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Social media as a spectacle: How has our obsession with digital media become so destructive?

FOMO – fear of missing out – relates to the social anxiety that develops from destructive suppositions that friends and other users on social media have a more fulfilling and substantial lifestyle. Apprehensions felt by the individual eventually progress into a toxic desire to be incessantly connected with other users on social media. Studies have found that FOMO is ‘related to greater depression, anxiety and physical symptoms’ (Milyayskaya et al., 2018). Statistics published by Omnicore suggest that Facebook has 350 million photographs uploaded to its network daily and Instagram follows behind with an influx of over 100 million each day. Users often embellish posts that are displayed upon their social media platforms, depicting a virtual persona that may not always be a true depiction of ‘self’. Therefore, from the statistics alone, there is no doubt that FOMO is a cause for concern in many social media users.

Social media is a spectacle; an unrealistic depiction of life that is not always a true representation of one’s self. More often than not, a user’s profile will be an edited snapshot – a conceptualisation – of what they want their friends and followers to see. Users are continually subjected to societal pressures through the use of a virtual ‘profile’; many face the difficulties of maintaining a positive virtual image, in an attempt to gain ‘likes’ and personal satisfaction. The Royal Society for Public Health (2017) describe how social media is more addictive than alcohol and cigarettes and ‘using [the various platforms] for more than two hours per day has also been independently associated with poor self-rating of mental health, increased levels of psychological distress and suicidal ideation.’ It is evident that the presentation of a virtual ‘self’ upon social media can quickily become demoralising, as the constant desire for approval via various platforms can have potentially dangerous consequences:

‘those individuals who are already anxious or uncertain about their body image seem to be particularly likely to seek out standards for [upward] social comparison’ (Tiggemann et al., 2018).

Social media has become an integral component in western civilisation, with statistics suggesting that there are 45 million active social media users in the United Kingdom alone, equivalating to 66% of the whole population (Statistica, 2020). Online platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat have become synonymous with digital marketing, encouraging consumerist behaviours from its users. There is an endless stream of data across all social media outlets, that commands the user into purchasing particular products and clothing; this can be shown in multiple forms, such as direct advertising and products promoted by ‘influencers’ and celebrities. The relentless exposure to a capitalist economy can often cause the user to have feelings of low self-worth, resulting in the incessant need to follow the current purchasing trends, despite the financial implications. Jo Hemmings, a behavioural psychologist, reported to the Independent (2019), describes how products advertised on digital media are ‘endorsed by those people as a validation, not just of the items we own or places we’ve been but who we are. And all that costs money’ (Independent, 2019). Recent estimates suggest that over the next 12 months the growth in the Influencer Marketing Industry will rise to approximately $9.7 billion (Influencer Marketing Hub, 2020), thus highlighting the ongoing increase in the succession of advertising campaigns throughout social media, particularly Instagram. For most users, the cost to keep up with the forever changing trends is exorbitant, resulting in a potential rise of personal dissatisfaction and even mental health problems amongst users.

Erving Goffman’s theory of ‘face’ remains relevant in the new social media age; defining the ‘positive social value a person effectively claims for himself by his or her self-representation’ (Goffman, 1967, pg.5). The sociological theory explores the importance of ‘face’ to an individual, conserving the social construct of ‘face’ to maintain a stable public identity. Through the lens of his theoretical framework, creating a virtual profile on social media outlets can be interpreted as ‘front act staging’. Likewise, the falsifying or enhancing of an online profile can be linked to the notion of ‘impression management’ (Goffman, 1956). Collectively, the user is metaphorically wearing a mask; accentuating some aspects whilst concealing others in an attempt to shape an ideal virtual portrayal. In the context of social media, ‘face’ relies on the cooperation of other users to uphold the constructed persona, however if this ‘face’ is threatened or challenged, the user may suffer not only a diminished self-image, but also public online humiliation. In order to have a stable perception of self, the individual must remain consistent, otherwise the individual will risk losing face (Goffman, 1967). Boyd supports Goffman’s theory arguing that that although individuals claim their posts are authentic, the ‘authenticity’ they portray is a construct:

‘we refer to the ‘real me’ and authentic experiences, artefacts, and people. However, there is no such thing as universal authenticity; rather, the authentic is a localized, temporally situated social construct that varies widely based on community’ (Boyd, 2010, pg. 124).

Utilising Goffman’s process of ‘impression management’ the user selectively posts aspects of their life onto social media which they wish others to see. This conscious process of selection can arguably be one of the most destructive elements of social media, as the notion of a limitless, constructed persona can lead users to be unhappy with their true self. Hendrickes et al. (2017) performed a study on female undergraduate students regarding Instagram and self-body image, discovering that ‘there was a strong association between appearance-related comparisons made on Instagram and body image concerns, particularly drive for thinness and body dissatisfaction.’ (Hendrickes et al., 2017). Many users begin to question their own identity, by comparing themselves to others on social media platforms – whether that be a comparison of wealth, appearance etc. Thus, widespread exposure to ‘perfection’ online can result in multiple psychological issues – causing many users to strive to achieve the false ideals of appearance and lifestyle.

Social media can be an extremely powerful mechanism in daily life, however in order to avoid the destructive affects it can hold, the user needs to be mindful whilst ‘scrolling’ to avoid potentially disastrous consequences on mental and also sometimes physical wellbeing. Many ‘influencers’ who appear to have the most desired lifestyles, are in fact dehumanised as a tool for marketing; thus, the images and posts that they project to the world are all in an attempt to encourage consumerist behaviours. Unfortunately, we are all victim to a consumerist society, where everyone is judged upon materialism. Therefore, in order to evade the destructive aspects of digital media, users must not take everything published at ‘face’ value.

Word Count: 1099

Bibliography

Goffman, E., 1956. The Presentation Of Self In Everyday Life. Doubleday.

Goffman, E., 1967. Interaction Ritual: Essays On Face-To-Face Interaction. Oxford: Aldine.

Hendrickse, J., Arpan, L., Clayton, R. and Ridgway, J., 2017. Instagram and college women’s body image: Investigating the roles of appearance-related comparisons and intrasexual competition. Computers in Human Behavior, 74, pp.92-100.

Hughes, K., 2019. Why Social Media Could Cost You A Fortune. [online] The Independent. Available at: <https://www.independent.co.uk/money/spend-save/social-media-influencers-cost-advert-lifestyle-partnerships-links-debt-a9160766.html&gt; [Accessed 14 April 2020].

Marwick, A. and Boyd, D., 2020. I tweet honestly, I tweet passionately: Twitter users, context collapse, and the imagined audience. New Media and Society, [online] 13(1). Available at: <https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1461444810365313&gt; [Accessed 17 April 2020].

Milyavskaya, M., Saffran, M., Hope, N. and Koestner, R., 2018. Fear of missing out: prevalence, dynamics, and consequences of experiencing FOMO. Motivation and Emotion, 42(5), pp.725-737.

Tiggemann, M., Hayden, S., Brown, Z. and Veldhuis, J., 2018. The effect of Instagram “likes” on women’s social comparison and body dissatisfaction. Body Image, [online] 26, pp.90-97. Available at: <https://www.researchgate.net/publication/326580674_The_effect_of_Instagram_likes_on_women’s_social_comparison_and_body_dissatisfaction&gt; [Accessed 15 April 2020].

Ytreberg, E., 2010. Erving Goffman as a theorist of the mass media. Critical Studies in Media Communication, [online] 19(4). Available at: <https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/07393180216570&gt; [Accessed 16 April 2020].

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