• The real world is messy, uncertain and filled with disappointment
• The digital world is a place of beautiful, happy people living their best lives
A local daily had a story this month of a 23-year-old girl spending Sh850,000 on a medical procedure to make her hips bigger. Roxanne Wanjiru said she wants to look like models she sees on the social media platform Instagram.
As expected, Kenyans had a lot to say about the matter in online forums. Many criticised Roxanne for spending such a colossal amount of money on appearances. The medical procedure, known as the Brazilian Butt Lift (BBL), involves removing fat from the belly and injecting it into the rear part of the body to make the woman look curvy.
A quick online search reveals that the effects of the procedure last a decade at most before the body resumes its original shape. In essence, Roxanne is investing in a specific appearance so she can conform to a version of reality she's getting through social media.
The ability of electronic means of communication to distort an individual's perception of reality was noted long before social media. Television, radio and video games can all change an individual's mindset through one-sided exposure to information. That's why people outside Africa believe the continent is filled with war and famine because that's the depiction of Africa they get from their media.
This form of skewed reality was predicted in 1991 by social psychologist Kenneth Gergen in his book titled, "The Saturated Self." In the book, Gergen predicted a world where technology would push humans into presenting multiple versions of themselves to different audiences.
"I am linked. Therefore, I am," Gergen said. Connecting to other people through technology would define our identity. One could paraphrase the saying thus: "I am who I am because I am linked."
OUR BEST SELVES
Think of how differently you present yourself on Twitter compared to Instagram. The former is about snippets of your thoughts, while the other is for sharing fun pictures and videos. Even the audience on Twitter is looking for a different type of content compared to Facebook or Instagram.
If you are active on WhatsApp, think about why you freely say some things in one WhatsApp group but you wouldn't repeat the same things in another group. You behave differently depending on your intended audience.
Sherry Turkle, a professor in social studies, argues that our relationships are now defined by technology. Social media gives us the "illusion of companionship", but these rapid connections lead to a deep sense of solitude. Turkle is author of the book, 'Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other'.
The real world is messy, uncertain and filled with disappointment. The digital world is a place of beautiful, happy people living their best lives. It's tempting to believe that everyone on social media has perfect looks, perfect careers and perfect families.
Women are conscious of their physical appearance. Numerous reports show how the portrayal of idealised body types in the media (such as tall, thin models) puts pressure on women to achieve that ideal. There is evidence that social media platforms are producing similar effects. On social media, idealised body types may have a worse impact because the people we follow are our peers, not some distant models. They are our friends on social media. If my friend can achieve a certain look, why not me?
Two female authors, Marika Tiggemann and Isabella Anderberg, have produced a report on the effects of Instagram on women's body image. They aver that Instagram use is related to a variety of body image concerns, including body dissatisfaction. They, too, have found that social media users tend to compare themselves with the images they see online.
Unlike traditional forms of media, such as television and fashion magazines, social media allows users to interact with the content through likes, comments and shares (engagement). Engagement is a form of social validation; that people like your content because you are popular. The greater the validation you get on social media, the greater the motivation to continue posting similar content. If someone gained a large following on social media by insulting opponents, you can expect his or her behaviour to continue.
Sean Parker, a former top executive at Facebook, told a public forum that the stream of comments, "likes" and reactions on social media exploits the workings of the human brain. He said Facebook was designed to answer the question: "How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?" Incidentally, Instagram, which motivated the Kenyan woman to take butt augmentation surgery, is owned by Facebook.
NOT ALL BAD
Despite these worrying trends, social media has transformed society in many positive ways. The purpose of this article is not to portray social media as a bad thing. Social media is helping families, former schoolmates, friends and workmates stay in touch very cheaply. Through social media, people get news instantly from all corners of the world.
Social media has opened up previously inaccessible populations. It is not uncommon to find herds boys deep in the remotest parts of the country active on social media through their phones. Social media has created new business opportunities through online marketing and influencing. Lots of comedians, musicians, filmmakers and other artistes became famous after posting their performances on social media.
Social media has given everyone a voice. Anyone can engage in a one-on-one conversation with political leaders. On their side, politicians have been forced by social media to become more responsive to the needs of the people. Even the police have picked up many cases that were first reported on social media.
There's a lot of good on social media, but users should understand how it influences their thoughts and habits. Once we understand this fact, we can take control of our behaviour on social media. That way, we won't find ourselves spending hundreds of thousands of shillings in a vain attempt at getting followers on the Internet.