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Humans of the internet: How do we belong on social media?

In the second part of our series on ‘belonging’, we explore the advent of social media and social networking at the turn of the century and how it might have affected what it means to belong.

Facebook is ranked number one on the list of most popular social media platforms in the world, with more than 2.7 billion active monthly users. Vying for second place are YouTube and WhatsApp Messenger with two billion active users each. Close behind are WeChat (1.2 billion), Instagram (1.1 billion) and one of the newest additions to the social media arsenal, TikTok (689 million).

In South Africa, of a population of more than 58 million, 36 million are internet users, 22 million of whom are active social media users.

There is little doubt that social media are a force affecting the way society forms and feels part of the world. 

In a paper published on the American Counseling Association, titled Social Media as an Avenue to Achieving Sense of Belonging Among College Students, doctor in counselling and counsellor education, Elizabeth Vincent, proposes that “social media provides new and more accessible opportunities to facilitate social connections” and as such has been used as a tool to enhance a sense of belonging since the first social networking sites emerged at the beginning of the 21st century, such as MySpace and Facebook.

“These tools have created some wonderful things in the world. They have reunited lost family members, they have found organ donors… There were meaningful, systemic changes happening around the world because of these platforms that were positive. I think we were naïve about the flipside of that coin,” says former president of Pinterest and director of modernisation at Facebook for five years, Tim Kendall, in an interview for the 2020 Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma.

Katherine Collins, 27, checks her favourite social media site, Instagram for the first time every day at about 11am. “If I’m posting content then I check Instagram sooner because I usually post around 9am – that’s my best engagement. I feel my engagement is high because people have maybe arrived at work and are waiting for the day to start, or they have woken up and are flicking through the app,” says Collins.

“I’m on social media just because it’s a trend, I guess? It became popular and it was something everyone had so I downloaded the main platforms –  Instagram, Facebook, Twitter. Now it’s just become a habit and part of the daily routine to just mindlessly scroll,” says Robyn Kriel, 24.

Besides keeping up with their friends, Collins and Kriel follow pages on social media that align with their interests.

“I suppose social media has skewed our vision and now, by contacting people online, we consider that being social, even if it lacks face-to-face communication,” observes Kriel.

This “skewed vision” is not an unfortunate coincidence but a choreographed system, as implied in The Social Dilemma, arguably the most startling (although debatable) accounts of the underbelly of social media.

In the documentary, American computer scientist Tristan Harris says: “Never before in history have 50 designers – 20-to-35 year-old white guys in California – made decisions that would have an impact on two billion people. Two billion people will have thoughts that they didn’t intend to have because a designer at Google said this is how notifications will work on that screen you wake up to in the morning.”

The inventors of the Facebook “like” button took the simple psychological notion of, not only do we want to put stuff out there for people to see and read, but we want to know whether people like or don’t like what we put out there.

“It is very instructive that Facebook has deliberated for more than a decade but has still not pulled the trigger on implementing a “dislike” button. Have you thought about that? They [Facebook] are so nervous about its implications. You want to be on social media because you want to be liked, you want to feel that sense of affinity and that sense of affection which you don’t feel you are getting from your more traditional community for whatever reason,” says political psychologist Professor Rajen Govender of the Nelson Mandela School of Public Governance at the University of Cape Town.

According to Govender, we are now seeking belonging within the virtual space, and while acknowledging it can be a force for good, he warns us to take heed.

“Two things: we always overestimate and simultaneously underestimate the impact of technology. Social media is a good instance of that and what I am seeing now is how social media itself has evolved to prey on our base fears, anxieties and predispositions, offering a veneered sense of community,” he says.

It is arguable that social media models and algorithms intentionally work on the vulnerabilities of human psychology to manipulate you to belong.

As discussed in part one of this series, from an historically evolutionary perspective humans have belonged to social units because they have served a number of purposes – real things such as getting food, shelter, affection, love, education and socialisation. Today, a lot of belonging that comes from being on social media is much more narrowly defined.

Govender gives an example: “You join an Instagram group because you love cats. That’s fantastic as long as you only talk about cats. One day somebody pops a comment in the chat that says they’re devastated about the US election and Trump’s loss. You’re suddenly struck by this person’s political opinion. You joined the group for the affinity with the person around the issue with cats but suddenly realise you probably don’t have anything in common with this person.”

A 2017 study by a team of researchers and experts from the University of Pittsburgh in the US surveyed 1,787 young adults aged between 19 and 32, specifically from the country, looking closely at how the frequency of social media use affected somebody’s “perceived social isolation”. They found that “young adults with high social media use seem to feel more socially isolated than their counterparts with lower social media use”.

A veneered sense of belonging

“Since social media started gaining traction in the past 20 years there has been an increasing emphasis on physical attractiveness and appearance. On social media you can [fool] the system to an extent because you can use an avatar, or you can choose the most flattering or visually manipulated photographs of yourself to upload… This is problematic. While your sense of belonging might be fulfilled when the likes, hearts and followers start streaming in, it is a very superficial sense of belonging because those ‘affirmations’ are based on a carefully curated version of yourself,” says Govender.

The US study adds to a growing body of research into the effects of social media; a field that is, like social media, in its nascent stage. In another study – The impact of social media use on appearance self-esteem from childhood to adolescence – A 3-wave community study – published in January 2021 on Science Direct, the researchers found: “Social media users are extensively exposed to photographs displaying idealised self-presentations. This poses a potential threat to youth’s appearance self-esteem, but the negative impact may depend upon types of social media engagement. Youth who actively post updates (self-oriented social media use) may position themselves to receive positive feedback and appearance confirmation and thus show enhanced self-esteem, whereas youths who mostly view and respond to other’s posts (other-oriented social media use) are exposed to these idealised presentations, while not receiving positive feedback on their own appearance, which may result in reduced self-esteem.”

Another study published a year earlier, focusing mainly on social media use in Singapore – The Effects of Instagram Use, Social Comparison, and Self-Esteem on Social Anxiety: A Survey Study in Singapore – had some interesting highlights related to the above. It notes: “Congruent with the growth of social media use, there are also increasing worries that social media might lead to social anxiety in users (Jelenchick et al, 2013). Social anxiety is one’s state of avoiding social interactions and appearing inhibited in such interactions with other people (Schlenker & Leary, 1982). Scholars indicated that social anxiety could arise from managing a large network of social media friends, feeling jealous of their lives, and the “fear of missing out” on activities in online interactions (Hampton et al, 2015). Despite the concern about the negative effects of social media, in the current literature, there remain three important gaps.”

Among those gaps, the researchers pointed to current research being mainly done in the US and Europe and this potentially missing context particular to a country and culture. Making broad statements about how social media affect the way we belong still needs a nuanced look, something some researchers in the field are actively calling for, as illustrated in a paper from the University of Connecticut’s Center for Health and Social Media (A Call for a Public Health Agenda for Social Media Research): “Research has revealed both the benefits and harms of social media use, but the public has very little guidance on how best to use social media to maximise the benefits to their health and wellbeing while minimising the potential harms. Given that social media is intricately embedded in our lives, and we now have an entire generation of social media natives, the time has come for a public health research agenda to guide not only the public’s use of social media but also the design of social media platforms in ways that improve health and wellbeing.” DM/ML

“A sense of belonging” is a series peering into the psychology behind belonging and how what was once considered a coveted behavioural need has evolved and morphed into a superficial concept with the advent of technology and social media.

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