Confessions of a Social Media Junkie
“What good has travel of itself ever been able to do anyone? It has never acted as a check on pleasure or a restraining influence on desires; it has never controlled the temper of an angry man or quelled the reckless impulses of a lover; never, in fact, has it rid the personality of a fault. It has not granted us the gift of judgement, it has not put an end to mistaken attitudes. All it has ever done is distract us for a little while, through the novelty of our surroundings, like children fascinated by something they haven’t come across before.” – Seneca, Letters from a Stoic.
“It’s no good bolting, Jonathan. It doesn’t work. We both know that. You just meet yourself again in the next place.” – John le Carré, The Night Manager.
A few months back, I went ahead and disabled my LinkedIn account. I just couldn’t take all the random lessons people were drawing from the smallest changes in their careers or in the life around them.
With the benefit of hindsight, I guess it’s fair to say that some insecurity might also have crept in. At a subliminal level, I had perhaps started to feel that everyone other than me was moving up in life. I was stuck where I was.
I am a freelance writer and not employed by any organization. This is a conscious choice I made in early 2012 to complete a book that I was writing. Post that, I got very comfortable being able to write in whatever way I wanted to. I also figured out that there was a reasonable market for what I was writing, leaving no reason for me to work for someone else.
In all this, there is no way for me to grow vertically in life, and I know this. One can only grow in a hierarchy, and given that a freelance writer will always be a freelance writer unless they take on a job. Of course, I have the chance to grow horizontally by reading and understanding more and, in the process, being able to write about more things.
The point here is that I understand the dynamics of being a freelance writer very well. Nonetheless, just because one understands something well enough doesn’t mean that one’s not bothered by it. The human mind is rarely binary. Its consciousness plays out over a range, as is mine.
Anyway, having come out of LinkedIn made my life simpler, at least for a few days. I was not seeing any LinkedIn posts and hence, not thinking about ‘my’ lack of progress in life. But good things don’t last. The time and the mental space I had because I wasn’t on LinkedIn were soon being spent watching Instagram Reels and YouTube shorts.
And I went down a rabbit hole of watching food, holiday and travel videos, from the best places to eat to the best hotels to stay to the best beaches to go to. There were week-long holiday videos from Europe and weekend holiday videos from Matheran (a hill station near Mumbai).
In short, I soon started thinking that everyone other than me was having a good time. And here I was, stuck in a room 24/7 on most days, trying to figure out what to write next. This happened despite my visceral hate for travelling.
The soft beds in hotels bother me no end. The cushions are just not right. The water in the bathrooms is either too hot or too cold. The food is expensive. The taxis are hell-bent on cheating. And before this, one must book plane tickets, which means figuring out the right time to take off. Making a choice isn’t really a strong point.
And then, one has to make a hotel reservation. What’s the best place to stay on a budget that one can afford? Is the hotel near a beach? Or does one have to take a taxi? Which are the good eating places? Does one have to make a reservation, or can one just walk in?
All this makes me feel like I am writing a school exam, making the entire exercise of planning a holiday very stressful. Plus, what I enjoy the most in life is putting on some music (like I am currently listening to the ghazal singer Ghulam Ali while writing this long rant) and reading a good crime fiction book (like I was doing last night when I finished reading Secluded Cabin Sleeps Six). This can easily be done almost every weekday without travelling.
And at the end of the day, once you have seen a beautiful beach (like Devbag near Tarkarli in Konkan or so many beaches in Bali) or a snowed out hill-station (like Gulmarg in Kashmir in December), or an early sunrise (in Darjeeling) or a rainy rainy day (in Kumarakom by the banks of the Vembanad Lake in Kerala), what else is there to see? How is one beautiful beach different from another? How is one snowed-out hill station different from another? How is one beautiful sunrise different from another? And don’t even get me talking about a rainy day. (I know I will get a lot of flak from all of you guys whose resumes say, I like to travel, so bring it on).
Honestly, some of the best sunsets I have seen have been right here in Mumbai while walking on the Prabhadevi-Dadar seabeach in the evening (ask my mother, who keeps getting bombarded with pictures of violet sunsets) or the rare day that I happen to be on the Juhu beach. They have been absolutely magical.
While growing up in Ranchi, the rainiest days were also some of the prettiest and definitely the happiest. One had to look out the window and see the red gulmohar in all its shattered glory. Or if one happened to be on top of the hill overlooking the Kanke Dam and if rain was about to come, there was no better site in the world. There is beauty all around us; the trouble is most of us are too busy to appreciate it. Or we have divided our mind space into binaries and appreciate the beauty this world offers only when we ‘travel’.
Okay, that was a rather long rant. But some things really get me going. The point I am trying to make here is that I really hate travelling from the absolute bottom of my heart, but still, when I went through the rabbit hole of watching food, travel and holiday videos, the entire exercise made me feel insecure. As I said earlier, it was like everyone other than me was having a good time, and here I was stuck in my room trying to figure out the next 2,000 words to write about.
The question is, why did I feel the way I did. Eric Angner offers an interesting fable of the ant and the grasshopper, which can be a possible explanation for what I have been going through. As he writes in How Economics Can Save the World—Simple Ideas to Solve Our Biggest Problems: “The ant works all summer to accumulate food for the winter, while the grasshopper does nothing but play music and relax. Come winter, the ant survives, whereas the grasshopper perishes. The fable ends there, but suppose it continued. The next generation, with grasshoppers gone, everyone would be an ant. Those of us who have survived this far in evolutionary history are all descendants of ants. We may be conditioned to be dissatisfied.”
So, in that sense, evolution essentially leads to dissatisfaction. While logically, this might make sense, this is not really a specific answer for what I am going through despite my largely cynical disposition to most things in life. A better answer might lie in the fact that irrespective of whether I like it or not, in my mind space, I also need to keep up with the Sharmas, the Singhs, the Reddys, the Banerjees and the Mores.
This, again, is something that we all know. As the American writer H.L. Mencken said: “A man’s satisfaction with his salary depends on whether he makes more than his wife’s sister’s husband.” While this may be true, it doesn’t answer the basic question of why human beings keep comparing themselves with others.
One answer lies in the fact that capitalism controlled by big businesses is built like that. It wants people to compare themselves with others and then buy things they possibly need or don’t need. So, in our lives, the message to compare ourselves with those around us is constantly being bombarded in different ways until it becomes a part of our subliminal consciousness. Or, as the old Hindi advertisement went: “Bhala uski kameez meri kameez se safed kaise? (How is her clothing whiter than mine?)”
In fact, this is not something which is original to capitalism. Even the philosophers of yore talked about it. As Seneca, a Stoic philosopher of ancient Rome, puts it in Letters from a Stoic: “Look at the number of things we buy because others have bought them or because they’re in most people’s houses. One of the causes of the troubles that beset us is the way our lives are guided by the example of others.”
While this may work at a macro-societal level, there is something at work, even at a micro-individual level. As Angner writes: “One reason may be that it’s hard to make absolute judgements in response to questions such as: ‘What’s a nice apartment?’ ‘What’s a decent car?’ ‘What’s a good salary?’ It’s a lot easier to substitute questions about whether my apartment, car, or salary is better or worse than my neighbour’s. If we’re not careful, we may confuse answers to the second set of questions with answers to the first.”
Basically, as Daniel Kahneman, Olivier Sibony and Cass Sunstein write in Noise—A Flaw in Human Judgement, there is a “substitution of an easy judgment for a hard one”. In fact, one doesn’t need to go through a rabbit hole of Insta Reels and YouTube Shorts to end up comparing one’s life with that of others. It can happen even when one simply sticks to posts on Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn and tweets on Twitter.
On Instagram, we can see different people holidaying at different times of the year. So, someone or the other you know is holidaying at a given point of time while you are stuck in the office working 70 hours a week.
Take the case of celebrities holidaying in the Maldives. Not a day goes by when some celebrity or other is holidaying on an island in Maldives and putting up pictures and videos of the same on Instagram. Such posts are then picked up by different websites and, in an hour or two, are splashed all over the media.
Dear reader, it need not even be celebrities. It is statistically possible that someone from your list of friends/contacts/followers is holidaying right now as you are sitting and reading this on a dull Wednesday in office, waiting for the weekend to come around.
The same stands true for LinkedIn. Someone or the other is being promoted or has done a seven-day certificate course of which he or she is making a big deal about or has simply stood up and switched on the AC during an important meeting and is now drawing management lessons from it.
Social media is built like that. It wants us to engage more and more with it and, in the process, manages to distort our social reality.
To conclude, given that we live in an era of solutionism, what’s the way out of this predicament? Simple suggestions like limiting your social media screen time, etc., have been made, but the trouble is that this then depends on how strong an individual’s willpower is. In my case, I got out of LinkedIn only to spend more time on Reels and Shorts.
So, honestly, I really don’t know. Nonetheless, as is the case with us writers, our experiences are our material. The things that we write about. And if I hadn’t spent all the time that I have on social media in the last few months, I wouldn’t be writing this piece, and you wouldn’t be reading it.
At the end of the day, there is some payoff in my case. What’s yours in going down the social media rabbit hole? I guess on this Wednesday, that’s something worth thinking about.
PS: For all you guys whose resumes say, I like to travel, here is something more to mull over. As Seneca put it: “All this hurrying from place to place won’t bring you any relief, for you’re travelling in the company of your own emotions, followed by your troubles all the way.”