The Terrifying Truth About Social Media

Image result for jekyll and hyde movie

I need to get my shit together.

It’s not quite an existential concern, but it is a problem of identity, and that wigs me out. No doubt there are support groups for this sort of thing. They probably meet in church basements and sit in circles, talking at each other with wild eyes and trembling lips. Who can blame them for the terror they feel? Who can blame me?

Is there any abjection more profound than witnessing the dissolution of one’s very identity—the shattering of one’s self-image into a million silvery shards? Then to peer into those fragments and see oneself reflected back a million-fold, each face incomplete and inauthentic?

I’m speaking, of course, about social media.

Let me back up a bit.

When I was working in content marketing, we helped our clients develop a brand presence on all the major digital platforms, including Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, and SnapChat. Each channel required its own tactical approach, which meant developing tailored content and schedules for each, with the goal of driving maximum customer engagement. For all the various channels we addressed, though, there existed the unifying presence of the brand. If at any time, a content developer required guidance on the right tone for a tweet or composition for an Instagram image, she simply referred to the all-important brand guidelines as her lodestar. Everything—every promotion, video, whitepaper, tweet, meme, blog post, or podcast—was ruled by the almighty brand, like alien fighters swirling around the vast mothership.

It All Seemed So Well Intentioned

My personal use of social media started over a decade ago. As digital channels became more important to our clients, I figured I should habituate myself to their content requirements. I started with LinkedIn, which felt like putting my resume in a bottle and chucking it into the ocean. A little later I got going on Facebook, then Twitter. I have an Instagram account but I seldom post to it. Somehow being middle-aged and living in upstate New York where it’s overcast, like, 97 percent of the time, never felt conducive to a vibrant Instagram persona. Still, I persevered with the Twitter-Facebook-LinkedIn, triumvirate.

When I left content marketing as a full-time gig, I focused more on nonfiction writing, which led me to double down on my social media efforts. After all, I realized, it’s not much fun pouring your soul into a 1,000-word essay and then filing it away in obscurity. I wanted to share my thoughts.

That’s how the trouble started. Understanding the consequences of my intensified online activity, however, took several months.

The revelation began unfolding on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day this year. I was sitting at my desk, nursing a nice coffee rush and wrapping up a tenderly contemplative blog post on King and his legacy as a clergyman. The piece ended wistfully with the idea that we best honor King by emulating his ability to remain civil even when his antagonists grew abusive. “If, while contemplating what forbearance looks like,” I wrote, “I quiet one strident voice in the world of social media feeds, MLK 2019 will have honored King’s legacy with something more substantial than perfunctory homages from politicians.” I rather liked the ending. In it, I was channeling my best self—the preacher’s kid who values compromise and compassion over hostility or contentiousness.

Later that week, when debate over the government shutdown had Twitter in flames, I logged in and started scrolling. I warmed up with a few casual “likes,” moved into some “retweets,” and before long was sounding off every few minutes, the tone of each tweet becoming more irritable. For someone predisposed to grumbling, Twitter was like an emporium of ill will: the altercation at the Indigenous People’s March, the government shutdown, another mass shooting, two hunters gunning down a mother bear and her cubs in their den—one infuriating development after the other. At some point, I abandoned any effort at Rev. King’s civility and started cussing at people like a surly drunk at the neighborhood bar.

Later on, I calmed down and moved to LinkedIn where I posted a few articles on corporate strategy, leadership, and purpose-led business. All were very respectful and constructive and arose from my best persona as an ethical entrepreneur.

On Facebook I turned neighborly and benevolent. I shared an inspiring article about Peyton Manning’s nephew, liked a few heartwarming animal videos from The Dodo, and thanked friends who voted on the cover design for my new book.

Taming the Three-Faced Monster

Then it struck me: Somewhere between tweeting expletives at Mike Pence and liking a video about a two-legged chihuahua, my core essence as a man, my very sense of self, had sheared into pieces like a calving iceberg. Homo socialis, the creature we present online, is terrifyingly mercurial; and whatever brand identity I’d fostered had been lost between social media platforms, buried under retweets, and distorted by smiley face emoticons. My God, I thought, holding my hands to my cheeks and peering terrified into the mirror above my desk, I’m like a Jekyll and Hyde—and some other strange dude who likes videos of potbelly pigs.

It was an unpleasant realization, to be sure, like learning you’ve had a drip spot on your crotch during an entire cocktail party. As disturbing as this revelation was, I knew the only solution was forcefully to yoke my disparate personalities together—to rediscover and reassert my elusive brand identity. Imagine you’re a client, I told myself. Take yourself through the usual brand exercises and put a content strategy together. Then, and only then, will you be one, cohesive persona.

And that’s exactly what I did. With my strategy in place, I tweeted, blogged, and commented from a single, harmonious identity—for like two hours.

After careful consideration, I’ve decided to blame everyone else for my failure to achieve digital unification. Logging into social media is like being a dog at a park. Somewhere between peeing on the bench, sniffing a Dalmatian’s butt, and chasing squirrels, you lose sight of why you came—if there ever was a reason. There are just too many distractions to maintain good behavior. Therefore, I cannot guarantee I won’t lose my shit over Trump’s next tweet or get all syrupy about a rescued sea turtle. If this weakness results in my digital persona becoming some grotesque, three-faced psycho, then so be it. Maybe I’ll get more followers.

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