I’ve read 2 articles in the last couple of days that have prompted me to think about Social Media a lot.

The first is the story of Essena O’Neil who at the grand old age of 18, has dramatically quit Social Media, deleted photos from her Instagram account and changed the name of the account to “Social Media is not real life”, she has instead set up a new blog and a Vimeo channel to promote real life social interaction. The second was called Stop saying Social Media is promoting social isolation about why Smart Phones aren’t keeping us isolated from our fellow human beings.

I’m not going to knock what Essena is doing. She’s a real human being with real feelings and I’m pretty sure we’ve all been obsessed with things as a teenager that we then hated when we started to grow up, the only difference is mine was New Kids on the Block, not Social Media, and my obsession didn’t earn me hundreds of thousands of dollars and enable me to go travelling, or to university and not get a job in a shop to pay for it.

I’m perfectly prepared to admit that a real obsession with anything is a BAD THING. If your use of Social Media has reached a point where you think about your whole life in terms of Instagram selfies and will spend hours taking and editing hundreds of photos and endlessly obsess about the number of likes and comments you get then, hey, take a break, please. What you shouldn’t do is blame Social Media for that.

Social Media, and I talk mostly here about Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, because I am old and those are the only ones I use (Snapchat scares me) has been a real game changer in our lives. I feel like as a society we’re still blazing a trail into unknown territory and navigating our way through the dangers and pitfalls of this new way of living.

iPhone 5c

As a purely social tool these sites allow us a place to connect with people we might have otherwise lost contact with, or people we might never have made contact with again. My Facebook friends list includes old school friends that I moved away from 25 years ago. When I first moved I kept in touch by letter, but then these things just fizzle out as you get older. I may never have heard from them again, never have known what they were doing in life, and all that shared history would have been lost. My list also includes people I only ever say Hi to briefly at events. Believe it or not I can be pretty shy when I meet people in person (especially if there’s no booze around) and Social Media gives me a space to connect with people that I would probably get on with really well, if I had more time to see what they were about, and now I do.

Social Media is a tool that enables groups of people to communicate. It has its dangers, but mostly they’re the same dangers we always had in a slightly different form. “Stranger Danger” was an issue when I was at school, and the Internet hasn’t changed that. Feeling isolated and friendless because you don’t get enough “likes” has often been cited as an Internet danger, but my experience has been that the Internet can give you access to more support groups and instant help than was possible before. There’s a more insidious danger of our likes, dislikes and activity being constantly tracked and monitored of course, but that’s kind of outside the scope of what I want to talk about here.

Social Media can actually be a much safer space for individuals than the real world ever was. Almost all social sharing sites have security and reporting features for inappropriate content and some, like Facebook, have extensive filtering and friend management options so you can restrict access to your details if you need to, while still staying in contact with people.

Facebook Smart Phone

As a business tool is where the lines start to blur with social media. My Sister and I are both self-employed, and neither of us would be able to do our jobs without social media. Its part of the trail blazing part of this new world that means brands know their audiences are on Social Media, and are trying to find new ways to reach and engage with them. Enter the Social Media “Celebrity”.  if your beautiful photography and aspirational lifestyle earn you thousands of followers then the brands will want your help in reaching those followers, and with lots of money being waved around in front of you I can understand how younger people particularly could find it difficult to hang onto their sense of self, define their own ethics and learn to say “No”. I know I did when I first started getting offered freebies and paid jobs, and I was in my 30s and my follower numbers (and therefore the money on offer) were nowhere near as high.

If you’re a grown up, hopefully you still have a good idea of your sense of self, your own morals and in the end you know what you will and won’t take (Plastic Surgery ads and trials of meal replacement diets are things I always turn down for instance) if you’re a teenager, well, then I think the same rules apply as if you’d been swept off the streets to be a Catwalk model, or a TV Super Star, you need someone to help you navigate the twists and turns of this world and make sure you don’t get taken advantage of.

But is what we see on Social Media “real”? Is it real life or are we being presented with a carefully edited and curated version of life? Well, that depends. Presenting your “best face” to the world is nothing new. What’s different with Social Media is that we can give the illusion that we are letting people into our innermost world, that they are seeing our intimate moments, when really those are as carefully selected as the clothes we put on when we go out. That doesn’t make that experience any less “real” for the person creating the image. The person creating the image is representing themselves in the way they want to be represented. If you’re comfortable posting unedited selfies with no make up, that’s what you’ll do, the number of followers you have has no real impact on that. If you spend hours editing photos to make them look how you want, then that’s “real” too. The resulting image might represent an idealised version of you and your life, but, it’s your version, and you can present yourself however you want. As consumers of these images we maybe have a responsibility to look at those filtered images through our own filter of realism. We’re all using the same apps, we all know how images can be manipulated, and whilst there’s no harm in enjoying those images consuming them obsessively and making them your life goal is as damaging as creating them obsessively.

At its best Social Media is an amazing tool for creating REAL connections, with REAL people, in a way that we can control. We can withdraw from interactions we don’t like, block and remove people, reveal as much of our lives and our private spaces as we are comfortable with. Blogging is a Social Media form in itself, back in the old days the comments section was a place where interactions took place, and spaces like Live Journal were a forerunner to both blogs and the current Social Media. One of the reasons I’ve always loved blogging is exactly because of that increased interaction, because you get little insights into the lives of real people. Some of them are impossibly perfect, others forget to pick rubber bands up off the floor before they take photos of their Halloween Costume (were you too polite to mention it?)

That’s not to say that it’s not easy to get obsessed. I’m sure we’ve all absent-mindedly checked Facebook when we’re sat in a pub with a friend and probably should have left it till later. I think that’s part of the learning curve and that ultimately Social Media can enrich our “real” lives, if we use it wisely.

Basically, don’t get obsessed……