And I have known the eyes already, known them all—
The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,
And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?
And how should I presume?
∼ T.S. Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
The lines from T.S. Eliot’s poem paint the speaker as an insect, pinned to the board as a specimen for examination. The critical eye of the others produces panic; the speaker as specimen attempts to justify his existence, accounting for the wasted days and indecision that plague him throughout the poem.
Who would willingly subject himself to this form of public scrutiny? A good many of us, as it turns out. Despite clear evidence, not to mention personal experience, that social media makes us miserable, the perverse instrument of communication continues in evolving forms. The users—or more accurately the used—are the specimens on display for consumption.
Like Prufrock as insect, we are pinned, the article of examination. More than that, in the pinning the insect dies. In order to dissect a living being, the object of dissection must die. Our culture has embarked on an experiment in which we dissect our own lives in the process of living them, a kind of existential suicide.
Of course, social media doesn’t start out as nihilism. Social media appeals to many as a way to bond with other human beings. However, the process of pouring ourselves into an online avatar is not one of bonding but one of self-obsession. The issue is the material published: people’s everyday, ordinary lives. Moments and sequences are encapsulated in photos, videos, and 140-character messages designed for consumption.
In the name of vulnerability, no stone is left unturned. A few clicks will take you from a news article to an Instagram account that walks through people’s bedrooms, kitchen cabinets, and postpartum diapering (for the mother, not the baby). In “private” Facebook groups with thousands of strangers, or, worse, people you actually know, you’ll very quickly encounter detailed explanations of a child’s medical conditions and find out, without asking, whose husband is uncircumcised.
Vulnerability is an essential part of human bonding; what is most personal can also be what is most universal. Yet, privacy is a self-preservation mechanism worth keeping. Revealing intimate secrets to strangers is embarrassing, not being vulnerable. Such exhibitionism comes at far greater cost to the specimen than benefit to the audience. This seems, nonetheless, the inexorable end of social media. The coffee spoons we measure out our days with are lined up in orchestrated photographs and videos for others to evaluate.
Evidence of this self-obsession comes in the form of memoirs by online influencers, à la The New York Times runaway bestseller Girl, Wash Your Face. Such writing offers a strange anti-climax as we’re sold something revolutionary and end up with a laundry list of “vulnerable confessions.” Rachel Hollis of the face-washing fame includes such riveting details as the circumstances in which she experiences urinary incontinence and the fact that she shaves her toes. The miles of self-examination turn out to be a slapdash attempt by the publishing industry to capture online fans rather than a revelatory human story. The effects of our collective myopia are not limited to nonfiction; even fiction of recent years is often little more than thinly veiled memoir with all its confessional baggage.
To be sure, navel-gazing is nothing new. However, for a great many centuries few people had the luxury. It was left to the rarefied aristocrats like Michel de Montaigne to detail the art of the bowel movement; he at least had the philosophical training to make such reflections interesting.
There is no coincidence in the fact that a self-consuming form of communication occupies more waking hours than any other form of leisure in wealthy countries at the same time that the suicide rate has climbed. Social media didn’t cause this, but it surely can’t be helping. Perhaps it’s merely a symptom of our narcissism, that two-edged sword of overweening self-esteem and inevitable self-loathing.
If the dominant narrative of our lives becomes our self-constructed timeline, “our truth,” then most of us will be bored and depressed. Clinical depression is one thing, for which there is professional help. Cultural malaise, of which most of us partake, is quite another. Perhaps we should be depressed if our lives are, in fact, depressing. Why wouldn’t we be bored by endlessly rehearsing the story of our own lives?
Stated another way, social media can feed into a self-consuming nihilism when it is treated as idolatry. Often, idolatry is not a conscious choice but the result of a lack of choice. By falling into a pattern of viewing our lives as important enough to warrant updates for an audience, we act as gods. The Triune God is the only being worthy of continuous and eternal self-reflection.
Introspection for us mortals can be revelatory and is an important occasional pursuit, but what deep knowledge is gained by narrating our lives in real time? Our small stories are meaningful and beautiful, but we as creatures cannot know their full meaning and beauty in the middle of living them.
We have only to look to Prufrock for proof of this. Returning to the poem, the outcome for our insect is bleak. In the end, Prufrock seems unable to escape his self-imposed isolation and indecision. He asks:
Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
It seems Prufrock cannot bring himself to act, convinced the mermaids will not sing to him, lingering as a spectator, Till human voices wake us, and we drown.
What is our response to the self-selected nihilism of social media? If you reveal that you avoid it, you’re likely to be met with an indignant sniff at your pretension. So, many of us plod along. But at what cost?
Social media can be harmless, even useful. However, when taken to its logical end it can be a poison pill that makes our private lives public and our story limited and human, not divinely written. If scrolling through Facebook or coming up with pithy captions for Instagram makes you bored and listless, join the pretentious and ditch your account. If the glowing screen perpetually hovering between mother and child to capture moments of fleeting beauty disturbs you, put your own phone away. Don’t be like Prufrock waiting for the inevitable end; chart a happier course.
On the other hand, if you want to keep doing something silly that makes you miserable, in the profound words of social media doyen Rachel Hollis, “That’s on you.”
(Photo credit: Shutterstock)