A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about the reaction that ensued as Europe finally woke up to the horrors of the Syrian civil war and subsequent refugee crisis. An awakening sparked by the publication of a series of photos. Many have questioned the motivation and morality of news sites publishing the photos of Aylan Kurdi’s body, especially as neither his bereft father or extended family were consulted. Would we accept photos of a British child who had died being shared around so readily?
Of course, there can be no doubt that those photos had an effect. Money has been donated, awareness has been raised; people care(d). Unfortunately the media has turned once again, and begun using the word ‘migrant’ more than refugee once more. When they report on the crisis at all.
Yet in the midst of the horror that those photos evoked, they also became subject to the very modern phenomenon of competitive compassion. People were falling over themselves to show how much they cared. Conversations on social media escalated the grief, going along the lines of:
Oh, it brought tears to my eyes.
I cried so much.
I cried three times!
I’ve cried every day this week.
And so on.
It would be hard, Katie Hopkins and other fascists not withstanding, to find anyone unmoved by the photo of a dead child. And, as I’ve already said, the effect it had on the zeitgeist was obvious, and immense. Whether that wave of compassion persists in the face of the mass movement of people across Europe, and the continuation, indeed further worsening, of the Syrian/Middle Eastern crisis, remains to be seen. Some might argue that the compassion has already lessened, and that the media’s and the right-wing politicians’ campaign of dehumanisation has already begun again in earnest. We will see.
The social media reaction that those photos provoked, as I hinted at before, is, I believe, part of a greater phenomenon. The advent of social media and its wide-reaching effect on modern life, has created a culture that depends on public validation. It’s not happening unless you tweet it, Facebook it, or Instagram it.
At weekends, social media feeds are chock-a-block with the amah-zing days out everyone is having. Half-hourly updates take the reader through a visit to whatever wildlife park/stately home/theme park everyone is visiting. So much so that one begins to wonder how present the person could have been during those recorded moments. How much are they participating in, and enjoying, this family time?
Then there are the endless photos of what we ate, what we drank, what we wore, what we bought, where we went, what we did, etc etc etc. Indeed, a recent Channel 4 programme showed how, for some, this even extends to the most intimate part of their lives, with the apparently growing trend for webcam couples putting on regular performances for an army of social media fans.
Why do we feel the need to share every moment of our lives with others? To show how great we are, or to gain validation because we don’t actually feel that good about ourselves? Is it to prove something to others, or to ourselves? Or is this the true advent of Andy Warhol’s prediction of 15 minutes of fame for all? Is it because we see non-entity celebrities as people to aspire to, and think sharing our own lives make us equal to them? Do we become our own minor celebrities, playing out the drama and mundanities of our lives for all to see? Can we not be happy with our lot and enjoy our choices and lives for what they are, rather than what they say about us?
In his book Stuffocation: Living More With Less, James Wallman highlighted the growing trend to value experience over more and more material goods, a move away from the ‘conspicuous consumption’ examined by Veblen in his The Theory of the Leisure Class over a century ago. This ‘experientialism’, Wallman notes, is approved by psychologists as a means to acquiring the modern-day Shangri-La of happiness (although what this is and how it might be quantified is unclear). Yet surely, with the intense need to share everything on social media, we risk a conspicuous consumption of experience as well as material goods. (There is also a move towards ‘experiential goods’ such as expensive man toys etc, which continue to prop up capitalism, and are as much a symptom of materialism as cheap fashion and the over-consumption by the masses, but that is for another article.)
With a healthy degree of self-awareness, I am fully cognisant of the irony here. I write a blog and have several social media accounts; my whole life is online! Actually no, a heavily edited version is. Social media is a large part of my business, and I do use it for personal things as well, although rarely and often in retrospect. Thankfully, choosing not to have a mobile phone means I can’t update social media continually – or be instantly accessible – thank goodness!
So, is life real if we don’t share every moment of it with our social media network? Is it more important to do, or to be seen doing it? Are there benefits to this over-sharing of our lives, or only disadvantages? I’m not sure what the answers are, but I’d love to know what you think.