Where do we get our values? Who or what tells us that we’re ok, that we ‘fit’? And when it comes to the crunch, whose opinions really matter? We might think we’ve left peer pressure behind with the classroom, but perhaps we’re just older versions of the same sheep. In fact, maybe the ‘herd mentality’ has an even stronger influence in a culture where we’re inescapably plugged into each other’s lives.
From what we wear, to our favourite bands and the magazines or books we read – who, or what determines our identity? You might think, for example, that you’re not much of a reader. But according to a recent survey by the Daily Telegraph, we absorb the equivalent of 174 newspapers, every day. Even back in 2007, the average individual produced the daily data equivalent of 6 newspapers. Since then, we’ve seen an explosion of social media, from Twitter to Facebook. From breakfast choices to relationship status, we’re now aware of what our peers are doing, day and night. Comparisons are inevitable, and may leave us feeling like we just don’t make the grade. But despite their tags, are such people really our ‘friends’? And can the evidence of a life lived on the net, always be trusted?
The fact is, that all relationships, including online ones, are based largely on trust. Re-visiting an old episode of Midsomer Murders alone on a Friday night? Not according to my twitter feed. As far as the online ego is concerned, I’m either surfing with dolphins or advising Obama. In real life I might not make it past the duvet, but check me out on the internet and even my teeth look smug.
Now I could try to justify such fabrications as harmless exaggerations – except that I’m not sure they are. (Harmless that is, not exaggerations. I’m not really a leggy pneumatic blonde).
You’ve probably read hundreds of stories about online fraudsters. Perhaps, like me, you’ve even received desperate (and misspelt) emails from acquaintances who’ve had the misfortune to be abducted by aliens/terrorists and therefore require your bank details asap. It’s easy to condemn or dismiss such obvious duplicity, but are our web (and even real-life) profiles more subtle versions of the same thing?
I’m not denouncing social media. (Aside from anything else, I’d be talking myself out of blog existence). The medium itself is neutral – but in the hands of normal, sinful people, it can be manipulated and distorted. Those networks with the potential to connect us, can also be profoundly isolating. There’s nothing lonelier than having 500 ‘friends’, none of whom you can actually talk to. Equally, the words that can heal and reveal, may also serve to mask or wound. Unlike the conversations that take place in real time, what’s written online stays there. Forever.
It’s easy and tempting to live through an avatar, but never actually engage. To compare our lives with celebrity tweets. To believe our own hype. Or to determine our worth – and values – against a peer group that doesn’t even exist.