes the main driver of self-esteem.
Claudio Marseglia: In the beginning, you mentioned the constant need to create content to stay relevant. On the other side, consumers experience information overload because everyone tries to gain their attention. What effect has information overload on our society?
Marcel Fortwingel: First and foremost, information overload leads to insecurities. The fact that there are countless sources for information and thus contradictory information and inconsistencies makes it hard to find out who or what source is useful and reliable. In the long run, this leads to increased stress levels and can trigger feelings of being unknowing even though searching for information the whole day. Another problem is that many people tend to rely on the information their idols or role models communicate. Hence, we reflect less and our ability to decide what is wrong and what is right – our internal compass – gets weakened. Since there is an endless ocean of information, a certain obsession with soaking in new information might be encouraged.
Claudio Marseglia: How does social media affect our interpersonal relationships?
Marcel Fortwingel: Social media offers great possibilities to participate in the lives of our friends on a regular basis. Especially when friends are far away, the exchange of daily moments can support the maintenance of a certain closeness and intimacy. However, it becomes critical when we replace our “vis-à-vis” exchange by social media. If social media becomes the primary spot for interactions, our social competence will suffer from that. This is because social media tends to be less social than its name suggests. Social media interactions are more impersonal and distant than interactions in real-life. Moreover, social media contributes to a certain brutalization of both language and manners which can have negative consequences on the social life of people. Therefore, caution and awareness are essential to ensure a healthy use of social media.
Claudio Marseglia: What kind of applicable strategy would you give to people who want to reduce their social media usage?
Marcel Fortwingel: Limiting the time we spend on social media can be very challenging – I know that from my personal experience. However, there are strategies that are very helpful for a “digital detox” or a “social media detox”. What is important is to set up clear rules for your social media use. For this, you can set a time to only spend a certain amount of your time on social media.
Alternatively, you can use a certain time period for social media, such as the time period your meal takes in the oven. Another way to reduce our screen time is to determine fixed days on which you do not use your smartphone. You might start with two evenings per week and expand that time to a whole weekend.
What is most crucial for reducing our social media usage are the questions: why do I feel the need to always check my social media accounts? Why do I feel I have to be busy all the time? And do I really miss something important when not using social media for a day?
One great approach to teach people to focus on themselves and every single moment in their lives instead of always distracting their attention from the current situation can be found in the teaching of mindfulness or rather mindfulness-based stress reduction. This is a very fascinating subject I currently dedicate my time to.
Claudio Marseglia: Thank you very much for this insightful and thought-provoking interview.