Getting Social Media Right

William W. Lorey


All around me, people are leading two lives: Digital and otherwise and I’m wrestling with the idea of continuing to use the social technologies that are second nature to many.

For some, the distinction between “real life” and digital life is blurred. Go to any scenic vista in a National Park and there will be some poor soul posing like a Vogue model in a crude attempt to milk their 250 followers for the praise they need to feel ok. These are cases where the present moment, spent in seemingly beautiful circumstances, is utterly forsaken while searching for the approval of others. It seems increasingly difficult to take in a beautiful moment while resisting the urge to make it yours by anchoring a two-dimensional version of it to your Instagram feed.

For others, they seem to just “get it” on social media. I found in my experience that those who I perceive as driven and successful, with easy-to-get-behind values that shine through in their creative work, use social media differently. Their posts alerted their followers of their newest creations, of collaborations, musings and insights meant not to boost their ego, but to brighten to day of whoever made it into the orbit of their digital sun.

I don’t know these people who seem to excel in digital media personally which is, fortunately or unfortunately, not the case with parishioners of the former mindset. Would this facade of meaningfully curated content collapse when faced with scrutiny? If the kid met their hero face to face, would they be viewed differently?

In this case I question which explanation would be the simplest and perhaps the most valid: Would (a) these people who on the surface appear, in my opinion, to be using social media well (i.e. using social media not for the benefit of themselves but instead for the benefit of others) or (b) these people are frauds who secretly do all this for the benefit of themselves.

I believe that both explanations are in part true. Whatever people do, they do it for themselves. This may sound unnecessarily harsh, but stick with me:

Have you ever volunteered? This could have been any such donation - helping to prepare a meal at a food kitchen, shoveling snow from an elderly neighbor’s driveway, holding the door open for a stranger. If you’ve ever volunteered, you know what it feels like to positively impact the life of another person, however small the impact is. Choosing to spend ones time in service of others is simultaneously serving two parties: The server and the served. Everyone involved benefits. If I just bought lunch for a homeless man, I feel good for my donation and the homeless man is gratified to be on the receiving end of kindness. This isn’t a zero sum game.

Steering back into what this whole discussion is supposed to be about: The problem of optimizing how one uses social media can be directly mapped to the idea of giving to others.

Thinking back to the earlier discussion of using social media for the purposes of sharing with others for their benefit turns out to not only benefit whoever read that post or saw that picture. If the post’s author knows that one person got even an inkling of value from what they put out into the world, that author will be left with the satisfaction of positively affecting a life. That is neither a small feat nor a small reward.

The flip side of this comes when people use social media for their benefit only. Here, imagine the gym-bro posting some muscle pics with a few emojis to caption. This type of content does nothing but act as a funnel through which praise from his peers streams in. Did what he posted positively impact anyone but himself? In most cases, the answer is likely no. What’s more is that his satisfaction is fleeting. What happens a few days later when the post has grown stale? Likes stop rolling in and the dopamine stream runs dry. There is not a more shallow act than to beg for acceptance in such a way. I only write this because I’ve lived it - seeking the ever-illusive approval of others through social media when in fact the only approval I really needed was approval from myself.

Regardless of how you use social media, you are doing so for the benefit of yourself. But fortunately, you have the choice of what kind of person you want to be. Do you want to be shallow and self serving, or would you rather derive meaning from the well that is helping your fellow man?