When facebook broke down this week, it felt liberating. For a couple of hours there was no distraction and the possibility to concentrate solely on the here and now. It is not that I wouldn’t like to meditate while sitting in the train or in the waiting room of my dentist, but sometimes I opt for senseless distraction where I consume friend’s pictures, friend’s friend’s pics, stranger’s and influencer’s images, political activist’s contributions; sometimes I just look at my own pictures as if I needed to ensure myself that I do still exist. More than ever my mind seems to be troubled by all these foreign images with faces and lifestyles that are not mine and still do I need to watch: my curiosity transforms itself in a sort of numb avidity where I consume picture after picture and try to figure out what this person wants to tell us, why she or he presents her or himself in that particular way. What is new, what is repeated? Do I want to have „that“, too, and if yes, can I afford it?
I love social media’s aspect to connect rapidly and without any social barrier. I can follow the queen of pop, explore her extravagant lifestyle, her friends, family members and the brands she sells or promotes, as well as I can decide to follow my former student friend who posts pictures of her children and family walks in nature. I can switch from profile to profile, learn, compare, share my ideas with anyone and get a sense of connection out of that. After minutes of scrolling and tapping on my smartphone I eventually feel uncomfortable because truth is that I learned nothing new about the world, but about the perspective of one person; a person I might not even know as I just see a glimpse of what he or she decided to share with the social media world.
Even though images can express something strong and important, it is the spectator and his way of projecting that defines the language of that particular picture. It feels as if the connection with me and the picture is real; it confirms my way of seeing things when my projection becomes alive in that image. At the same time, it is strange that the bond between me and the person who took it remains ambiguous; that connection remains an illusion.
The picture between self-expression and advertisement
I am asking myself if it is relevant that I don’t know the person who took the picture or just in a certain context where we have been doing things together in the past. People evolve, their lives are as messy as of anyone and we see a sort of showcase with the best moments collected in one instagram profile. Not just that we don’t know how this person’s circumstances really are, but we have no clue how they would make us feel. An image cannot be translated into feeling; again one can project feelings onto an image, can seize the feelings of the photographed person or animal, but the image itself cannot transmit the exact feeling of the photographer.
The imaginary world that all advertisements are working with is too good to be true. It is their job to persuade us that we could always live better than we do now: we need to feel a lack of something in order to be willing to fill that void with the product they sell. For example, the advertisement world likes to emphasise all too often that women do not belong if they don’t look like the fashion icon they chose or that they could belong to all these other fabulous women if they bought their product; if not, well, they are not fabulous enough! Even if one would argument that someone can also just consume friend’s pictures on social media and no advertisement at all, the same feeling of disconnection would occur.
Did you know that friends get together on the basis of their vulnerability, not only on that of their achievements ? So here is the point: it is difficult to express vulnerability on social media because it is „The quality or state of being exposed to the possibility of being attacked or harmed, either physically or emotionally.“, (cf. Oxford English Dictionary). Hence, you can search a long time for authenticity in advertisement and on social media: on these grounds it seems clear that searching for connection in that universe is toxic for our emotional well-being and dangerous for the ego.
In spiritual practices we often hear that one should live beyond the ego to obtain bliss. However, we need the ego in order to manifest ourselves in society. It helps us finding our place and to build ourselves. If we are constantly confronted with pictures that are not reflecting our soul’s desires and longings, but aim to hurt our ego in order to sell us something, we lose track of ourselves. By being focussed on other people’s stories and achievements we tend to forget our own achievements and mistake their desires for our own. If we do not celebrate our uniqueness and get frustrated of what we have because we believe that there are people who have no worries or are more important than us, we have problems to continue living a meaningful life.
So it needs to be said that on social media the lines between artistic self-expression and advertisement are blurry. There are cultural differences of how to use social media for which we can’t compare with persons around the world because we know nothing about their life circumstances and why they do the things they do. How do their lives feel to them and how would they make us feel in person? Are they paid for the pictures they upload; is that their job? Are they alone or not? Are they suffering or are they truly happy? What is their intention? We know anything of all that if there is no real contact; all we know is an avatar with whom we constantly compare our own avatar.
The image’s incapacity to reflect social complexity
With the rise and power of social media there is a constant pressure to learn new things about people, about topics, to compare and to share. Images have a powerful impact, but they cannot explain the world and speak to all of our senses. Moreover, they trigger only our visual sense whereas we can’t hear, touch or feel the picture: thus, social media is mono sensual and kind of superficial in its global approach without any room for dialogue within a certain context. For example, political activism can only be one-sided because there is no society, institution containing the issues and moderating the comments; there is no agreement or disagreement; no one takes up the discussion from where everybody left it: it is just about commenting and leaving, we don't even listen to what others say and why. Furthermore, people don’t know if a person has studied a certain topic or not, is reporting from his or her experiences, how old that person is, in which social context and country he/she lives in, his political agenda and if that person exists or if that person are several persons paid to spread false information and mislead the people who are reading the posts and comments.
Social media channels can show, persuade, tease but they don’t hold you in a real responsible relationship and cannot be held accountable for what they promote or the consequences they provoke. That is a big challenge because in order to connect, to grow, to feel secure we need accountability. You may throw in that adults are to be held accountable for their own actions and I would nod, all by replying: what about the children? Who protects them, who teaches them accountability in this Eldorado the virtual world is today ?
There is not only a lack of protection on the part of politics, but also a lack of dialogue, of reference points that constitutes a real community and frames in what we can develop in. The language is organised in short paragraphs with expressive words; often the profile owner does not answer the comments or messages or just a few; users are talking through their avatars; pictures are underlining the few words that one can interpret in all four directions. In short: social media language and community is more of an enchantment than an enlightenment.
Social media cannot be held accountable
We can see clearly that social media cannot provide role models with the necessary accountability and a societal context. Frankly speaking, encouraging youngsters to social media consumption is careless and will have a negative impact on their personality. The kid's idols all have something in common: they are rich, have a huge industry behind them, call themselves artists and have a charity project because they are „good“ persons. They don’t tell us the sexual abuse they suffered from within this shiny industry like Lady Gaga, they don’t tell us their theatre and ballet courses at renowned schools like Tupak Shakur, they don’t tell us their hard work and devotion like David Bowie. I love all of these cited artists for their music, but also because they never pretended that art is not work. There is no need to maintain the myth that the artist once inspired produces his or her piece of art with no particular effort. Moreover, the mystical aspect of artistic creation lies in the capacity to transcend the mundane.
Worldly matters have to be experienced and not summarised by a picture as well as a role model acts, reacts, guides protégés and withstands opponents. The voyeuristic momentum of the social media world hinders this kind of authenticity. Furthermore, influencers and other public persons underlie self-censorship because they depend on the industry or public opinion: after all, what is written and put out there will last and should not be misinterpreted; so they keep messages short and vague. It seems clear that under these circumstances it is rather difficult for youngsters to invent themselves anew. Standing in an unprecedented rain of pictures, their creativity seems to be stolen by a lack of time, an overload of symbols who enter into their subconscious mind through images and a lack of social protection by political leaders.
Politicians truly fail by not protecting our youth with appropriate measures even though it is well-known that the highest suicidal rate is amongst teenagers. Pictures are very powerful and shape our mind and recalled experiences. Unpleasant pictures are poisonous for kids as their mind is still fragile and they aren’t mature enough to distance themselves from them. Tools like snapchat, where sent pictures delete themselves after a short time and cannot be traced back, clear the way for abuse of all sorts. There is therapeutical work needed for children and teenagers who have seen certain pictures; even though they know that it has nothing to do with themselves, the pictures entered already into their mind and made their way through their subconscious.
Besides, the advertisement industry is neither children nor adult friendly: they simply do not want to be our friend, but to tell us constantly in very beautiful disguise that we lack of something in order to sell their product. They understood that expressiv pictures are efficient and that we are even more receptive to them when we feel down and not valued.
Social media as a spell casters’ world
Thinking about how social media’s images enchant us, we could call it a spell casters’ world: we can’t distinguish reality from illusion which leads to neglecting our dreams in the favour of already made dreams aiming to sell us something. Their mottos and pictures are distracting us from ourselves until we feel dissatisfied without knowing why: it is our self that is dissatisfied with how we treat it and that we don’t consider it as valuable enough. If we want to stay emotionally healthy and self-confident, we need to stop attributing superiority to persons because of the high number of their followers.
When we consider that youngsters decide dating someone or not according to the number of followers his or her profile has, it becomes clear that the real world has seemingly lost its charm to them: romanticism needs to be found in the virtual world where a young person tries to prove his or her capacity to seduce. After all, isn’t it satisfying to boost our self-esteem with many likes and isn’t it relieving to only need to persuade via images? One could call that progress, but if we think about it, it is not really; the bitter aftertaste is that our self-worth gets stunt by searching for approval, needing to please, wanting to be a successful seducer and constantly compare ourselves with others.
I hope that we agree that youngsters should be free of these obligations of senseless following and need to be protected until they can protect themselves from persons and an industry that only mission consists on telling them that they lack of something. Though, the only thing young people could lack is the know-how for how to fulfil their dreams and to build themselves as a person, something they learn with adults in their environment; often in institutions like school, university, a company, an association and in their friend’s and family circle.
Giving energy and creativity away: our future in danger
Teenagers find themselves in a precious and delicate transition phase from a child to an adult. Boys discover girls, girls discover boys; in secret they swoon over someone special they can project their longings, desire and dreams on. And here is the point: blinded „by the lights“ youngsters cannot differentiate between an influencer with a huge industry behind and a private person; they lack the life experience to see behind media industry's mechanisms because there is just a small percentage of professions represented on social media. Unfortunately, the credo „expressive and short“ is also nourishing the illusion that job positions and careers can be achieved in a very short time. That is why, the social media world seems not very serious as society does not build on these new professions; there are not elementary for the survival and functioning of society. It is understandable that teens are drawn to the virtual world, just to oppose what adults held up high. Social media announces an easy and shiny world; proclaims to be different from the boring entity society seems to be for them.
Nevertheless, before being confronted with explicit images, teens need to build themselves first: their personality, their sexuality, their vision. If we compare this process with the creative process of an artist we can say that also the artist needs time to elaborate his artistic product, let it be music, painting, writing, sculpting, dancing or else. In addition to that, he needs solitude contemplating his idea, then works on it, thinks constantly about it, produces it, edits it often, lets it rest, contemplates it again in solitude, edits it, invites others he/she trusts to contemplate it with him/her, leaves it and still thinks about it; finally publishes it.
Becoming an adult person consists in a similar elaborative procedure. We are unconsciously activating inner pictures from our family tree, cultural myths and legends, libraries and the cultural heritage they contain. (By the way, this is also something we do when we need to get along during a big shift in society or any crisis). Unfortunately, the high media consumption of youngsters due to a lack of legal and parental protection makes it very difficult to strengthen the voice within by letting her pick images from our collective creative pool. The constant comparison the advertisement industry aims for overlies our inner pictures and diminishes youth's creative power. Even though it would be that creative power they needed to build themselves a self-esteemed „me“ who can survive in a new society their generation is constructing. Just by knowing how harmful fashion magazines can be for women because they confront women permanently with a beauty ideal and reduce them to their appearance, it seems obvious that it is even more devastating for youngsters who are generating their own images in their teenager years. Therefore, they need space and time to imagine themselves. They also need to be free of monetary interests and rules in order to realise their own innovative and useful ideas.
Reinforcing and protecting our uniqueness is key for becoming
Fighting against the omnipresence and power of advertisement and social media’s images would definitely cost too much energy. A better way out of the spells casted on us could be allowing ourselves to be disappointed that there is nothing perfect in this world; to accept our human condition: dreaming, trying, failing, succeeding, being well, being sad, figured it out and got it all wrong. This is what we constantly do and there is nothing light, hot and clean in that, rather something tremendously important, well tempered and it has enough bacterias for us to raise antibodies. All these edgy and glorious incidents in our lives are far from ordinary. Where images in the spell casters’ world reproduce themselves due to the need to please a certain public (they figured out that repetition works!), we in our every day life must accept that we are a sort of picture generator reflecting the diversity of humankind.
Picture generators are converting negative thoughts into positive ones, they write down and act on their very own goals, create a vision board with pictures reflecting what they want to achieve in life. They decide to not wanting to have „that thing“, too, because they know that they are themselves a beautiful and sublime expression of soul; better than any image could ever tell; unique and priceless.
Bibliography for further reading:
Berzbach, Frank (2015). L'art d'une vie créative. Les vertus de la pleine conscience. Pyramid NTCV.
Hüther, Gerald (2006). Die Macht der inneren Bilder: Wie Visionen das Gehirn, den Menschen, die Welt verändern. Vandenhoeck&Ruprecht.
Peer, Marisa (2009). Ultimate confidence. The secrets to feel great about yourself every day. Little&Brown Book Group.
Peer, Marisa (2014). You can be younger. Use the power of your mind to look and feel 10 years younger in 10 simple steps. Piatkus.
Peer, Marisa (2018). I am enough. Mark your mirror and change your life. One edition.
Moorjani, Anita (2021). Sensitive is the new strong. The power of empaths in an increasingly harsh world. Yellow Kite.
Myss, Caroline (2002). Self-esteem: your fundamental power. Sounds true INC.