Last night, during one of my nightly trawls of social media, I ran into a story about young people literally eating detergent pods and posting the videos on the Web. This came from a meme-cluster that I’m sure all of you have seen by now. Pictures include detergent pods being used as ingredients in food, or dressed up to look like meals in their own right. Now, the comedy of these memes is not lost on me. The inherent lunacy of eating cleaning product is what makes the memes funny. What’s not funny? The harmful medical side-effects.
Even less funny? That we inhabit a space that encourages this kind of behavior.
This kind of thing is not a singular phenomenon. In recent years, the “gallon of milk” challenge encouraged people to try drinking an entire gallon of milk. The “cinnamon challenge” had people ingesting spoonfuls of raw cinnamon. The “knockout challenge” saw people violently attacking other people on the street. And, throughout 2017, the “suicide challenge” has encourage people to kill themselves and stream the procedure online.
Ostensibly, these challenges were built around online attention. The concept is pretty simple. People love to watch crazy shit happen. So, film yourself doing some crazy shit and post it online. People will watch. The more people watch, the more likes and comments and shares you’ll receive. Onward and onward, hopefully to the point of being viral.
(Doesn’t that seem like a funny word choice for “massive social success”?)
It’s hard to blame the practitioners of these ridiculous challenges. Increasingly, social media is becoming a recognized addictive substance. Sites like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr are all intentionally engineered to be addicting. Of course they are. They’re businesses. The more customers they have, the more they’re profiting. Just like McDonalds uses specific colors to encourage eye-catching and quickness of thought, and just as video games utilize reward systems for continuous play, so too do social media systems use tricks to addict your brain. Algorithms ensure that you see the things you like, and the “like, comment, share” function is a reward system for posting content.
Social media is particularly effective as an addiction-creator because of the depth and power of innate human desire.
In my old job, one of my functions was working as an interrogator. Throughout my training, I had to study basic human needs. We often referred to Maslow’s Heirarchy of Needs when learning how to manipulate someone in the interrogation room. Basically, Maslow said that human needs can be looked at like a pyramid. At the bottom of the pyramid, you’ve got basic survival. Food, air, water, shelter, sleep, etc. If the survival needs are filled, the next thing humans want is safety. Personal security, a steady income, resources, and good health. Once those needs are fulfilled, humans start to crave the more abstract stuff.
The human stuff.
The next three rungs of Maslow’s pyramid involve things like friendship, love, sense of connection, respect, status, recognition. At the very top is a desire to become the best you you can be.
If you have even semi-regular access to social media, it’s pretty safe to assume that your survival needs are taken of. Your safety needs are probably also fulfilled for the most part. You have a place to sleep, regular food, and have some sense of security. (You aren’t worried that a lion is going to slash you to death while you sleep in your stick lean-to.)
That means that you have higher needs. We users of the Internet are, as humans, looking for love and belonging. We want good self-esteem. We want to self-actualize. And it is because we seek those needs that social media is so good at trapping us into addiction. These needs are exactly why we crave those likes, comments, and shares. By providing us with a system that makes it easy to feel loved and appreciated (a constant stream of “likes”, that pleasant “ding” of notifications), it’s no wonder we all have such a problem with using social media.
On an even deeper level, there’s a major link between social media consumption and depression. Users that don’t regularly post content are not receiving likes, and in turn spend more time on social media devouring the content of other people. This leads to feelings of depression, anxiety, and a feeling that you are not enough. This can then result in severe psychological duress, and perhaps suicide in extreme cases.
Seen from a different perspective, successful content creators often feel pressured to keep up their likes. In many cases, likes, comments, and shares are the very business of creators. The more attention they receive, the more money they make. People like Markiplier, Philip DeFranco, Logan Paul, and Casey Neistat (all successful YouTube vloggers) have all relayed struggled with “fame syndrome”. When your business is getting people to like you, that can take quite a burden on your self. Your very job becomes self-validation and observing the number of people that watch you. This can lead to over-exertion and exhaustion to keep up with the demand of content consumers, with the platform (YouTube, for example, has lofty conditions in regards to monetizing videos and Google has expectations of its highest performers).
We are all co-existing in an environment made by people who got famous making original content. We’re inundated these days with examples. It’s kind of hard not to think, “Hey, I could do that.” What’s the fastest way to bring in some views? Good ol’ fashioned shock and awe. Thus, violent and dangerous challenges. You’ll never get views quicker than doing something that puts you or someone else at serious risk. And that’s why we’ve got people eating detergent pods and clocking strangers on the street.
As I’ve personally gone through the journey of Internet nobody to a small fraction of Internet fame, I’ve faced this problem as well. I won’t hide it: this blog is a business. I need to attract followers that are interested in what I have to say, and I have to produce engaging content that those followers will share to other potential followers. Writing is what I want to do with my life, and that means I need to have a fanbase willing to read my words. Thus, the business. So, when I’m late on my dailies or behind on my content log, I start to get worried. Fame is a fickle beast, and attention is a tight commodity on the Web. There’s definitely a pressure to do better, more, faster.
What I’ve learned throughout this experience is what I want to bring to you all today.
What ultimately matters in a fulfilling life is what’s at the top of Maslow’s pyramid. Self-actualization. Being the best damn you that you can possibly be. In order to do that, you have to fulfill every other level of the pyramid. The only way to fulfill those levels is to let go, y’all. You have to be willing to believe that everything will fall into place if you keep reaching to be your best.
There’s an old saying: shoot for the stars – if you miss, you’ll still land on the moon. While it’s not an entirely perfect adage, it does speak a certain level of truth. If you only focus on your survival, you’ll never do more than hunt for food. If you only focus on safety, you might stay at a job you hate for decades, afraid to take any risks. If you only focus on love and belonging or esteem, you might risk turning your life into a show – you could become an actor, playing a person that strangers like, but who is not really you.
But, if you only focus on self-actualization, you’re only focusing on being the best you. When you’re the best you, you’re attracting respect and recognition and strength. The people giving that respect and recognition will become your friends and family. With such a wide network, you’ll feel safe to take risks, and you’ll have the resources to do it. And, of course, at least some of those people will be happy to feed you if times ever get rough.
Don’t let social media trap you into thinking you need to be validated by other people in order to be happy. You don’t, y’all. First and foremost, you need to do the things you love to do. You need to strive to be the best you can be. If you have goals, work on accomplishing them. If you want to lose weight or write or become the next greatest racecar driver, then do it. Focus on crushing those goals and you’ll soon find that life kind of works itself out. All the problems vanish, and suddenly you’re left with a comfort in yourself and a purpose in life.
I love you all. I really do. I want every single one of you to be happy and fulfilled this year. So, try not to worry so much about the likes okay? Unless, of course, those likes are your business. If they are, just remember why you’re posting content to begin with: because you love it, and it makes you feel good.
And guys… for fuck’s sake… don’t eat detergent.
What are your experiences with social media addiction? Are you struggling with it? Have you kicked the habit to the curb? Please, share your story for others that might need help.
Ronin doesn’t eat laundry detergent, but he does chew on words. You can find his writing on Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, Twitter, and WordPress. Subscribe to his YouTube channel for neat videos at the end of each month! (Consume responsibly.)
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