I have an unstable identity. I work as a commercial model. I do humanitarian work. I am a PhD student in philosophy. I have a tendency to be dependent on external validation for my sense of self-worth.
Growing up in Manila — the social media capital and selfiest city in the world —I have always been an enthusiastic social media user. But Instagram was for a younger generation, so I was initially resistant to using it. Eventually, narcissism took over, and I was Instagramming selfies on a regular basis.
I find that Facebook could be useful for networking, keeping in touch, and organizing events. Instagram, on the other hand, is primarily for the indulgence of vanity.
It didn’t take long before I was hooked on Instagram. I was counting my likes and followers. I couldn’t get enough likes and followers. I learned that I could get followers by advertising my Instagram on Tinder. So I put my modeling photos and Instagram username on my Tinder.
Sure enough, my Instagram followers started to build up. When I exhausted my local Tinder area for followers, I upgraded my Tinder so that I could change my location. I now have over 5,400 followers, mostly from my traveling Tinder.
In over four years, I posted over 1,000 photos on my Instagram. Whilst I was Instagramming my triple life, I started noticing a pattern in the behavior of my followers. The instability in my identity and the diversity of my life experiences gave me a platform to analyze the Instagram reward system.
I Instagrammed everything I deemed Instagrammable — from my face to my travels to my humanitarian projects. My basic and unsurprising finding is that my Instagram users reward vanity more than anything. Of course, the bulk of my followers are men from Tinder, so this is something to keep in mind.
My most popular posts are my modeling photos, selfies, photos where I show my body, travel to fancy places like St Tropez and red carpet events.
My least liked posts are posts about my humanitarian activities, political projects, and ethical ruminations. The prettier the people in the photos, the more likes it gets.
You’re probably thinking: So what? People have liked pretty faces and fancy places since time immemorial. One could even defend social media on the grounds that it gives people a platform to project their aspirational self. People want to be perceived as rich and beautiful because people want to be rich and beautiful.
Instagram is good for building one’s self-confidence and getting encouragement for our hopes and dreams.
Perhaps I am asking too much from a platform that was designed for the purpose of posturing. But social media was originally designed to make communication and keeping in touch easier.
And, for the first time in history, we have the chance for reflective communication. We now have the opportunity to reflect upon how we are going to react and respond to people’s behavior. We can think before we react to people’s self-presentation. We now have the opportunity for reflective socialization and identity validation.
Socialization is the process by which an individual learns and internalizes the norms and social practices of a given culture in order to become a functional member of society. Socialization, though most important for children and teenagers, is a lifelong process.
We are socializing people whenever we interact with them on social media because, as social creatures, we are always automatically disseminating and internalizing norms and values.
Prior to the internet, most of person-to-person socialization was reflexive and automatic. We involuntarily approve with our facial expressions and behavior when someone does something good or pleasant. We involuntarily frown or exhibit signs of disapproval whenever we see or experience something unpleasant.
Validation is the recognition and acceptance of a person’s experience or projected identity as being valid. Narcissists are addicted to external validation, because they need to always bolster their unjustified self-perception through other people’s agreement.
A person that is confident that she is beautiful, smart, or wealthy have no need for others to confirm that she is beautiful, smart, or wealthy. Social media is a source of such validation. But the desire for such validation is not unique to narcissists. As social beings, we constantly require the acceptance and approval of others. How others respond to us incrementally affect our behavior, aspirations, and sense of self-worth.
Whenever someone pushes the like button, that person is telling the person who posted that photo or information: good job! We live in a world where likes are incremental forms of socialization and validation.
The person receiving the likes and compliments is always unconsciously internalizing those acts of validation or approval. And because the majority of regular social media users are young people, it is very important that we are reflective and careful about what we reward and ignore.
What would have been identified as symptoms of narcissism twenty years ago have become normalized in this hyper social media culture.
We are normalizing voyeurism. And together with the advent of reality television, we are losing touch with what is real.
It should worry us that people — especially young people — are posting selfies like their social lives depended on it. Something has gone very wrong in a world where people are chasing Instagrammable life experiences. Something has gone wrong in a world where people think others care about what they had for breakfast or what they did in the gym.
The British anthropologist Robin Dunbar found a correlation between primate brain size and social group size. He estimated that human beings can only maintain an average of 150 stable relationships, and yet the number of people that we can choose to share our information with online can be in the thousands. People care about what celebrities eat, because they are celebrities. Maybe we all want to be famous. Well, newsflash, that is a logical impossibility.
Social media activity is an indicator of the mindset of our generation, and we are at a crossroads. We must either accept that what were once identified as abnormal behavior is now normal or we can resist the normalization by modifying our online behavior to reflect the social values that we want to flourish and the vices we want to curb.
If we, as an online community, don’t act otherwise now, so many of the people that will populate this earth could be narcissists and voyeurs.
We must remember that what people post on their social media is not always who they actually are but how they want others to perceive them. Social media is a platform to control one’s self-presentation and to project an identity. You cannot actually tell that much about a person by simply looking at her social media, unless that person has no depth or has a malfunctioning privacy filter.
It is a mistake to think that you can know a person just by looking at her social media, and yet people are always making judgments and drawing conclusions about others based on what they see about the person online. I am not denying that you can know about a person by looking at her social media. But I am saying that judging someone based only on their online behavior is reductive.
I am sometimes taken aback by people’s comments about how they were surprised about something that I posted or said when they are people I’ve only met or interacted with a couple of times in real life. How could anyone be surprised about anything that I do when they do not actually know me, because most of our interaction has been electronic? We are starting to confuse one’s self-presentation with the actual person.
Whenever you like a selfie or a vanity photo, you are not just telling the person that she is pretty, you are also telling her that vanity is good. Whenever you like a photo showcasing one’s affluence, you are telling that person that wealth is good.
Whenever you ignore a post that does not have pretty faces in it, you are telling that person that s/he must surround herself with prettier people. Whenever you ignore a post about a political issue or a humanitarian effort, you are telling that person that s/he shouldn’t care about politics or humanitarian issues.
The power to change the type of people that will run and inhabit the earth literally rests in our hands. So next time you are scrolling down your phone, think carefully before you like. And please remember that even though not all of us can be famous, some of us can.