Pavlov and Facebook

I don’t remember what life was like before Facebook. Prior to 2004, did I write letters? Make phone calls? Text? I can’t exactly recall how I kept up with friends. Surely though, it was never in such Technicolor, through such a finely focused lens, as when Facebook arrived on the scene. All of a sudden, the most private and often mundane parts of people’s lives were laid out for our viewing pleasure (or judgment, as the case may be). The voyeuristic nature of Facebook, the socially acceptable equivalent to the nosey neighbor peeking over the hedge, didn’t seem to turn off many of us who fully embraced our online personas. But what began as simply a great way to keep up with the happenings in friends’ lives, has slowly morphed into a social construct imbedded into the fabric of our society.

We post more than 350 million pictures to Facebook every day. And it’s no longer just Facebook. Now we tweet, Instagram, and Snapchat our daily lives with compulsive regularity. Oh, not everyone (we all love those e-surance commercials making fun of Grandma’s attempts at posting vacation pictures on her “wall” and “unfriending” her companion), but a lot of us. We spend a copious amount of time posting the highlights of our lives. And only the highlights – so much so that some pages resemble the carefully crafted images found in a big company’s brochure, full of smiling faces and false promises. They are perhaps garnered to create sympathy, gain attention, or generate jealousy. After all, we now don’t have to just keep up with the Jones, but also the Smiths, the Andersons, and those thousand other Facebook friends. And if we’re not posting, we’re scrolling through others’ lives, only to emerge three hours later to realize that, while amusing, watching a dog teaching a baby how to use a jumper seat may not be the best use of our time (go ahead and Google it if you missed it – this article will be here when you’re done). It’s all too easy to get sucked into the online world, while this one passes us by. It’s so addictive! Addiction, says Nicholas Carr, in his book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, is “turning us into lab rats constantly pressing levers to get tiny pellets of social or intellectual nourishment.” Like Pavlov’s dogs, drooling in a conditioned response, we keep coming back for more of those little nuggets of positive affirmation with every “like,” with every repost, with every comment. Attention, accolades, powerful stimuli in any circumstance, all at the touch of a button. And the result? Teenagers with carpal tunnel. Strangers catfishing the unsuspecting. It has become a social phenomenon altering the way we live our lives. But why? By projecting our social lives from the privacy of our homes to the public, we hold up our actions to the world’s lens for all to see and judge. And if we live in that spotlight, then we must continually craft an image worthy of it. I have had several friends go on fasts from Facebook, and even a few leave the social media site altogether, but something draws and keeps most of us plugged in, particularly teenagers, who seem most susceptible to not only displaying addictive behaviors, but also crossing the lines of common sense in the pursuit of attention. What keeps them posting selfies, so many that now telescoping selfie sticks are for sale, including the Belfie that helps you capture the best of your posterior? Is it because in abstaining, as Carr says, “we risk becoming invisible?” Have we all been conditioned to fear the obscurity more than the scrutiny? Maybe, maybe not. Having piloted social media, maybe the next generation can learn from our mistakes. Maybe they’ll understand the merits of discretion. Maybe they’ll neither fear the lens, nor craft their lives for others’ viewing pleasure. Maybe they’ll be more wary of becoming so engrossed online that they miss out on the life playing out in front of them. Maybe they’ll understand that while the highlights of their lives make for good viewing, it’s in the daily and sometimes mundane details that life really happens. And if the scrutiny is inevitable, maybe they’ll live lives worthy of it. Maybe we’ll all learn to keep our online lives in line with reality, even if not everyone “likes” it.