by Aqeela Naqvi
I still remember the first day I signed up for Facebook.
I was in the ninth grade, and a friend had just spent a lazy spring afternoon at my house. We were hanging out in my room, discussing everything from the travails of high school to our most recent YA fiction read, when she decided to hop on my laptop: F-a-c-e-b-o-o-k-dot-com. “How do you not have an account yet?” she asked, incredulous. In one instant, and despite my protestations, she had created an account and friended herself. “There. You don’t know what you’re missing out on,” she declared emphatically. With a simple one-two-click, she opened the door to a dimension which, until now, I had never known existed.
Social media. The term of our times. At the start, it really seemed like nothing more than a way to keep in touch. Facebook was a place for inane wall posts, poke wars, and bumper stickers with real-life friends, a way to interact with classmates you had just seen an hour earlier at school. Later came Twitter, a place to archive favorite quotations and witticisms that probably no one would ever read. And more recently (most insidiously) came Instagram, the online album: flippant, carefree, littered with candid images and captions no more complex than #NoFilter.
Soon, however, the experience began to mutate. Each platform always had its own pitfalls, but they began to expand with shocking rapidity. What was once a careless occupation of teenage life became a carefully curated, meticulously constructed online presence, whose reach stretched well into adulthood. The power to create our own public image became intoxicating. The ability to project an amplified version of ourselves — and to have others believe that was, in fact, who we really were — consumed us.
Before we knew it, the definition of things like friendship, centuries old, was replaced by sycophancy. People only talked to each other in real life if they first followed each other online. Personas were deduced based on feed aesthetics and painstakingly edited captions. Rapport was established via mutual post engagement. We began to trade the currency of intimacy with that of public consumption. We began to demand a right to the private lives of others virtually, and if we were denied access, we took it to mean the cutting of ties in our real world.
With time, this cycle evolved and strengthened, pulling in users at younger and younger ages, until finally, few could remember what life had been like before.
Of the countless detrimental effects which have been imprinted on our minds by social media, I wonder if there have been any more disastrous than the supreme dissatisfaction pervading through society: the dismal view of one’s own, precious, life when cast against the fleeting outlines of the lives of others.
And the most frightening part? The idea that, maybe, the greatest danger all along has not been our reaction to others’ posts, but their reaction to ours. Our online presence, our daily act of Creation, seems to have taken on a Frankensteinian tone. The power, and threat, of our shadow shelves has extended beyond what we thought possible — harnessing the ability to, without realizing, deepen another person’s struggle, and add tinder to the fiery turmoil of another person’s soul.
Our elders used to say, Do not leave your orange peels in a place where your neighbor might see — perchance they feel a pang for a luxury they cannot afford.
In our online lives, how many of us take the time to examine where we are leaving our orange peels? How many of us pause to question what impact the things we share might be having on others, and tailor our online behavior accordingly?
When we feel the need to post about ourselves or our lives, it is inexpressibly important to stop and ask ourselves: Why?
When we feel the need to post about our spouse, along with a long caption about why they are the greatest thing since sliced bread, we should stop and think: about those who are currently looking for a spouse and for whom such posts create misleading notions on the perfection of marital life; about those who are already married for whom such posts may trigger comparisons about their marital emotions (and if, finding they don’t meet the bar of hourly elation, may plant murky notions of “someone better existing out there”); and about those who have lost a spouse and for whom such constant displays of affection may create deeper, more inextricable grief.
When we feel the need to post about our children and every milestone they reach, we should stop and think: about those who cannot have children, those who have lost theirs, or those whose children are progressing more slowly or are tackling disabilities, who might be drawn somewhere deep in their heart to question God’s justice, wondering, Why my child?
When we feel the need to post about our travels, possessions, houses, or jobs, we should stop and think: is there any part of my ego which is connected to the thumb about to press SHARE? Is there any part of my heart seeking to be validated by man for something given to me by God? Is there any part of my public display that might lead another person to privately question the magnitude of God’s favor to them — that might make someone else feel like something is lacking or deficient in their own life?
There are levels to everything we do. If we wish to operate from the most basic one — believing that everything I do is limited to me alone and how others are affected by it is not my problem — then we should prepare to bear the generational consequences. But if we wish to operate from a greater height, then we must exercise extreme caution, realizing that every choice we make creates a ripple, and even the most seemingly insignificant disturbance can trigger a hurricane given the right opportunity.
The hesitance of flaunting even the smallest blessing in a public manner seems, to me, to be an essential part of the prophetic way. Its practical manifestation is something our elder generations deeply understood, and something which we would do well to attempt to begin to understand.
If I had a larger heart and vaster understanding, I would have realized all of this sooner. I would have deleted my Facebook the day I joined it rather than ten years in. I would have been careful about the life updates on my Twitter feed or the pictures I posted on Instagram, negligent, nonchalant, momentary. I would have tried harder to avoid adding even an atom to the waves that might batter against and break down the fortress of trust in God’s plan in another person’s heart. I have not been immune to this: the subtle ostentation performed under the guise of sharing with family and friends. For all of this, I pray that God and those I may have unknowingly affected negatively may somehow forgive me.
Face forward, I put my faith in this: that this charade, this circus, this carnival only exists as long as each of us chooses to take part in it; as long as each of us decides to stay asleep to the reality that social media is using us more than we are using it. The sink of its hold, deep and thorny, only lessens to the extent that each of us decides: today, no more.
All of this — all of it — ends, only when each of us does our part to help end it; when each of us awakens our consciousness and takes care to ensure we are not leaving our orange peels where our neighbors might see them.
When will we decide to choose better for ourselves and for our children, who will inevitably follow in our footsteps?
The time is now. And it is long overdue.