As technology continues to astound in its ability to bring an ever-shrinking globe straight to the computer screens of the world, and with no indication of this phenomenon slowing down, a growing trend among my generation continues to trouble me. A limitless source of knowledge and opinion has allowed for many of modern life's wonders, but this sensory overload is having an effect on our personalities in a way that is not always obvious.
The ability to take any thought or picture and immediately bring it to the attention of an expansive web of friends and acquaintances is the very essence of the social media experience, and for the generation born in the late 80s and through the 90s, an experience with which we have grown up. Many of our friendships have formed through these connections and shared experiences to the extent where it is hard to imagine life without a readily available source of reassurance. As the study outlined in this Wired piece describes, the human brain is programmed in such a way that when it experiences a form of pleasure, it will continue to seek out more of it. The validation we feel when a friend "likes" something you've shared is one of these experiences. Receiving a large amount of "likes" on a status or picture can actually make us feel self-assured to a detrimental degree, negating a healthy need for self-betterment. Trouble mounts when this search for validation alters our behaviour.
For me, the rise of the Kony 2012 movement in March of last year was the direct result of this reliance. The movement centred around a carefully constructed video that was vague on specifics but clear in its goal: "raising awareness". When coupled with considered, purposeful action, the act of "raising awareness" can be a key tool for any charity or movement, but in the absence of these other facets, it can be mistaken for charity work as a whole. The desire to be seen by an ever-watching peer group has conditioned us to share these videos in order to prove our sense of morality. As these self-congratulatory statuses and tweets appeared over the week that the video "went viral", I found myself asking the question, when did it become such a distinguishable feature to be appalled by these clearly abhorrent practices?
The video campaign was forgotten about just as quickly as it spread. The expressions of anger and sadness that day came from a willingness to be seen to be doing something, rather than achieving actual progress - another badge to be worn in an ever-growing collection of non-committal phrases.
When awareness alone is taken to be the equivalent of true charity work, it can even have a detrimental effect on those it purportedly supports. The 2011 documentary film Pink Ribbons, Inc. tells the story of the bastardisation of the pink ribbon and the colour pink as the symbol for breast cancer. Companies that sell carcinogenic products are also selling stylised pink "breast cancer awareness" items. It smacks of hypocrisy, but few are willing to challenge this practice for fear of appearing to be against the central issue behind the cause. It's a phenomenon that is sadly becoming commonplace.
A further offshoot of this need for immediate gratification is the growing trend of so-called "catfishing", a term coined by the creators of the 2010 documentary Catfish to describe the experience of entering an online-only relationship with someone that does not turn out to be quite who they say they are. The subsequent TV series and the high-profile case of college American football player Manti Te'o have launched "catfishing" into the consciousness of the mainstream. To me, this is another example of the impact of social media on our personalities.
My generation has grown up with the message that your personality quirks and idiosyncrasies are to be embraced, and though that is a comforting thought, like anything it can be taken too far. Negative feedback is a large part of socialisation, fuelling the desire to change. Though no one wants to see a society of monotonous, robot-like people it is dangerous to coddle every oddity at the same time. An essential part of growing up is recognising the behaviours in yourself that need changing or scaling back in order to become a better functioning person. Resting on the laurel that is the idea of being "true to yourself" is breeding a certain, stubborn type of person that has trouble in the greater world outside of their internet presence. The ever-growing reliance on online relationships is a symptom of this, as people refuse to alter themselves in order to be better suited to dating someone in their immediate surroundings and instead find an online persona that will indulge them instead.
Ultimately, it is essential for the social media generation to remain cognisant of the difference between their online and in-person interactions, as becoming too lost in the former is beginning to have a worrying impact on the latter.
Follow Greg Stevenson on Twitter: www.twitter.com/gregstevenson_