October 6, 2022

FRIEDMAN | Social Media: The Thief of Joy

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If comparison is the thief of joy, social media is the thief of happiness. Through the invasive spread of these apps into our lives, comparison has become a daily fact of life for most students.

Within Cornell’s warped social structure, LinkedIn and Instagram are almost equivalent. Bizarrely, at Cornell, a LinkedIn stalk may even provide more “value” than an Instagram search. Either way, neither Instagram nor LinkedIn provide a semblance of significant value to anyone — nothing deeper than a cursory glance at someone’s past and present involvements and surroundings. I think most people have realized this by now, as old high school acquaintances fade into the background and into irrelevance.

Coming into college, we are conditioned to curate our profiles to provide a solid first impression to the friends we make in the first weeks. However, as the months pass and the rest of our lives come into focus, those old memories are replaced with new ones, and the only thing that actually seems to matter becomes our core relationships and times spent with others — not superficial perceptions.

Also, as times change, a sense of awkwardness develops. As I was writing this column, I talked to James Kelly ’25, who was working on a user experience project redesigning Instagram a few rooms over from me. After noticing the similarities between my column and the project, Kelly explained that “as I’ve graduated high school and been in college, [Instagram has] become a weird mix of who I follow and it almost feels obsolete.” “Instagram can be altered in some ways because it’s very artificial, but no matter what, people immediately have access to everyone you know,” he said. “It makes things in the past more permanent. Your history is augmentable but it is still there.”

This lingering feeling that the past and present are unchangeable — that no matter how and why people change they will always be moored down by their past — might read as a narrow critique. Unfortunately, this is not just some irrelevant perspective. Considering the off-the-charts rates of anxiety, depression and hopelessness among youth, social media is definitely a significant factor when it comes to mental health (spawned in part by the COVID-19 pandemic).

Humanity is biologically and mentally conditioned to compare, but this newest strain of online comparison affects us in an innately unnatural and devastating manner. Kat Martin ’25, who deleted Instagram after amassing 3,000 followers, remarks that she used to be a “teenage girl Instagram prototype.” Years later, she noted that “to me, Instagram widened a gap between my self-perception and my self-presentation, causing a lot of dissonance over who I felt I wanted to be. I felt like I had constraints on my identity.” 

A beautiful sunset after a walk to class is derailed when a brief check of an app shows us a random acquaintance on a French beach during their semester abroad. A miracle of human achievement – a beautiful campus with priceless limestone architecture, sharp, highly educated and achieving peers, and brilliant professors – all erased from a quick glance at the phone.

I am just as fallible to this as we all are. But through my experiences abroad and a deep-seated understanding of what is important, I have learned to tune out the noise.

Personally, I am somewhat active on Instagram, Snapchat and LinkedIn. However, I have either deleted or deactivated every other major platform. Twitter is a nozzle for endless nonsense, especially in political circles, and the gossip of washed-up pundits and commentators has almost zero correlation to actual political developments. TikTok is a mass distraction to an entire generation and should be kept far, far away from the impressionable minds of the youth, in my opinion.

LinkedIn can be useful for getting updates about new job postings or checking on the journeys of old friends. Instagram has some limited use for sharing big updates or cool trips. Once all is said and done, especially at a big school like Cornell, Instagram has little social relevance outside of small circles (outside of someone asking: “let me see a picture of them?”).

Photos are important — to relive old memories, to share years later, or to remember forgotten details. However, many people equate good photos with good social media posts. This perception could not be further from the truth. The best photos are the ones that have a significant personal meaning and are kept private from the public’s prying eyes. Some of the most meaningful pictures are not even aesthetic or cool; they invoke a bygone era or a special, unfit-to-print (or publish) moment with longtime friends.

I had a friend tell me “college is the time to establish our life’s work.” I do not think this means shutting down and reading books from sunrise to sunset. All it means is discovering some purpose and true passion in life, whether it is professional, academic or personal. To me, it means meeting real friends and establishing a strong connection with them. Making stupid memories is part of that, as are the more “sophisticated” nights out. No matter what – the best nights (and days) are the ones with such complicated and elaborate stories that no single photo or even video will ever do justice. As long as I have a strong circle of cool people around me — no evidence on social media required — that will last through the tough times and the massive breakthroughs, I’ll be a happy man.

Aaron Friedman is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]. Honest AF runs every other Thursday this semester.