To Be Liked

How Sharing on Social Media Can Lead to Both Vulnerability and Validation

By Charlotte Lieberman

Have you ever woken up in the middle of the night and eaten precisely four spoonfuls of yogurt?

I have. In fact, I used to do so every night in a misguided, but desperate, attempt to deal with my insomnia. Eventually, my psychiatrist told me this obsessive-compulsive ritual was not helping me, and so I made it my goal to stop. Today, I no longer eat yogurt during the night, and instead save it for breakfast.

About a year ago when I found myself awake and eating yogurt at 4am, I took to Facebook to publicize my bizarre behavior to my newsfeed: “Just ate four spoonfuls of yogurt to deal with my insomnia.”

As a writer who often draws material from personal experience, I tend to use Facebook and Twitter (to a lesser extent) as platforms for irreverent personal disclosures. On some level, I think I do this to dissolve feelings of shame by performing to the world as though I have none. On my feed, you’ll see me talk about my OCD, my Zoloft prescription, the self-loathing thoughts I have during daily meditations, my chronic health issues, and so on. Even though my social media habits feel addictive, I also recognize that there can be something therapeutic about sharing my demons for everyone to see. I feel less alone, and I would hazard the guess that some people even derive comfort from my publicizing the things they may not feel comfortable saying at all.

But I also share to get validation—deliberately, consciously. When I woke up five hours after writing my random, insomnia-induced yogurt post on Facebook, I was disappointed to discover that it had gotten zero likes by 9am. Immediately, I deleted the post so as to pretend that it had never seen the light of Facebook. I rationalized that it was probably too confusing to be funny. After all, who eats snacks to quell insomnia? According to my Facebook feed, no one willing to admit it.

A 2016 psychology study out of UCLA entitled “The Power of the Like in Adolescence” used fMRI brain scans to examine the neurological effects of social media on the brains of 32 teenagers (ages 13 to 18). The study found that getting “likes” on Instagram posts activated the teens’ reward circuits—specifically, a part of the brain called the nucleus accumbens, which is also activated when eating chocolate or winning money. Another study conducted by the University of Queensland in 2014 sought to examine the effects of “likes” on participants using a more anecdotal-approach: a group of active Facebook users were told to behave normally on the site, but were not told that their posts would be receiving no engagement. Every comment and shared post were left untouched—no responses or “likes” from followers. At the end of the study, participants reported feeling negatively about their self-esteem and overall well-being.

The number of other studies out there that examine both the intrapersonal and interpersonal effects of sharing on social media is near infinite. For good reason, contemporary psychologists are fascinated by our current culture of sharing. In a study conducted by The New York Times, 68% of participants said they share to both give others and themselves a better sense of their identity. Now with social media platforms, everyone can say who they are and what they think at all times—including 4am. As new media theorist Clay Shirky once said in an interview, “You used to have to own a radio tower or television tower or printing press. Now all you have to have is access to an Internet cafe or a public library, and you can put your thoughts out in public.”

But what is perhaps most interesting to me about all this is that personal disclosures in particular seem to be opportunities for either one of two responses: validation, or policing of some kind. I realized this in a very poignant way a few months ago.

On November 9, 2016, the day after Trump was named president-elect of the United States, I received a polite but invasive Facebook message from a woman I barely knew in response to a photo I had shared of a roast chicken. I had called my partner earlier that day to ask if he would roast us a chicken for dinner because I felt depressed and wanted to seek comfort in food, for better or for worse. The woman who wrote to me told me that eating chicken was emblematic of “speciesism,” which apparently refers to the ideology of thinking your species is “above” others—like chickens. I felt like she was policing my diet, and the whole encounter struck me as a parody of social media culture.

I should rewind here to say that I have suffered from anorexia ever since the age of 14. Today, I eat pretty normally, yet sometimes I  feel so repulsive that I want to disappear. The part of me that is a radical feminist then gets stirred up in a rage by my own self-loathing, and I settle somewhere in the middle, between honoring my insecurities and recognizing the valid reaction of my politics. As poet and activist Audre Lorde once wrote, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

When I posted a photo on Instagram and Facebook of the chicken I had requested to eat, I wrote the deliberately silly caption: “When life gives you a racist and sexist president, roast a chicken.” When I think back on why I posted it, I don’t feel anything profound. I don’t think that I was posting the photo as a way to honor my desires and empower myself. I think I just wanted some likes.

I got some, but I was also approached by someone I have only spoken to a handful of times in person, criticized, and instructed to contact her for tips about beginning a “beautiful” plant-based diet. I was not quite among the 54% of young adults being cyberbullied on Facebook, but I did feel that my disclosure was being inappropriately policed. I ended up writing back a response that used my vulnerability as a kind of weapon. I told her that my choice to eat the chicken felt politically productive in the sense that I was accepting something about my desires and my body. I then told her I didn’t think my personal choices around self-care were in the same category as systemic oppression. I felt that my argument was totally correct, and also like I was revising my actions to sound far more intentional than they actually were.

Maybe my posting the chicken photo really was an attempt to get a gold star from other people about my mini-life triumph defeating the oppression of my own patriarchy-trained mind. Or maybe I was just bored and lonely, and wanted affirmation.

I can’t say for sure what the answers are, but I do know that there is something necessarily political about checking in with yourself about how you create boundaries and what you expect from other people in response—on and offline. Yes, I was miffed by the encounter. But I also didn’t think about the fact that I was, on some level, looking for a response. I just didn’t know what my boundaries were until I felt that they were being crossed.

Minding one’s business certainly carries different connotations in the age of social media, where every move no matter how small is an opportunity to perform a micro-aggression or to police one. And more importantly, minding one’s business has expansive potential at a time when our voices need to be expressed more than ever—so that we can fight for our own rights, and for those who need us as allies more than ever.

The bottom line, I think, is that the most productive foundation we can create for moving forward is being mindful of our intentions when it comes to sharing our points of view—or our photos of roast chickens. Self-care can be political, but perhaps only when it is for the self.

Charlotte Lieberman is a Brooklyn-based writer and editor. You can read her prose in Cosmopolitan, Guernica, The Harvard Business Review, i-D, Marie Claire, BOMB, and Refinery29 and her poetry in The Boston Review, The Colorado Review, and Nat.Brut. Follow her @clieberwoman on Twitter, or at her blog www.fatfreebalsamic.com.

Images courtesy of unsplash.com

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