Surrounding ourselves with sycophants on social media is not healthy
We all know that social media is polarising. We gravitate to news sites (or fake news sites) that reinforce our own views of the world. We dismiss stories we don’t agree with and devour stories that tell us what we already know.
But there is another side to this coin of social media bias. It’s not just about what we like and share and comment on. It’s about the likes and shares and comments that other people bestow on us.
We have always had the capacity to curate our friendships. Never before, however, have we had such a capacity to curate our friends’ responses to us.Credit:Stocksy
Up until recently, only famous or powerful or wealthy people could surround themselves with sycophants. The rest of us regular people had to put up with our regular friends. And our friends would be reasonably honest with us about what they thought.
If we did something stupid, they’d most likely tell us. If we did something dangerous, they’d stop us, because they cared. If we tried to buy a hideous outfit, they would tell us to put it back.
These days, we have our (relatively few) IRL friends, and a plethora of online friends and followers. Our IRL friends may still chat to us IRL, but our followers chat only "online, in comments available for other followers to read.
And comments on social media are naturally polarised, because most people are only moved to comment on a post when they strongly agree or disagree.
"Love it", they write, or, "this is gold".
"You’re a moron", they write, or, "what a load of bullshit".
If a follower doesn’t care about our post, or doesn’t feel strongly one way or another, they simply won’t comment. They’ll move on to a more interesting post.
As a result, we, the social media users, are left with the two extremes of commenters: the lovers and the haters. And, because we have the right to curate our own social media pages, we block the haters, and engage with the lovers.
The lovers enjoy being appreciated, and continue to post supportive comments, and soon the lovers become a Greek chorus of yes-men and women, who tell us how fabulous we are. Eventually, we don’t even have to block the haters (who are now "trolls"), because the sycophants turn on them for us.
I see this dynamic play out constantly in my social media feed. There are benign examples, such as when the middle-aged style influencer posts a photo of herself in a deeply unflattering outfit, and no-one tells her. (Of course, we don’t. We’re not trolls! "Gorgeous", we write, and politely move on.)
But there are toxic examples too, all over the internet.
The influencer who exploits her kids, and her followers lap it up. The influencer who bitches about her ex, and the followers turn on him in support. The influencer who clearly has an eating disorder, and the followers use her for "thinspo".
Or, the influencer who is self-destructing online, and her followers encourage her to keep posting.
Bad behaviour is encouraged on social media, because it is dramatic, and makes for good posts.
And if anyone calls them out on their behaviour – however gently – or suggests maybe they should take it offline, they are shouted down as a troll. I know this from experience. I’ve been blocked by at least two media personalities for politely disagreeing with something they posted.
We have always had the capacity to curate our friendships. Never before, however, have we had such a capacity to curate our friends’ responses to us. Social media allows us to cull voices of dissent, whilst encouraging voices of assent and adoration.
We are creating a generation of influencers surrounded by people who suck up to them, and of regular people surrounded by enablers. Bad behaviour is encouraged on social media, because it is dramatic, and makes for good posts.
We need to remind ourselves and our children that social media isn’t real life.
We need to remember that our followers are not necessarily our friends. And we need to be mindful that behaviour that generates likes online may not be the behaviour that generates our best lives.
It’s easy to live a life that is applauded by strangers. What we need is to live a life we can feel proud of when we’re alone.
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