Last week, I was in Birmingham for a project that I'm working on with some of my former students. Ginny Tyler, one of my best friends and my host for the week, and I went to a cute restaurant downtown called Feast and Forest. We got our coffees and beautifully plated meals, and settled into our table.
And then I watched a crazy thing happen.
A group of four young girls, probably around 22, strolled in. They were dressed to hipster perfection: dark lipstick, topknots, denim cutoffs, mirrored sunglasses, ironic band t-shirts, tattoos of birds prominently displayed on the back of one of their thighs. To be fair, they were dressed more appropriately for the restaurant - Ginny and I looked like the lame young moms had arrived in our Lululemon.
It was what happened next that blew my mind.
Before they even ordered, one of the girls (we'll call her Sunglasses, since she wore them indoors the whole meal) made her way to a vacant table and started posing behind it. Another of the girls, Topknot, started snapping Sunglasses' picture. And not just one. Several. Maybe a dozen. Different poses, different angles. None of them included the girl looking at the camera -they were all candid.
Ginny's back was to this scene, but my brow furrowed and I watched in disappointment as this experience became more about what they were going to post on Instagram than enjoying each other's company. It was far from over.
The four girls sat at the table together, on their phones, waiting for their food to arrive. Not a one of them looked up or spoke to each other. One of them took a call and I realized that they were actually on vacation. This was how they were spending it: without interacting.
When the food arrived, like robots, all four girls took out their phones and started photographing their food. Once they were satisfied with those pictures, Sunglasses looked at Topknot, who wordlessly picked her phone back up. Sunglasses posed with her coffee: coffee cup on the table, coffee cup to her lips, coffee cup mid-way between table and lips while looking wistfully into the distance.
Topknot easily took 30 pictures of Sunglasses before either of them actually took a sip of their drinks or a bite of their food. I was rendered completely speechless as these girls, totally ignorant of the fact that everyone in the restaurant was watching in horror, had photo shoot after photo shoot for their social media accounts.
So here's where I confess that my hands are not clean: I love Instagram. I love taking pictures. I have certainly asked the waitress to take a photo of my friends and I after a special meal. I've taken pictures of my food. It took me a while to figure out what about this bothered me so much.
Part of it was the lack of self-awareness; the open vanity and shamelessness of it all. But I think the bigger part was that it made me genuinely sad. These friends who'd traveled to be in a place together were so addicted to social media - to the idea of presenting the fun they were having instead of actually having fun - that they weren't even speaking to each other. They weren't having an experience, they were just crafting what they wanted others to think they were experiencing.
How many of their friends, I wonder, saw those photos and were so jealous of the fabulous breakfast these girls ate together? How many wished they could be around that table, talking and laughing? Would they have been as envious if they'd known that there wasn't any talking or laughing at all?
I listen to a great podcast called Hidden Brain, and one of the most recent episode was called SchadenFacebook, playing on the term "schadenfreude," or, "taking pleasure in other people's pain." In it, the host, Shanker Vedantem, discusses how social media actually makes us sadder. Until recently, we weren't sure whether the fact that people who use lots of social media were sad was correlation or causation; rather - are they sad because they use it, or are they already sad, and happen to use it?
A recent study done by Tel Aviv University revealed that it's Option A: we're sad because we use it. Here's why:
FOMO. It's all about Fear of Missing Out. When our friends used to go on a trip, or hang out without us, we didn't really know because they weren't posting pictures of it left and right. Now, even if you've had the best day of your life - an incredible vacation doing adventurous things - when you look at Facebook or Instagram and see your friends back home at dinner without you, you automatically feel bad. Your day starts to pale in comparison to that one dinner, simply from a fear that a joke will be made that you won't be in on.
ISN'T. THAT. INSANE?!
I am certainly not a model citizen in this movement: I check my phone WAY too much, post an Instagram a week (or so). And I don't mean to judge Topknot and Sunglasses and their two other friends, because Lord knows I've been just as obnoxious in my life. But it made me sit and wonder what we can do to free this upcoming generation from finding their validation in a screen instead of in the mirror, or in the faces of the people they love who are sitting RIGHT NEXT TO THEM.
To figure it out, I'm afraid, we have to actually put the phones down and speak to each other. It's suddenly a novel concept. But it made me look at my own social media usage a bit more critically. I can stand to do better. What about you?