A few weeks ago, I found myself sitting at my favorite bar with a new book and glass of wine. Outside, the weather oscillated between sleet and snow, enhancing the warm coziness of the scene inside.
If it sounds like I'm waxing poetic here, I am. Bear with me.
The moment was romantic and picturesque, and I was overcome with the uncommon calmness of being alone.
So, naturally, upon realizing and appreciating my solitary contentedness, I felt compelled to share the moment with the masses.
I snapped a photo with my iPhone. In the foreground were my book and full glass of wine, illuminated by the table's twinkling candle. In the background were the gray windows and bustling bar. Instagram's fanciful filters added a seductive golden haze to the photo. Moment = captured.
And then, just as I was going through the social media motions, about to click "Share," I experienced an unfamiliar hesitation: Why can't you just enjoy this for what it is? Don't rob this happy solitude of its essence by sharing it.
I clicked out of Instagram and resumed my reading, but I had trouble concentrating. I felt a disconcerting pride in having resisted the temptations of social media. And I felt an even more disconcerting pull to succumb and just upload the damn picture already.
The unbidden thought crossed my mind that this kind of internal conflict was ripe for clinical analysis. After all, it was recently debated in the New York Times whether immediate gratification via social media was "making us narcissistic -- overly focused on ourselves, with an outsized vision of our own influence."
"Good god," I wondered, "Am I some sort of attention-loving egoist?!"
Probably. But -- mercifully and worrisomely -- we all are.
Pick your poison: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, SnapChat, FourSquare, LinkedIn, etc. etc. We are all champions and victims of social media's self-actualizing allure.
For the majority of us who willfully participate in this contemporary ritual of sharing, enjoying moments privately has become a sort of exercise -- a deliberate resistance to the intoxicating acknowledgement and approval of our peers.
But does sharing really just boil down to a pseudo narcissistic craving for acknowledgement and approval? Not entirely.
I mean, sure, that's part of it. As Maureen O'Connor discussed at length in New York Magazine, "like addiction" is a thing. Simply: We all care if our shares get likes. (Don't pretend like you don't, you self-righteous contrarian. I know you care!).
But that's not even the half of it.
Why go to a crowded restaurant when you can just eat at home? Why share a photo when you can just print it for your own personal collection? Because we are human and, as Aristotle so famously noted, "Man is by nature a social animal."
By nature, we crave and depend on social engagement. It just so happens that now, in this technological era, our social impulses have found another outlet via a handful of social media channels.
I love social media. I love when my best friend from high school, who I haven't seen in a year, Instagrams a photo from her trip to Turks and Caicos. I love when my friend SnapChats me a video of his commute home from work, featuring a woman riding a horse along the road. I love when my buddy tweets a link to a fascinating and random article about the Darwin Fish that I would never have stumbled upon otherwise. I love when my college debate buddy updates his LinkedIn with a new and impressive job title. I love when my little sister, who's studying abroad, uploads a Facebook album chronicling a trip with her band of travelers, none of whom I have met but with whom I feel a connection.
With each update, I am enriched and feel an in-the-moment connectedness that is nothing if not genuine.
But, as with any social phenomenon, social media has its detractors. The disillusioned brush aside the likes and comments as being "disingenuous," requiring "little effort." They say conversations via social media don't feel "real." They complain that social media platforms are a playground for one-upmanship and bragging. They insist that if the relationship is meaningful, it will endure via more "legitimate" means, like email or telephone. Oh, how detached even those mediums must have seemed to previous generations.
Though I empathize, I fundamentally can't stand these arguments. How sanctimoniously dismissive and unappreciative they are of the evolving global landscape.
We live in an increasingly transient world. Kids go to summer camps hours away from home. When they get to college, many more are going out-of-state, and an increasing number are studying abroad. The internship and job search has become international in scope, with the highest number of Americans living overseas to-date.
True, this global access is not enjoyed by everyone, but the pool of people to whom it is available is only increasing. By the time many of us reach late adolescence, our social networks span states and continents. Just because we don't have time or energy to consistently invest in maintaining this plurality of friendships doesn't render the friendships less legitimate. There simply aren't enough hours in a day.
I may not have had a prolonged conversation with my dear friend from Italy in over a year, but I engage with him regularly. I know from his Instagram that he won his swim meet last weekend and he knows from my Facebook that I was recently on vacation to visit my sister. So, it wasn't weird at all when I woke up this morning to an email from him, asking me to help him translate his resume from Italian to English. Similarly, it wouldn't be weird at all if, next time I'm in Italy, I crashed with him for a few days.
Social media has come to supplement, not replace, more traditional mechanisms of interaction. We still email. We still talk on the phone. We still meet for dinner. We still travel great distances to visit one another. The difference is, we no longer have to spend hours "catching up." Social media keeps us caught up so that we can dive right back into the relationship, as if we've been together, in the moment, all along.