It is often remarked that ideas are considered with far greater seriousness after their author has been dead a few centuries. Although the ideas I intend to explore here were written first by a man who has indeed been dead for a number of centuries, I ask the reader to believe me when I say that his ideas carry gravity not for their age, but for their burning relevance in the modern world. Indeed, it is the case that the 16th century philosopher Michel de Montaigne can give us fantastic insight into our most complex problems around social media in the time of a global pandemic.
Social media is extraordinary – quite literally extra ordinary. For most of human history any one individual could only ever have hoped to meet just a handful of other humans over their entire lifespan. Today however, thanks to social media, each and every one of us are now engaged in ceaseless social connection with more humans than our not-so-distant ancestors could ever have imagined.
Undoubtedly, the advent of social media has had its benefits. To mention just one, instantaneous online connection has allowed us to keep in contact with friends and family that we, for one reason or another, would otherwise lose contact with. Nevertheless, as we near the two-decade anniversary of humanity’s coexistence with social media, we have begun to learn of its not so beneficial side effects.
If we are honest with ourselves, much of the time we spend on social media is spent staring into our screen at the lives of others, endlessly scrolling for multiple hours every day. What do our screens show us? They show us highlight reels of our friends’ lives, their happiest moments, greatest successes and most expensive possessions. It is the very nature of social media that means users can, and for the most part do, post only what they want others to see of them. For, what reason do you have to post anything that shows you in a bad light – literally or metaphorically?
As a result, the social media environment is one filled with only the most joyous moments of everyone’s lives, their permanence on our screens giving us the impression of their permanence in reality. Constant exposure to such relentless streams of content can have serious effects on a user’s mental health. Feelings of inadequacy and anxiety are found to be common immediately after an individual has spent time on social media as users compare their own lives to the best moments of others’. Young people seem at particular risk due to their tendency to spend more time on social media. We may call the millennial generation ‘digital natives’, but even those most well adapted struggle in environments that become so obviously hostile.
Thankfully, in ‘normal’ times it is possible to avoid this social media frenzy by simply turning your device off and stepping outside the front door. For, up until now, social media has only ever been an add-on to our social interactions – a little bonus to our face to face exchanges. Despite the importance many of us place on social media in our relationships, it was very rarely a crucial element of them.
We no longer, however, live in ‘normal’ times. The outbreak of a global pandemic has confined many of us to our houses, allowed outside only for food shopping and exercise. During this time connecting with others on social media is no longer a mere supplement to our social relationships, it has become the essential ingredient for them. We can no longer escape social media without drastically cutting off contact with friends because the two are now inextricably linked. All social interaction is social media interaction. Such conditions mean exposure to social media is now practically unavoidable. How, then, do we best navigate ourselves through this difficult time?
Social media didn’t exist in the 16th century, nor did COVID-19. Nevertheless, Michel De Montaigne seemed to have encountered a somewhat similar problem and, as a result, offered some invaluable consolation. Montaigne was an avid consumer of the art, literature, and philosophy of his time, much like we are of the social media content of ours. Amid his forays into the fine arts, Montaigne noticed a distinct absence of a particular topic. That topic? Normal life. Seldom did he find himself reading a book or viewing a painting about the normal experiences that make up our lives: visiting the toilet, a disappointing sexual experience, eating a bland meal. Such omissions, Montaigne wrote, meant that so much of what makes humans what they are is simply not spoken about.
Importantly, this was far more than just an intellectual concern. Montaigne thought this had very serious implications for how we see ourselves. For, Montaigne explained, if we give such precedence to the kind of images and stories which surround us, we begin to sculpt our lives in their accordance, accepting aspects of ourselves only if they concur with what others mention of themselves. This kind of thinking, he concludes, is bound to result in us feeling ashamed and unhappy. Sound familiar?
Here, Montaigne shares his advice. The philosopher was keen to remind us that amid the hedonistic fakery of popular culture we are all, fundamentally, human. No matter who you are, no matter how many followers you have, you are human. And to be human is to experience sorrow, pain and anxiety all the same as pride, pleasure and success. Montaigne wants to tell us that the next time you glance at your social media, and you see others enjoying seemingly flawless lives, they too feel the hardships and monotonies of existence, just as much as you do. It may not look like it from what you see on their social media profiles, but behind the online façade is a human who carries all the various insecurities and embarrassments that come with our shared condition. In Montaigne’s own words, ‘upon the highest throne in the world, we are seated, still, upon our arses.’