I recently spotted a statistic on Ad Age about how 68 percent of today's Millennials ask friends for their opinion before they try a restaurant.
I've done a lot of research on the Generation Y set and know that they are very codependent (why do anything solo except perhaps an occasional bath or some good old-fashioned solo toilet time?) when it comes to making purchases -- and even go as far as taking a picture of themselves in dressing rooms, which they then send to friends to see if their outfit is really all that. It's an alien concept to those of us who prefer shopping alone to dealing with the judgment of friends or family.
But it makes me think of a bigger point: We are turning into a thumbs-upmanship society, whether one is 24 or 44 or even the sum of those two ages. Thanks to social media, it's almost too easy to throw a question out to your Facebook friends on anything from "What's the best place for a mojito in Miami?" to "Should we go to the gym today?" to "Are jeans shorts all wrong for women over 40?" (As for that last one: in most cases, yes.) We're obsessed with crowdsourcing for input, feedback and, ultimately, approval about the most important product around: ourselves.
Here's what's wonky, though. Running concurrently is our constant need to express our opinions. We are all newscasters, commentators, music critics, fashion editors and thought leaders these days. Thanks to blogs and YouTube and status updates and constant tweets, our opinions are out there for the world to see, and we've seen people become more confident in shouting those opinions from the digital rafters, even if they are not technically trained to do so. (Anyone can be a photographer nowadays with an iPhone and an Instagram app, for instance. And everyone is a critic, based on the feedback we've gotten on our fishing snaps from Fourth of July weekend, with commentary public and private about matters large [like what we caught] and small [my hair looked appalling]. The real question is why we fished with one hand, took pictures with our cell phone in the other and posted them in real time. Could two 52-year-olds have enjoyed fishing as a couple without his high school buddies and my extended work family chiming in with chatter on the blue gills, my blue sweater, the weather, who put the worms on the hook...?)
So with all this steroidal self-expression taking place, why must we constantly seek approval on the choices we make? How can someone we are connected to on Facebook but have never met face-to-face know if we should dye our hair red? And by hitting the "Like" button on everything we're told to like, are we seeking acceptance from someone out there who also "likes" the stuff we do? I know it's all about connection, but I am sure there are types out there who care not to seek acceptance from a thousand people, and sometimes I feel myself creeping into that camp, because it's all a bit unsettling.
Back in March, Cornell University researchers found that spending time on Facebook boosted self-esteem. By posting your own edited and carefully curated view of yourself online, the study showed, you can filter out all the bad stuff you don't want people to see, and -- pow! -- instant positivity. I find it fascinating when people log their running distance and time with Nike iD technology (brilliant as it is) and post it on Facebook. Is that meant to make the rest of us slugs feel like crap when a friend runs a 7-minute mile? Or is it a cloying attempt by that runner to get approval from people, to get people to notice her and think how fit and healthy she is? (And no offense to my friends in Austin, but every one of you seems to be jogging up a storm and oversharing it. Austin is to wellness what Park Slope is to babies: parades of public life.)
Neil Strauss wrote a brutal piece for The Wall Street Journal early this month called "The Insidious Evils of 'Like' Culture," a scathing and revelatory take on our approval dependency. According to him, "[W]e don't show our true selves online, but a mask designed to conform to the opinions of those around us."
He went on to say that "[c]onversely, when we're looking at someone else's content -- whether a video or a news story -- we are able to see first how many people liked it and, often, whether our friends liked it. And so we are encouraged not to form our own opinion but to look to others for cues on how to feel." I'll tell you how his article made me feel: I immediately wanted to "like" it, and so did most of my friends in the social media stratosphere, as it was retweeted, liked and shared ad infinitum. How's that for the ultimate in perversion by association?
I guess my concern is not only the constant need for approval from others without listening to one's own inner advice columnist, but also that we are being lulled into a confidence that only really exists online -- though maybe that's no longer a danger but a reality of our online lives, which are slowly blurring into our offline ones.
Maybe as a culture we suddenly need all our various networks to be part of what we're choosing to do, buy, eat and see because sharing is no longer optional but necessary to the human experience in the digital age (and maybe even part of our DNA). And it's probably here to stay, whether you "like" it or not.
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