On my 15th birthday, my friends decided enough was enough and made me a Facebook account.
Unlike the rest of my high school peers, I was several years late to the social media game. My father had been protective of my technology use, limiting my computer hours and access to certain sites with the fearsome power of Parental Controls. So when all my classmates were staying up sending histrionic “Forward this to 5 people or you’ll DIE!!!!!!!” chain mails on Gmail and spilling their messy teenage emotions all over Google Buzz (RIP), I was in my own little virtual corner tapping out overwrought fiction about girls crying in meadows before I was matter-of-factly punted off the computer at 9PM sharp.
When my friends forcibly catapulted me into online society, I still had no conception of what it meant to share my life publicly, or the subtle social etiquette that accompanied it. I was told that on Facebook it was common practice to post messages on people’s walls wishing them Happy Birthday.
“And when someone does that, you should either like the post or comment,” my best friend, ever the moralist, instructed me.
“Do I have to?” I asked.
“You don’t have to if you don’t want to,” was her response. “But that’s what everyone usually does. And it makes people feel good to know that you saw their post.”
Though I didn’t realize it at the time, my peers and I had already begun internalizing a sneaky, unconscious belief: Our actions and words only have value when they’re approved by others.
“Our actions and words only have value when they’re approved by others.”
To this day, I still feel a twinge of guilt when I don’t react to people’s birthday posts.
It’d be oversimplifying to paint social media as the Big Bad responsible for a generation of insecure, validation-hungry youth. The human craving for acknowledgment was present long before the Internet ever came into existence.
But spending our formative years on online networks has undoubtedly amplified my generation’s exposure to positive reinforcement. Never before have we had access to such blatantly quantifiable insight into what others think about us, and for young people still settling into their own skins, it’s doubly tempting to read into people’s reactions — or lack thereof.
Take read receipts, for example: It can be comforting to see that someone is reading your messages and actively participating in your conversation, but anxiety-inducing when it’s been 3 days and your message still hasn’t been seen. Even worse is the dreaded “left on read,” when someone who’s seen your message decides that it’s not worthy of a response.
And the Internet keeps coming up with more and more ways to mine reactions. Facebook, for example, has since added “Love,” “Sad,” “Angry,” and more to its arsenal of emoji reacts, and extending the option to react to chat messages. Even music-streaming platforms like Spotify display how many listeners an artist has and how many times their music has been streamed in a month. The system doesn’t give us the choice to opt into receiving feedback; it’s capitalized on our thirst for recognition, making it so that we can’t do anything online without getting a play-by-play of others’ reactions… and incentivizing us to come back for more.
I’ve also noticed this in third-party content like videos or articles. Watching a YouTube video is an inherently collective experience. I’m bombarded with quantitative statistics like View Count and Like to Dislike Ratio as well as qualitative feedback in the form of comments. If I react strongly to something in the video, I’ll catch myself scanning the comments in hopes of finding someone else who feels the same way. And when I’m twiddling my thumbs and waiting for the video to load, I’ll glance at the comments for reference. It’s become a force of habit for me to “read the room” and assess how other people are responding.
Heck, even the comment sections on these videos and articles have become sources of external validation. Comment something clever, and your comment might even earn the coveted title of Top Comment. It’s all a (very effective) ploy to increase engagement.
It’s reached the point where I start to seek out the reactions of others in order to assess my performance, even in real life. I remember speaking to an acquaintance who responded to everything I said with a flat tone and expressionless face, and feeling unnerved at the lack of positive feedback, even though they’d done nothing to indicate any displeasure.
The line between causation and correlation is blurry. You could point the finger and argue that this is youthful insecurity at play, that my thirst for external validation would exist regardless of social media. But let’s crunch the numbers for a moment: I’ve been crowding my brain with other people’s thoughts not for hours, not for days, but for years. The sheer amount of time I’ve whiled away online is far from insignificant. I’ve accumulated so much excess commentary that there’s simply not enough room in my head to keep my own thoughts distinct from the rest. Something has to give way.
“I’ve been crowding my brain with other people’s thoughts not for hours, not for days, but for years.”
That’s not to say that nothing good has come out of my upbringing. Discourse on social media can be messy, but it can also be beautiful. Listening to others unlike myself taught me empathy, and to turn a critical lens on the beliefs that I grew up with. I imagine I’d be a much more judgmental, self-important person if I hadn’t grown up surfing the web.
Now that I’ve reached the ripe old age of 22, it seems to me that the answer lies not in damning social networks but in looking with unclouded eyes at how other people’s words have claimed permanent residence in our minds. Teenage me wasn’t equipped to fortify herself against the barrage, but I’d like to think that with a bit of self-awareness, 22-year-old me has learned to trust her own judgment a little more.
But until I can fully escape the clutches of the social media behemoth, one thing is for certain: I’ll be back in a few days to read your comments.
As a late 1990s kid, Esther Kao grew up alongside the Internet and spent her adolescence on social media platforms like Facebook and Snapchat, earning her the title of “Digital Native.” She’s a recent UC Berkeley graduate and currently works as a content strategist at The @ Company, a tech startup committed to transforming how the modern Internet treats people’s data. To learn more about The @ Company and their mission, check out their website here.