Over the past two years, I have become a lot more averse to social media because of the anxiety it produced in me, especially with having to manage 3 or 4 different platforms. I became occupied voyeuristically observing what people were doing, where they were going, what they were buying, what they were eating, that it became difficult to focus on what I was doing simply because I was focused on what others were doing. Essentially, social media is a representation of reality, not reality itself. The screens reduce people into two-dimensional cardboard cutouts instead of exposing the multifaceted, complex beings that we really are.
I would watch my sister-in-law, oblivious to technology, in a world where our smartphones and tablets have become extensions of ourselves, as if we grew another limb. She wasn't compulsively checking her email, scrutinizing Instagram photos of other women, or thinking of the next Facebook status update to garner more likes. She felt no desire for the validation or instant gratification that could be derived from other people. So I decided to follow in her footsteps.
I started by deactivating my Facebook account, the most invasive of social media platforms. Few weeks later, I deactivated my Instagram. It was a hurdle to close my Snapchat because it let me to stay up to date with people I cared about without having to really speak to them (plus, I really liked the filters). Do you see the issue in that last statement though? I became a voyeur. I was watching what people were doing with their lives without having to reach out to them. It not only exacerbated my social anxiety instead of resolving it but I was also distanced from real human interaction because I had this small window into their lives. Is this what people were doing with me? Peeping through this window into my life? In the age of technology, invisibility is a super power.
It has been almost three months since I deactivated all my social media accounts and I could not be happier. I am less overwhelmed and I am able to focus on the people that I truly care about (you know people matter to you if you actually have their telephone numbers). I stopped documenting my experiences in digital trails for other people to see. Instead, I started collecting objects - maps, postcards, shells, business cards, brochures – and wrote little notes on them - the date, the way I felt, the people I met - and I am able to recount the experience of being there in the moment just as vividly as looking at a photograph on my smart phone.
When I was studying abroad in the United Arab Emirates for a semester, I decided to take an impromptu trip across Jordan for five days, alone. Traveling alone was still a relatively new experience for me, especially in a country where I knew no one, and didn't even speak the language. As risk-taking and brave as I am, I was still a nervous mess. My first stop after landing at Queen Alia airport was the Dead Sea, a magical body of water that I had dreamt of visiting since I was 12. As soon as I reached the hotel, I changed into my bathing suit and dashed for the waterbody. I treaded slowly into the Dead Sea, the large pebbles massaging my feet until I could no longer feel them beneath my feet. I let go and started floating against my own will, courtesy of the hypersaline water. The reflection of the glimmering sun on the water looked like thousands of diamonds sprawled across the surface. The water felt warm, thick, and opaque. I felt the heat on my face, and I could taste the salt on my lips. I was free floating in this liminal space between Jordan and Israel. I swam half a mile towards Israel and turned back around to see other hotel guests, who looked like tiny specks in the distance, sunbathing with mud lathered all over their bodies. I thought to myself, ‘I am so happy.’
To this day, this is my most cherished, undocumented, and personal memory. I have yet to describe the experience so vividly to another soul and it feels all the more memorable because I haven't done so. It is mine only.
To commemorate my solo adventure (reckless, I know), I pilfered a little pebble from the Dead Sea. I saved the hotel cards from Aqaba. I kept the maps and brochures from Petra. I saved my boarding passes to and from Amman. I started collecting objects to signify any unforgettable event or milestone because they are marks of our ‘living’ in the physical world. Traces of us are embedded in objects for they carry within their form the memory of living. They become a guarantee of the presence of the absent other. With objects, I not only touch, I am touched too.
There is a transformative and experiential power in collecting physical objects. With modern day “memory objects” such as filtered photo uploads, status updates, check-ins, amongst other available social media functions, gone are the days when those who were not fortunate enough to possess any kind of photographic device actually had to experience events, occasions, and sights through their eyes. Our defining memories and experiences are validated only through the existence of pictures and their distribution online, and their value is contingent on the number of likes, or retweets received.
The need to “capture the moment” obscures the opportunity to really experience the moment. When we apply more attention to obtaining footage of our experience than we are to actually experience it because of the modern day mantra of “pics or it didn't happen,” we are distanced from our own reality. We exist only virtually, only through screens. No longer do we shoot, develop, and curate our photographs in frames or albums in the privacy of our homes. If we organize them in albums at all, it is on Facebook or Flicker. In the digital age, documentation has become less about memorializing a moment and more about communicating the reality of that moment to others.
Life becomes about accumulating likes rather than experiences, and living in the moment means trying to capture it. The documentary lifestyle of social media raises concerns about how we commoditize ourselves and how we put ourselves up for public display and judgment at the cost of turning ourselves into tourists of our own lives.
The mindfulness that we feel when we unplug from technology is the essence of what makes us human. We are materialistic beings living in a materialistic world and we need to forge a physical, visceral connection with the world in order to truly stimulate our senses, which is not something that happens when we document digitally via social media. Too often, we forget that we live in the world and too often we interpret that world not as we should, from within it, but as if we were outside it, disembodied, looking on. This perpetuates spectatorship and consumption rather the experiential.