The first step towards healing is admitting you’ve got a problem in the first place – and that’s what we all need to do. On the count of three, follow my lead with the social media serenity prayer. 1... 2... 3:
“Grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, such as the six-hour Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, Messenger and OculusVR outage caused by configuration changes to the Facebook servers.
“Grant us the courage to change the things we can, such as saving (in “drafts”) that picture of our dinner and our tiny, cute dogs wearing booties that we’re desperate to share with our friends.
“Grant us the wisdom to know the difference between a life that feels empty; devoid of meaning – the barren wasteland of our mobile phones a tundra for which the only respite would be an oasis of validatory ‘likes’ or tiny, small circles telling us that our crush was viewing our stories – and the fulfillment of an update in the extended family WhatsApp group as to second cousin Jim’s thoughts on the vaccine (nothing good), mixed with some outrage over the changes to recycling bin collection day on the Facebook Neighbourhood Watch Group Residents Only *READ PINNED TWEET BEFORE POSTING*.
There: feel better now?
If you’re anything like me (and whether you want to admit it or not, you probably are) then you struggled a little last night. Whether you were at home in front of the TV and desperately seeking connection on a rainy Monday night, or “out” out and – ahem – wanting to tell the world how epic Patti Smith was, live at the Royal Albert Hall (“she’s 74 and glorious!” I wrote in a text message to a friend, like it was the 90s again); it was hard not being able to idly scroll and see what people were up to, or to share jokes, thoughts and musings from the sofa. If you couldn’t take a picture of your dinner and post it on Instagram, did you even have dinner at all?
Of course, bereft of all other options, people took to the last vestiges of socialisation, the playground of the wannabe witty: Twitter. I found myself applauding the tech giant’s contribution to the gleeful outpouring of snark. “Hello literally everyone”, the social media team for the bird app tweeted, to a staggering 3m “likes”.
Some hailed the surprise social black out as a victory for those trapped into dates they didn’t want to go on: “Shout out to me and the guy I was meant to be going on a date with this evening, resolutely not texting one another, knowing we’ll use the WhatsApp outage as the reason neither of us got in touch”; while others mourned the plight of those halfway through a hook-up, only to find themselves resolutely alone: “Thoughts and prayers to those midway through arranging a hook-up halfway through everything going down frantically trying to find them on LinkedIn.” Someone sent me a message on a dating app (sadly, those weren’t down) to say he’d “never felt so peaceful”. Amen to that.
Still, while I jest about our collective addiction to being “online” and the internal irritable battle we experience when we’re forced to switch off (it can be cathartic to take time out from social media, but it feels different when we don’t get a choice), there’s also a serious side to having our main methods of communication brutally halted without warning.
For many, WhatsApp, Messenger and other platforms are the only ways they can keep in regular contact with family overseas; in these Covid times, keeping this line open has never felt more important. In fact, communication in general feels more precious than ever, after 18 months of lockdowns and accidental solitary confinement.
One writer said this: “The jokes are funny and all. And social media is rotting our brains etc. But as my dad is in hospital/icu with covid (in Malaysia), and the only way we communicate as a family is via WhatsApp. The jokes are not feeling particularly humorous.” Others agreed, adding: “WhatsApp needs to come back ASAP. That’s the only way I can contact my pregnant sister and family who live abroad without getting a call card.”
I don’t have the same pressing urgency as those with family overseas, but I can understand a little about how that must feel – I have friends I speak to every single day on WhatsApp; small groups that have proved a literal lifeline – that actively improve my mental health and wellbeing, and which pulled me out of dark, dark places when lockdown started feeling all too much. Even now, when one of us is struggling, a quickly tapped-out message to our “schoolfriends” chat brings in a flood of support, care and love.
And while there are many negatives with platforms like Instagram, of course – we can point easily to reports about how the photo-sharing app has been linked to negative ratings of self-esteem, particularly in teenage girls; or studies like the one conducted by the University of Copenhagen, which found that many people suffer from “Facebook envy” – and those who abstained from using it reporting that they felt more satisfied with their lives – there are positives, too.
Such as being able to post that sizzling pic of yourself on a night out, where in a certain light (and with a hefty dose of shadow – plus a filter or two) you look a little bit like you did when you were 15 and young and beautiful, and knowing that 54 people saw it, and at least one of them you fancy and hope they fancy you. I jest. Or do I?
Like any good social media addict, there are lessons that can be learned here: such as the fact that the only way through this national obsession is (probably) through moderation. I didn’t hate the black-out, because it was temporary – I survived it; I even (shhh, whisper it) rather enjoyed being out and not feeling any pressure to post photos for others to soak in vicariously. I would like to spend less time scrolling, but I would also miss it if it was gone forever. Therein lies the crux of it.
Patti Smith rocked the Royal Albert Hall whether the people who follow me on Instagram could see her doing so or not – and if they want to hear more about it, well, they’ll just have to give me a call. Fancy that.