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{sxsw lessons} On Social Media’s Effect on Our Relationships with Ourselves & Others

Posted Mar 15 2012 1:25pm

“We put the version of us most likely to win approval out there. In a culture that raises women to be pleasers, we are all about approval.”

That was the opening slide during the How Women Present Themselves in the Digital Age panel at SXSW on Saturday afternoon. It was the first of many times during that session I thought “YES!!!”

I went to three sessions that discussed how people present themselves and interact with others online: How Women Present Themselves in the Digital AgePsychology of Narcissism and How It Affects Brands, and The Algorithm Method: Love in the Social Media Age.

The first, How Women Present Themselves in the Digital Age, was one of my favorite panels during SXSW. The session was mainly about how women’s desire to be liked plays out online. The panelists were Tiffany Shlain (filmmaker and creator of the Webby Awards), Susan Orlean (staff writer at The New Yorker and author), Margaret Johnson (Editor of HuffPost Women), Bianca Bosker (Senior Tech Editor at The Huffington Post), and Lisa Ling (executive producer/host of “Our America” on OWN, former field correspondent for The Oprah Winfrey Show, and contributor to ABC News’ Nightline and National Geographic’s Explorer).

Lisa felt very strongly that all the technology surrounding us makes women more insecure than ever before. ”It’s exacerbated all the insecurities I had growing up,” she said. “Already it’s fucking hard enough to be liked by your friends.” (Aside from just being excited to hear Lisa Ling say “fuck” so emphatically, I totally agreed with her point.) Tiffany pointed out that the very language we use in social media — “Like me,” “Follow me,” “fans,” “followers,” etc. — is inherently judgmental.

I thought that was a really interesting point. We see the Facebook Like button is everywhere, but how does its ubiquity affect the creators of the content that is being liked, commented on, shared, etc. When we put something on the Internet, we are doing it because we want a response, and we take it personally if we don’t get one. “The silence can be deafening,” Bianca said. “When you put something out there and don’t hear anything it can be like…’holy shit.’”

So why do we take it so personally? Well, someone in the audience made a really good point: because our fans, number of friends, comments, page views, and followers suddenly matters. In the Psychology of Narcissism session, one panelist, Michael Dolan (a strategist for Spooky English PR) was adamant that the best way to decide if someone is an influencer (and therefore worthy of attention, swag, opportunities, and money) is to use numbers. He said he won’t work with anyone who doesn’t provide metrics. While not every company is looking at numbers, it’s clear that the most popular people on social media (Lady Gaga, Kim Kardashian) are now richer and more powerful because of that popularity. And it’s not just celebrities — we see this with everyday bloggers too. Casie, the blogger and self-proclaimed narcissist on the Psychology of Narcissism panel called it “social Darwinism; if you don’t have [the numbers], you get left behind.”

The idea that social media makes people insecure was also something discussed in the Algorithm Method session (my other favorite session at SX), though it was discussed more in the context of relationships and technology. Panelist Elizabeth Bernstein (relationship columnist at the Washington Post) talked about how, for a lot of people, texting is about power and control — you don’t have to reply immediately, and the longer you wait to reply, the more it can mess with the person who is waiting on the other end.  ”We revert back to 14-year-olds on our phones,” she said.

At the How Women Present Themselves in the Digital Age panel, Tiffany and Susan seemed to be more of the school of thought that the web actually plays to women’s strengths. Susan said that her husband doesn’t get how she’s comfortable meeting people in real life that she’s only known online, but it makes perfect sense to her (and to most of us who were in attendance). That we can form communities so easily and  is part of what attracts   It’s a place where we can connect and build social circles without limits. “Women are the original social media,” Susan said.

During that same session, Margaret, brought up another question that I heard discussed several times at SX: are you the same person online and offline? Lisa, Bianca, and Tiffany all gave a strong “no,” but each had different reasons. Lisa said that it seems like online, everyone just projects the life they want. She talked about how there is a lot of pressure to be on display with all the photo sharing, and that that makes us feel like we need to share more attractive photos of ourselves. Bianca said that she’s different online, but not in a bad way. Rather, she can highlight a part of herself online (her “inner nerd,” she said) that her friends might not want to hear about at dinner parties. She can write about her thoughts on, say, Google+, because this is an audience that wants to hear about it, while people in real life may not be as interested. Tiffany and Susan said they were mostly themselves online, though Susan said that she’s nicer online (she said if a stranger came up to her on the street and started talking to her — essentially what we do on Twitter — she’d freak out). The next day at the narcissism panel, Casie said, “Everything I put online is real but it is very crafted.” She said she’s selective about what goes online because she has to maintain her wholesome, friendly, positive image. She doesn’t Tweet late at night, doesn’t do any negative reviews, and doesn’t even blog when she’s having a bad day.

While I think we all know that people are different online and in real life (as Bianca pointed out, we’ve all seen a friend’s amazing vacation photos and known she was fighting with her boyfriend the whole time), I’m fascinated by why this is. Personally, I felt more like Susan in the “as real as I can be” camp. I’d like to be more real, but there’s a line I don’t want to cross because I want to be gainfully employed and respectful of others’ right to privacy. But when it comes to, say, posting the most flattering pictures of myself…yeah, I want to look my best. That said, Casie’s comments had me cringing; I felt like she crossed the line between filtering and just being fake.

Jacob Small, the clinical psychologist at the Psychology of Narcissism panel, tried to answer the question of why we do that. He said that inauthenticity can be a way to protect ourselves from our true selves and that narcissists (and not everyone on social media is actually a narcissist) seek validation and positive reinforcement. He said that putting something out there for validation isn’t necessarily unhealthy but “it can cross a line to compulsive in people who are pre-disposed to it. ”

The Algorithm panel talked a lot about how being so plugged in is hurting our relationships. Panelist Susan Miller (CEO and founder of YourTango) talked about a YourTango study that showed that the two things couples fight about most these days are actually communication and not feeling valued. Elizabeth got into how technology is part of  that – both because people communicate so poorly on social media and because people are actually jealous of their significant other’s phone. She talked a lot about how people text and e-mail the most inappropriate things — breakups, good news, bad news, death. I actually disagreed with her that this is all inappropriate; I think it’s generational. I feel like a lot of people my age didn’t ever go through that period as teenagers when we talked to our friends at night on the phone for hours…we just started with texting them for hours. I think we’ve developed a more nuanced way of communicating via text or IM and I think that might be why we’re so much more comfortable having so many of those serious conversations via text. Like, if someone who typically texts me calls me, my first thought is, “Oh no…who’s dead?” (I really wanted to tell her that and when I finally got my chance, it ended up leading to an awesome conversation — but more on that in another post!)

I think everyone knows that social media and technology can affect our relationships in a bad way, but it was nice to hear how professionals handle this. I mean, if I feel too stressed out and plugged-in and I’m an Average Jane, I have to imagine that, you know, Lisa Ling feels even more stressed out. But it sounds like everyone feels this way. ”The world now demands that you create this 4 dimensional entity,” Susan said. “It takes something out of you. It’s like one of those Tomagatchis. You’ve created this thing and now you have to feed it.”

Bianca said that she was so busy responding to other people all day that by the time she’d get home, her parents or her boyfriend would try to talk to her and she’d have this “WHAT DO YOU WANT FROM ME?” total overreaction. Now she won’t respond to people via e-mail or on social media at the expense of eye contact with someone real. At the Algorithm panel, Michael Lazerow, the CEO of Buddy Media who I just loved, said that people get really pissed when he’s tweeting but hasn’t answered their e-mails yet. “But answering your e-mails is doing your work,” he said. “Tweeting is my work.” He said people just have expectations of us on social media that might not be right for us.

No one is rejecting those expectations as much as Tiffany, who has started unplugging for an entire day each week. She said people are shocked to hear this, but she said her family observes the Sabbath (more out of tradition than for religious reasons) and she said that it’s a break from getting “too much input” from the outside world. “It resets me in the most beautiful way,” she said. “I can’t be a good mother and a good filmmaker if I answer all those e-mails.” When I asked her how she handles the fact that people expect you to be on social media and e-mail 24/7 (and, since their “likes” and “follows” are what keeps you in business, they get upset with you if you don’t send a fast response) she said you just have to be firm.

“This?” she said. “Shabbat, the Sabbath? It’s not like a new thing.” Everyone laughed, because it’s so true; people have always known that you need some time to unplug and be alone with the people you love. Why is it so hard to believe it’s true? I talked to Eric about it later and I think we’re going to start spending 24 hours unplugged each weekend now. I’ve been moving more in that direction on the weekends lately, just because I often feel so burned out that I can’t make myself look at a screen anymore, but I like the idea of making it an official thing.

When we were walking out of that session, Meghann turned to me and said, “A lot of that stuff we already knew, but sometimes you just need to hear someone else say it.”

And that’s so true. Sometimes you do need to hear it, and hear that it’s a problem that everyone struggles with. The tone during these sessions was just so comfortable; it felt like it was friends discussing this, not women that I consider to be, you know, kind of amazing. It was both reassuring and depressing to feel like everyone feels trapped by social media at some point or another.

I just love discussing how people interact and relate to each other and how people interact through social media so these sessions were right up my alley. I could go on and on about what was discussed in these three sessions (and there are some other aspects of the How Women Present Themselves in the Digital Age session that I’ll mention in future posts) but I’ll end things here. I’d love to hear your thoughts on these major themes and on some of the quotes and points I shared!

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