If you can't decide whether the new pair of shoes you're trying on in the store look good on you and have to turn to Instagram to confirm with your followers, then you're clearly a victim to the curse of social validation.
Social proof has always existed, but when our self-esteem ebbs and flows based on the number of followers or likes on Instagram, we need to stop to take stock.
In an article published a decade ago in the Guardian, top writers shared ten tips on writing good fiction. The advice was fun, unconventional, and thought-provoking.
One of Jonathan Franzen's tips stood out. He said:
It's doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.
This was in 2010 when the internet was still in its toddlerhood phase. It was a time when you could opt-out of ads, and social media hadn't figured out how to personalize your ad stream. Your online privacy was somewhat more guarded. It was before the competition for eyeballs kicked into high gear. Before established ethical practices became casualties.
The inevitability of digital distractions and its downsides are not news to anyone. However, while decreased productivity gets all the press, it's a relatively mild shortcoming compared to the potential havoc digital interactions can cause our physical and emotional wellbeing.
That wellbeing is the subject of today's article.
A familiar routine
I bet the routine described below is familiar to you, personally, or you may have seen someone else do it.
Find something share-worthy. Sweat the small stuff—may be the lighting in the picture or the word choices in your writing. Gather the courage to post on a social media platform. Hit send, and then place your phone face down, not wanting to look at it. Revel in the disbelief that you actually managed to disseminate a piece of your personality out to the world. Do a happy dance.
Then, within seconds, start pulling down on your screen to refresh. Begin a quiet timer in your mind—fifteen seconds, thirty seconds, a minute, a couple of minutes. Keep refreshing your screen.
Start an internal monologue with yourself. Where are the red notification blobs? Where are the likes and comments? Have you managed to make the app's algorithm happy?
In a few minutes, you've likely experienced almost the full spectrum of emotions that are typically present in a doctor's office pain scale.
The puppeteer behind those images? The stress hormones in your body. They've had a busy time creating every single one of those expressions (regardless of whether they were visible on your face or not).
It takes these hormones a while, following the upheaval, to go back to a neutral baseline.
But, guess what? By then, you want to do this all over again. And again. And again.
Unfortunately, our bodies weren't designed for such frenetic activity. The wear and tear of such hormonal fluctuations do have unpleasant consequences, though they may not be evident to us right away.
Trust and validation between humans are about as essential to our existence as food, water, and air. We, homosapiens, are wired to fit in and to work in groups. Our very survival, to a large extent, has depended upon our ability to belong. Dissension, in our early days, meant possible death.
Please read this post for more details on how important belonging became as our hunter-gatherer group sizes increased.
While the need for social validation and affirmation have always existed, it's only now that they're available on-demand.
Social proof at a slower pace
Until a couple of decades ago, if you applied for a new position or sent in an article to a publisher, it would be days, weeks, or even months before you knew whether you were picked or rejected. If you were in school and had a falling out with your friend, you had to wait at least until the next day to see whether you had an unpleasant argument on your hands or a compromise.
The slower pace between action and reaction, cause and effect, meant you could ruminate, sleep, think through situations. Not always ideal, but it had its fair share of benefits – chief among which was the gift of time. Time is a great healer and can provide perspectives that aren't always available when you're too close to a problem.
Today, on the other hand, you post something on social media, and within seconds if you don't start seeing a steady stream of likes and comments, your heart and emotions start plummeting.
The three bouncing dots indicating someone's typing a response to your iMessage is designed to keep your brain's dopamine circuit salivating like a dog that's just seen a juicy bone.
Your stress hormones go haywire, cortisol is elevated.
All for what?
A selfie that (you think) makes you look younger? Or a meme that stratifies your "funniest aunt" status.
It's more than that. It's the whole concept of social validation.
It signifies to the world that you're someone worth knowing and trusting. And that your opinions matter.
No matter how you slice it, it is a big deal. No wonder all the hoopla!
As a species, we've always relied on social validation clues to judge whether something is worth our time and attention.
When I choose to dine out in ethnic restaurants, I often see how many natives to that cuisine frequent the restaurant. If it's good enough for them, it's good enough for me.
This is why we conduct reference checks before hiring people and why product and store reviews matter so much.
Therefore, social validation is not new by any means.
What has changed dramatically is the pace at which we're inundated with information.
When we share messages or posts in the digital world, we're sometimes rewarded in the form of likes, fun emojis, praise, or kind words. All these elements activate our neurochemical systems.
We are wired to look for rewards. If the rewards are always guaranteed, we tend to lose interest and typically like to move on to more challenging rewards. But if the rewards are sporadic, then we keep at it in the hope that we'll eventually hit the jackpot. This is the textbook definition of addiction.
Scientists studied the actual effects of social validation and affirmation on the brain through imaging studies of subjects engaged in digital communication. Here's what they concluded:
Since the rewards are not always guaranteed (you're not sure which of your social media posts will get likes or positive comments), the brain continues to engage in the activity until it finds the reward.
That is where the behavior starts to become addictive in nature. One post turns into many. But with each post, your emotions run like a rollercoaster; with each screen refresh or notification, adrenalin surges and ebbs. Repeatedly signaling "intruder-alert" to your brain means you spike and crash all too often, leading to a lot of emotional instability.
While we intuitively understand that social media is a curated version of everyone's lives, it is hard to stop playing the comparison game.
Much worse when we start tying our self-worth to the number of likes or comments our photos and posts garner.
Even when we share someone else's post or photo, it's to make us feel like we're thought leaders in the space. It's no wonder people share content that they haven't even seen themselves. It feels powerful to be the information disseminator. Breaking news or breaking views gain valuable social currency.
One of the bizarre fallouts of digitalization is that of identity-creation.
You are chugging along in your life quite merrily, oblivious to the latest fads, that is, until your digital devices start alerting you to everything you're missing out on.
It almost seems like the apps always catch us at our most vulnerable moments—when we are bored, lonely, or tired—to remind us of the fantasy version of ourselves we've elected to become. I once heard of a colleague who'd never paid attention to food plating, suddenly become an aspiring food photographer because her Insta feeds started to be filled with drool-worthy clicks.
When you're in doubt, your digital selves remind you of who you've chosen to become—this curated version of yourself that you present to the world.
Keeping up such pretenses can get exhausting. Real fast. And yet, people do it because of the associated dopamine surges. Likes and followers are their drugs of choice.
Social networking apps have, rightly so, gotten a lot of flak for intruding on privacy and making life difficult for everyone. But just saying you are entirely off social media but choose to binge-watch streaming services does not make you holier.
There is a fair amount of mayhem caused by other digital, non-social media platforms as well. It's simply cognitive dissonance when we rationalize our digital maladies.
In the 70s and 80s, you could technically still binge-watch anime shows through VHS tapes. But that involved intention and effort on your part. You had to source the videos from your local store and physically change the tapes periodically on your VCR player.
Today, the process is about as seamless as you can get with continuous, extended (infinite?) autoplay available on your favorite streaming shows. Heaven forbid you exercise your body a little bit or have to get up from the couch.
Streaming services have refined the concept of automatic autoplay to the following video. Before your brain has time to figure out whether you've had enough, you've already started the next show or next episode.
A couple of years ago, at an industry event, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings pointed to their biggest competitor. It wasn't another digital platform. It was sleep.
"You get a show or a movie you're really dying to watch, and you end up staying up late at night, so we actually compete with sleep," Hastings said. "And we're winning!"
Hastings has a business to run; ethics can take a backseat, thank you. And his whole business model relies on YOUR continuous, undivided, compulsive attention.
While binge-watching shows can be fun, this problem attacks two fundamental human functions that keep us alive: movement and sleep.
Sitting is the new smoking
If it's not bad enough that we sit more, we now have to give up on sleep as well to keep up with the plot of the Good Girls.
The price you pay
Have you wondered whether Bach or Mozart would have been able to produce those masterpieces if they kept getting inundated with news or text alerts or had lined up a series of Walking Dead to watch? Unlikely.
Creativity flows when it's uninterrupted by other competing cognitive tasks.
Whether we like to admit it or not, we all need downtime to process our own thoughts and opinions—time free from the input of others' thoughts and opinions.
Once you've seen or heard an opinion, it's that much more challenging to unsee or disregard it. Those snippets of information will take up some cognitive space in your brain, whether you like it or not. That's just how it is, and for a good reason. Learning from other's mistakes is a clear sign of wisdom.
However, on the flip side, in some cases, that very capability of our brains can be a creativity-killer. The nuisance of information overload is real and will continue to sow chaos unless intentionally checked.
To regain some form of composure, we resilient humans have developed some coping mechanisms in the face of the constant barrage of stimuli in the form of notifications and alerts.
Digital abstinence, unplugging, periodic detoxes have grown popular, especially over the last few years. Studies have reported that breaking up with social media alone has managed to give people back over an hour daily to spend time offline with friends and family.
On average, it takes about $100 to convince someone to try out a one-month social media fast. Like other forms of addiction, the withdrawal symptoms last for a few days, but after that, people usually report an uptick in their daily mood and fewer mood swings throughout the day.
Worth doing it for free, if you ask me.
I'm no Luddite, nor am I a hypocrite. I'm certainly not arguing for a complete digital withdrawal. But, having been there, done that, I'd like to issue a fair warning about the trap we set for ourselves, albeit unwittingly.
At the root of the problem is the overwhelming pace of technological changes that most of us are unprepared for.
The advent of digital devices has catapulted social validation into a higher plane with unforeseen orbital velocities. Action/reaction cycles that used to take days or even weeks now only take seconds.
In the face of such profound changes, it is not a bad idea to hang back in the queue and be judicious about where we choose to spend our time at. You don't always have to be the first adopter of new, emergent technologies. You are free to exercise your will and walk away without your phone strapped onto your body every waking minute of the day.
It takes practice but has excellent benefits.
Who wouldn't want to take a vacation from hearing about other's vacations?