These philosophical theories will transform your experience of social media

A jumble of selves on different platforms.
A jumble of selves on different platforms.
Image: CC via Pixabay/dizer
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Social media is where we can meet, greet, and see what other people are doing and saying. But many people experience it more like a form of torture, unfortunately, and use it to hurt themselves. Instead, you can choose to use it wisely, and in so doing, you may construct a better world.

Much of our anxiety around social media has to do with questions of how to present ourselves online and who to find interesting. From a scientific and philosophical perspective, however, there is no fundamental self—just a story called consciousness created by our brains to make meaning from experiences.

We experience ourselves as real, participating in what neuroscientists call the “common hallucination” of reality, so we construct personalities which we project to the world, in person and online. But if there is no self, no one is really tweeting anyway, at least on some level. And with this added perspective, social media need not be so stressful.

Few of us deliberately show our whole selves online or elsewhere, even when we’re trying to seem like we’re authentic and honest. That’s a good thing. In our lives, we all play various roles and wear different masks for different tasks—worker, partner, friend, relative, artist, welder, Instagram influencer, say. Since there’s no such thing as a coherent or unified self, we should feel free to be fake online. But we should still try to be great, to cultivate a self that consumes and projects the qualities we’d like to see in society. 

Consider the social media influencer whose job is to present a mask that looks real-ish and awesome. They’re transacting authenticity, if you will. As much as these professional life-stylers seem to be laying out their lives online, it’s actually their fakery that makes them look great. They present only the highs, so we perceive that there are no lows.

Their skill is framing life so that it looks perfect, even though no one’s life is. The internet’s folly is to envy, well, anyone really—but especially people whose job consists of seeming to have an enviable life. Influencers would be out of work if they didn’t at least seem awesome.

The rest of us just have to manage online interactions with careful consideration. Being professionally enviable is a more popular job than ever before, but managing interactions is as old as human community. Long before social media, we constructed personas for the public square. The person who went out in the village center, wearing shoes and a hat, wasn’t acting the same way as he did when he flopped on his mat and blew out the candle at the end of the day. We can’t be our whole private selves when we venture into the public sphere, and few of us try to be.

A bit of fakery makes interactions in public life different from private life, where we can be raw, painful, and poignant. The more profound an experience or feeling, the less likely it is to warrant unvarnished mass exposure, which is why art and comedy are often used as filters for discussions of deep experiences, and why writers draft stories.

The 19th-century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche considered people to be utterly constructed. Yet he didn’t oppose the fakery, and saw no other way of being but for us each to wear a series of masks. Nietzsche admired the grace it takes to be fake for authenticity’s sake, especially when protecting our most precious or profound moments. Deep experiences are kept safe with a bit of bluster, he believed, writing:

There are occurrences of such a delicate nature that one does well to cover them up with some rudeness to conceal them; there are actions of love and extravagant generosity after which nothing is more advisable than to take a stick and give any eyewitness a sound thrashing: that would muddle his memory.

In other words, Nietzsche was saying, “Don’t keep it real.” Instead, construct the right masks for the right situation. That is as gracious as you can ever be.

The same goes for social media. All of us are are totally faking it out there, to varying degrees. But which illusions we choose do make a difference to us personally and universally, as we together construct reality.

Just as it’s preferable to eat healthy food, it’s better to create and consume smart, meaningful media that feeds our deepest needs, or to take a break from the digital streams altogether. In an illusionary world, you must still choose your illusions wisely—your life and your internet feeds will bleed into each other until they become one.

That means we are creating our reality with every tweet and post, so we should focus on understanding what’s really valuable to us; what world we wish to live in. Think too of what makes you anxious, what feeds your spirit, what makes you sick. Then you can choose who and how to be.

Here are some possible rules to adopt, for example:

  • Engage thoughtfully.
  • Do post art, ideas, creations, information, humor, and wondrous things.
  • Do try to connect with humans and understand their lives better.
  • Do cultivate connections that offer unique or insightful views.
  • Don’t follow people who make you angry, unless you’re up to exploring anger thoughtfully and seeing what your resistance to an idea signals.
  • Don’t talk complex politics in simple forums.
  • Don’t worry about showing everything you know just because others expose their ignorance.
  • Be more circumspect on the internet than in an exchange where there are other cues providing context.

Manage yourself, and the internet will just be the place you go to hang out sometimes, sharing the parts you care to show—not an all-consuming poison that demands your total nakedness and devotion. This doesn’t mean you have to stop going online. It means you shift your focus from externally-driven to internally-driven, so that your activism or art or politics are not a show, but as close to the real you as real can be.

The sage Patanjali in the fourth century CE advised readers of his classic guide to consciousness, the Yoga Sutras, to study the student rather than the text. This advice also works nicely for social media. Why worry about mastering digital platforms—knowing all the right people, as if there is such a thing, and being known by them—before mastering you? Or, in the words of the Taoist sage Lao Tzu in the Tao Te Ching, “To know others is clever. To know oneself is discerning.”