The universe is vast, to say the least. It contains innumerable textures, substances, and possibilities that extend beyond any human imagination. Vastness in this sense is difficult to comprehend, and most people don’t spend a lot of time speculating about the contents of the universe for this very reason. But, when it comes to the universe, humans tend to normalize its extraordinary breadth, and its associated complexity.
With social media, I think its users respond a little differently. But I wonder, why? A book called The Internet Does Not Exist remarks aptly that the Internet has no shape or face, and therefore it doesn’t exist. The contributors of the book go further to discuss the nature of the Internet – it’s not a whole bunch of windows that help us to peer into the world for more information, but it’s actually made of mirrors that force us to confront ourselves (and in this case, we are the world itself).
What’s profoundly complicated about these planetary networks, though, is exactly as the book describes – they have become places of “confusion and dislocation.” When we’re on the Internet, “we know from the start that we probably won’t find what we’re looking for, so we learn to search sporadically and asymmetrically just to see where we end up.” Anybody ever been down a rabbit hole on Instagram, tapping through content without much of a thought about what you’re looking at or how you’re feeling about it?
The most salient part of the book to me, which I have to share in full with you all here, is that “this might look and feel like drifting, and traditional or conservative notions of substance will always try to dismiss its noise, its cat videos and porn, bad techno and bombastic contemporary art, but one should be careful not to underestimate the massive distances being crossed in the meantime.”
So, when we’re scrolling down our feeds, how conscious are we to the messages we’re consuming in the meantime? What are the impacts of moving from one distant point in social cyberspace to another one? Honestly, sometimes this space travel is great–it’s entertaining, it’s a time-filler, and it can bring us to pleasantly surprising places. For example, sometimes I’ll absent-mindedly travel from one Instagram or SoundCloud profile to another, and find mind-blowing artists and visionaries who open my mind to the diverse communities that exist within these digital realms. But, other times, even when I feel like I’m benefiting overall from my “drifting,” I know that I’m digesting information in the process.
What information? Well, just think about it. First, the obvious — explicit advertisements. How many people listened to Lizzo’s “Phone” because it was advertised all over Instagram? I did. There are so many products that marketers slide into our feeds in ways that we might not first detect.
But, let’s say we can. Less detectable messages that we might receive while scrolling are from celebrities. Flat Tummy Tea? Everyone was advertising that product, and now the company has hundreds of thousands of followers. Even less explicit marketing strategies are the ways that (especially young) celebrities use their platforms to sell their music, and to cultivate a saleable aesthetic for their huge online fanbases. Cardi B is doing that, and people are buying it. But lastly, some of the least obvious subliminal messaging that goes on in digital spaces while we’re drifting is messages about our own self-worth.
Negotiating social media use and continuing to care for ourselves is frankly something not many people speak about. But, if we don’t stay conscious, the most vulnerable amongst us will internalize harmful messages about ourselves while we cross huge, seemingly benign distances in digital space.