This week on Twitter, my friends posted and discussed a New York Times piece by Bruce Feiler . . . not ironically for us, about the “approval seeking and popularity tracking” of some social media users. Which Mr. Feiler referred to as a kind of “mass anxiety,” which he described as understandable in people like teen-agers but when it comes to the rest of us, “it all begins to seem a bit, well, desperate.”
I don’t mean here to disparage Mr. Feiler completely. He opened the piece honestly and bravely with how rejected he felt when no one commented or retweeted something he thought worthy of it. And I totally sympathize with that.
But not surprisingly — if you know me and how much I am on social media and how much I talk in its venues about how I actually feel — I have some other things to say about this.
And I’m gonna say them here.
Hardly anyone ever feels cool enough, loved enough, okay enough on the inside not to care about what those on the outside think.
Let’s face facts. As my wise 28-year-old-daughter has wryly observed, “Life really is just high school over and over again.” By that she means — and I agree — that human beings keep sorting on the basis of who they like/who they don’t/who they want to hang with/who they don’t . . . and as we get older, the criteria for making this decision simply change. And people keep talking about each other behind each other’s backs about who they think is and is not falling into those categories. And hardly anyone — ANYONE — on this Earth does not get her feelings hurt when she gets the feeling she is not a valued member of a group in which she thought she was. Call it a popularity contest. Call it continued social anxiety. Call it whatever you want. As Mr. Feiler pointed out, human brains are “deeply wired to seek social approval.” Get it? It’s part of our DNA. Maybe because it takes a village to run things. In other words, it’s not desperate. It’s who we are. No matter how old and wise we get. We can’t help but keep looking to others.
“Intermittent positive reinforcement” runs the show
I was a post-conviction criminal defense attorney for a long time. We, as a group, lost almost all the time. Almost. I asked one of my first mentors why he kept at it. “Intermittent positive reinforcement” was what he said. His psychologist wife had explained to him that unpredictable positive feedback is what gets the brain to keep coming back to an activity or group. Negativity? Aversion. All positive? Also aversion. Turns out that people cotton better to positive feedback. And when it’s sporadic and unpredictable? BINGO! Our brains go nuts and want to stick with that thing like crazy. To see what’s next? To figure out how to get more? I don’t know. But I do know that is exactly how things seem to work in every category of life. Love, careers, friendships, hobbies, everything. Getting sugar from people is great. And somehow, when it’s not all the time — because “all the time” feels false, programmed, wrong, having some other agenda — it’s even more sweet. Which makes you want it even more.
The genius of social media is that it knows and incorporates these ways we’re hard-wired.
You can hate-on Facebook all you want. (I often do, for many — and constantly-changing — reasons.) You can distrust social media for all kinds of different reasons. You can lament change, the hypocrisy in coming across as promoting “social” when what you really want underneath (and don’t we all?) is income-generation, or just about anything else you don’t like about the social media playgrounds we spend our time on. But what you can’t say is that they’re stupid. Heck no. They are total eff’ing genius. Because the folks who run social media sites understand these ways our brains are hard-wired: to seek, and keep seeking (because it’s always only intermittent on social media) positive social approval. Which gets us back to their sites. Over and over and over again. In our little crack-head social media ways. (And I will be the first to admit: I am one of those crack-heads.)
So, be just be wiser about yourself than “they” are.
Who’s the “they” here? I mean both the social media sites, and the people you are (I am) seeking approval from. In other words, understand how this works, and get a grip on things. When you feel bad that you aren’t getting enough “likes” or other attention that you think would make you feel better? Try turning it around and giving it to other people. It usually works like a charm. Because, see? “They” want social approval, too. And that helps you get some juice going and get back in any group you’re feeling sad about. “They” want to be loved, too. So, love them up. And I mean sincerely. Because bullshit comes across loud and clear in social media, just like in the rest of life. And consider this, too: sometimes when we are (I am) feeling blue and that I’m not getting the love, it’s because we’re in a spot inside ourselves where we’re not perceiving things accurately. Give yourself a break then. Turn off your screens. Take a nap. Get some exercise. Get a good night’s sleep. Stop checking back in to see if anyone on the planet likes you again yet. THEY ALREADY DO. Sometimes, we just don’t see it. (I am a big advocate for turning screens off/not playing on some of the social media playgrounds on regular days a week, too. I think tech breaks are important to recharge other parts of our brains.) And then, remember what your mom always told you: Not everyone has to like you. There are enough people who do. And if someone doesn’t like you, you wouldn’t really want to be their friend anyway.
Recognize, embrace, spread the amazingly positive aspects of social media.
I say often, and without any exaggeration at all, that social media changed my life. It did. Like I said before, I used to be a post-conviction criminal defense attorney. I was miserable. It wasn’t the clients. It was the culture of the legal profession. Where people did not cheer for each other, did not pass along compliments, did not share information, did not respond to your emails and questions until and unless they needed something from you themselves. In other words, closed-off. In other words, not enough intermittent positive reinforcement. When I got on Twitter and Facebook, my world changed in a week . . . I got more open-hearted kindness from people in that short period than in the entire almost-20-years before of being a lawyer. Again: zero exaggeration here. And when I met people from Twitter “in real life” — because they actually came to my art sales, each other’s parties, etc., where they were just as kind and supportive as they were on-line — I was hooked. I found a tribe of happy, open-hearted, smart, fun people. I stopped practicing law, went full-bore in art and writing . . . and changed a bunch of other stuff, too. All of which resulted in my being, in my mid-50s, happier in my life than I have ever been. And it was sparked, and continues to be fueled, by what I receive through my social media contacts. You can call that “desperate,” Mr. Feiler. I’m gonna call it good.