2.6 You are ill-treating, ill-treating yourself, o my soul; and no occasion will be left for you to do yourself due honour. For everyone’s life lasts but a moment, and yours is almost done, and yet you have no respect for yourself, but allow your happiness to depend on what passes in the souls of others.
2.8 Rarely is a person seen to be in a bad way because he has failed to attend to what is passing in the soul of another; but those who fail to pay careful attention to the motions of their own souls are bound to be in a wretched plight.
The year is winding to a close, and I’m in a reflective and less politically-inclined mood. I’ve been reading Meditations, Marcus Aurelius’s eminently readable diary of Stoicist musings and general philosophy.
I got an Instagram account in 2017. (That might be assigning too much agency to me; in hindsight, it probably has more to do with my succumbing to peer pressure than my active choice.) I’m still not sure how to feel about it, though, and reading Marcus Aurelius has only fueled my ambivalence.
I follow several dozen accounts, a mix of people I know and celebrities I don’t; high culture and low-brow humor; politics and art and OOTDs and TBTs and other acronyms I hadn’t heard of until this year and would prefer not to hear of ever again. If all of my friends (is that even the right word? — “people I follow” would seem to be more appropriate) attend the same party, I see 5 near-identical posts and 20 near-identical stories, and I feel obligated to view or like each one even though the novelty has dissipated well before #5 or #20.
(I’m reminded of this amazing excerpt from an article about China’s “selfie obsession”:
Chen Xiaojie, a twenty-seven-year-old with caramel-colored contact lenses and waist-length hair, gave me a demonstration of Meitu’s most popular apps, on her Meitu M8 phone. Holding the device at arm’s length, she tucked in her chin (“so the face comes out smaller”), snapped a photo of us, and handed me the result. My complexion looked smoother, my eyes bigger and rounder. I asked if I had been “P”-ed—the Chinese shorthand for Photoshopping. Chen said that the phone had automatically “upgraded” me. “Only when you enjoy taking selfies will you have the confidence to take more,” she explained. “And only when you look pretty will you enjoy taking selfies and ‘P’-ing the photo. It’s all very logical, you see.”
Next, using the BeautyPlus app, she showed me how to select a “beauty level” from 1 to 7—a progressive scale of paleness and freckle deletion. Then we could smooth out, tone, slim, and contour our faces, whiten our teeth, resize our irises, cinch our waists, and add a few inches in height. We could apply a filter—“celestial,” “voodoo,” “edge,” and “vibes” are some of the options. A recently added filter called “personality” attempts to counteract a foreseeable consequence of the technology: the more that people doctor their selfies, the more everyone ends up looking the same. Like everything else in the app, the personalities available—“boho,” “mystique,” and so on—are preset.
For all of the language that we use to praise social media — that it promotes self-love, allows you to show off your individual style: and, make no mistake, I support those goals — there is a depressing homogeneity in the output, and in the way that those goals are achieved.)
I called checking social media a compulsive behavior, and that’s not too much of an exaggeration. It’s like taking a smoke break — very few smokers I know find it enjoyable, but even less enjoyable are the feelings involved in fighting the temptation. I check Instagram on the subway, in the elevator, on the toilet, and during any sort of downtime. I check it when I’m trying to avoid conversation, and occasionally even when I’m participating in conversation. I check it in spite of myself and, horribly enough, because of myself.
I imagine that social media has been engineered like Coca-Cola, to create the cravings as well as the mechanism for their (temporarily) resolution. What I haven’t fully grasped is how to fight back. Or, perhaps more philosophically, what thrills me about social media and what repulses me, and how do I cleave them in two? Or are they indivisible?
2.7 Are you distracted in any way by what befalls you from outside? Then give yourself some free time to learn something new and worthwhile, and stop straying from your path. But after that, you must also guard against going astray in the opposite direction; for equally foolish are those who have become wearied of life as a result of their activities and have no aim to which they can direct every impulse and, indeed, every thought.
Social media is distracting. I think that’s my primary complaint about it. It taxes attention and focus; it interferes with flow. Instead of just experiencing things, I am incessantly nagged by the question of whether others would find my experiences engaging — and, if so, then I should obviously post about them. Aurelius talks about the dichotomy between being true to my path and being distracted by “what befalls you from outside”. If social media represents the latter, then it is preventing me from achieving the former.
I have contemplated deleting the Instagram app on my phone, if not the entire account. But I question whether a Stoic would support that decision. As Marcus Aurelius writes, “you must also guard against going astray in the opposite direction”, and “becom[ing] wearied of life”. I am not yet weary of life, nor would I like to be. And what I found initially enthralling about Instagram, and part of what keeps drawing me back (apart from the psychological compulsion) is that there are facets of life that I can’t find anywhere else. My conversations are nowhere near as entertaining as Overheard New York’s. My humor can’t compare to Thomas Middleditch’s. I could live my whole life and not see as many things as mad as a single day of Subway Creatures. Perhaps the right way to use social media is to feel and see and hear a part of life that you wouldn’t experience anywhere else, and not to use it to imitate (in a pale way) real-life conversations and hangouts. In short, if I can meet someone in real life, then I should; if I can’t, then I can at least pretend.
3.4 Do not waste what remains of your life in thoughts about others, unless you are doing so with reference to the common good. For you are depriving yourself of the opportunity for some other action [which may be of real benefit], to imagine instead what so-and-so is doing and to what end, and what he is saying, and thinking, and devising, and other such thoughts which serve only to divert you from paying proper attention to your own governing faculty. Rather, you must exclude from the sequence of your thoughts all that is aimless and random, and, above all, idle curiosity and malice; and you must train yourself only to think such thoughts that if somebody were suddenly to ask you, ‘What are you thinking of?’, you could reply in all honesty and without hesitation, of this or that, and so make it clear at once from your reply that all within you is simply and kindly, and worthy of a social being who has no thought for pleasure, or luxury in general, or contentiousness of any kind, or envy, or suspicion, or anything else that you would blush to admit if you had it in your mind.
If I have any resolutions for 2018 besides curtailing my social media usage, they involve “learn[ing] something new and worthwhile” and “paying proper attention to [my] own governing faculty”. (Perhaps by writing these resolutions down, I will ensure some level of accountability.) I would like to, as Josh Marshall says, “read more and tweet less”. I would like to do more book reviews on this blog and less (un)original content. I would like to dive deeper into American political and social history. I would like to contribute to the good guys — or at least the better guys — winning the 2018 midterm elections. And I would like to escape my hyper-local Brooklyn bubble and see more of the city, eat more of the city, drink more of the city. Most of all, I would like to, as Marcus Aurelius writes, always have a good answer to the question: “What are you thinking of?” If the answer in December 2018 is the same as that in December 2017 — i.e., “the latest pictures from the latest party” — I think I will have failed.
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