02/28/2013 10:40 am ET Updated Apr 30, 2013

The Inherent Competitiveness of Social Media

My name is Anjali and I'm a Twitterholic. But I have a confession to make: social media gives me anxiety. It's not about constantly needing my phone with me or wasting too much time: it's about feeling like a loser. The inherent competitiveness of each of my online networks is enough to drive me mad.

The theory is a good one: connect people across the internet who might not have found each other any other way. But add the very public "popularity" factor and for anyone other than Justin Bieber, social media can start to make you feel bad about yourself.

I'm one of those people who follows nearly a thousand people on Twitter and has each and every one of them meticulously organized into categorical lists. I love to share memes on Facebook and interact with old friends from high school. As cumbersome as it is, I find LinkedIn useful and am glad the professional networking tool exists. I'm also the type to feverishly try every new and potentially useful (or useless) social network I hear about, including the topic-focused (GoodReads) or strange (Pheed).

Social media is a great resource -- it can help you meet people with similar interests, keep up with friends you don't normally get to see or even help you get a job.

But as much I love it, checking Twitter on my phone every morning is enough to make me pull my hair out. "Do I have any new followers?" "Did anyone re-tweet anything I said?" "Will I ever get verified?"

It's not a new societal idea to want to rank people according to how important they are -- we already do it every day by paying attention to celebrities or electing politicians. What is new is that now, even the average person can pit themselves up against their neighbor and see who is more popular. It's kind of like high school and just like high school, it can be terrifying.

When "friending" or "following" someone new, it feels like we're all immediately judged based on how many people are already our "friends" or "followers." I'm slightly guilty of this myself - though it's most important to me to find people who post interesting content, I also tend to check and see how many people are already following them. The obvious implication is the fewer followers they have, the less interesting they are -- whether or not that's the truth.

It must be affecting the younger social media generation, as well. My sister, a sophomore in college, told me it can be "anxiety-inducing" to try to make sure you have a lot of followers or friends. And she brought up something I had never considered about social media competitiveness, something which must exist heavily in a micro-universe like college: If you're re-tweeting someone or replying to them regularly, what does it say about you if they never follow you back? In reality, it could mean any number of innocuous things but to a college student, it probably ups the competitive ante.

But how could we possibly get away from the competitiveness of social media, even we tried? Although it causes stress, the popularity factor is also a great draw to these social tools. How would we know who's influential on the topics we like if it weren't for follower numbers? For that matter, how would we know how influential we were if we couldn't see our own re-tweets or likes?

For the time being, it doesn't seem like there's any way to get around the inherent competitiveness of social media other than to just embrace it. For some, that might mean eagerly trying to find the best content on the web, post it as quickly as possible and get the most followers. For others, it might mean being relaxed in the knowledge that not having the most followers is okay and it's fine to just use Twitter once in awhile.

For me, it might just mean learning to accept that I'll never be Justin Bieber.