Over the last five years, I’ve become convinced that the internet has been sent to destroy us. Admittedly, this may be due to my watching The Terminator films at an impressionable age, and thus acquiring a sense that sooner or later, inevitably, The Machines will try to take over the world with a view to run it more efficiently than humans ever could.
It is for this survivalists’ paranoia that I work on my upper body strength with the dedication of a mental-health-facility-incarcerated Sarah Connor. (Well, that and desire to look nice in vest tops.) You could accuse me of getting carried away with fictional visions of a dystopian future. And yet, one could be forgiven for developing the impression that the internet – a dispassionate, amoral machine – does not have our best interests at heart.
Sure, it’s given us democracy of information and cute cats on YouTube; but it has also given us trolls. It has given us the impression we need to have opinions on everything, all the time, and that we must broadcast them at all opportunities, and that sleep is for lightweights. It has given us tech-neck and terrible posture. Above and beyond all this, it has launched a systematic campaign to rob us of our self-esteem.
It started with FOMO, the Fear of Missing Out – our social networks perpetuating our certainty that whatever it is we’re doing, and whoever we’re doing it with, someone else is having a better time , in a better place, with better people – and so we feel less contented with our lives relatively. We had access to Facebook and Twitter for all of about, oh, a fortnight, before we chose to embrace both as platforms through which to brag about our own lives. Our brunches, our manicures, our party invites, our holidays, our kids, our cooking, our cocktails, our jokes! Meanwhile, our “friends” and followers, those very interested audiences, were busy bragging frantically about their lives (their shopping, suntans, cycling/running/pilates accomplishments, how far ahead they are with the show everyone’s tweeting about.) And it can all make us feel a little less fab than we did before.
We all know damn well that the impressions we’re presenting are curated and spun and varnished and filtered to the point of being out-and-out lies. We’re aware that our lives are more defined by trying to trace that weird smell in our apartment than the snappy one liners we post as testament to how clever we are. (No! Really!) Yet we can’t help but feel diminished by each other.
“I don’t know why it started and I don’t know why I do it, and I hate it…but I can’t stop,” said Lots, a 30 something friend who says she can no longer remember a life before FOMO.
“It’s like that feeling where you came into school on a Monday morning and discovered the whole of the rest of your year had been at an amazing party on Saturday night, only you weren’t invited, you didn’t know anything about it…and it is like that all the time,” added her friend Hannah, grimly. “It is ruining my life,” said Lots. “Ruining it – and running it,” said Hannah.
And it gets worse. Because whatever trace of self-esteem remains with us after FOMO has had its evil way will surely be obliterated by Selfie culture. Instagram is five years old in October. When the photo sharing app first launched, I welcomed it as a joyous, outward-looking response to Twitter’s rolling narcissism. But that was before I knew about Selfies. Ah, Selfies! Those carefully angled, carefully filtered, rigorously edited self portraits may well represent The Machines’ most effective weapon in their ongoing war against our self-esteem. What started out as a bit of a giggle has escalated into a compulsion to take more and more carefully angled, rigorously filtered pictures of our own faces. Pictures we then post online in the vague hope that other people, even people we don’t know, whose opinion of us and these digital renderings of our own heads should be neither here nor there, – in the hope that these very people will tell us we’re cute. Or pretty. Or hot (charmingly by way of the fire emoji).
What madness is this? What deranged, needy, damaged, demon-engendering nonsense? What good can possibly come of Selfies? Anyone who has ever posted one knows it only ends in a downward plunge into anxiety.
“Yay, I got some Likes!”
“But I didn’t get as many as last time…”
“OMG, have I lost it?”
“X said I look hot but Y hasn’t commented! Why hasn’t Y commented? WHY, Y?”
And anyone who has ever gazed upon the Selfie of another understands the dangers of the inner monologue. “That person is so much prettier/thinner/cooler/less wrinkled than I am! And they’re having so much fun. Why am I not there?” Textbook FOMO.
This would all be depressing, albeit in a vaguely amusing way, if it weren’t for the horrific news that in the UK, the number of teenagers admitted to hospital with eating disorders has nearly doubled in the last three years. The blame for this unprecedented rise is being placed squarely at the door of social networking – but then, of course it is! If you are young and vulnerable, if half your life is lived online in a rolling blur of shifting imagery, comparison and judgment, and the constant pressure to broadcast yourself in a certain way, then of course the consequences will be catastrophic.
So what do we do about The Machines v. our Self Esteem? We could abandon our social networks and start living our lives without constantly seeking the external validation of a bunch of people we can’t see, and whose opinions of us are neither here nor there. Or we could remain on them but start telling the truth about our lives. About the weird smell emanating from the mysterious source. About how puffy, bleary and pillow-creased we actually looked when we #wokeuplikethis. We could consider what on earth we have to gain from attempting to incite FOMO in our friends. We could remind ourselves that Likes are not the same as love, and that retweets are not the end goal. We could keep in mind one simple fact: that no one having a really good time – a truly fun, happy, thrilling, sexy, sweet, significant time – also has the time to tweet about it.