There’s little doubt that today’s most popular social media platforms have some undesirable side effects, many of which affect behavior on these platforms as well as the mental health of users more generally. While, it’s incredibly difficult to quantify the potential negative effects of specific platforms, there is a growing litany of studies attempting to do so. Commonly discussed themes include increased anxiety, stress, loneliness, depression, addiction, envy, lower quality sleep, strained relationships, and lower self-esteem. Sadly, it’s not difficult to imagine why heavy use of Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, TikTok, or others would elicit such physiological responses.
“They say it’s the ‘me’ generation — it’s not. The arrogance is taught, or it was cultivated. It’s self-conscious. That’s what it is. It’s conscious of self. Social media is just the market’s answer to a generation that demanded to perform. So the market said: ‘Here, perform everything, to each other, all the time, for no reason.’ It’s prison. It’s horrific. It is performer and audience melded together. What do we want more than to lie in our bed at the end of the day and just watch our life as a satisfied audience member? I know very little about anything, but what I do know is that if you can live your life without an audience… you should do it.” — Bo Burnham
A few months ago, I was about to embark on a work trip to Mexico City, which I had never visited before. Before leaving, I was actively planning what photo opp I would post on Instagram to mark the destination, something I had done previously when visiting new places. Suddenly, that phrase popped into my head: “If you can live your life without an audience… you should do it.”
In one moment, I was immediately horrified. I realized that my motivations for posting anything on Instagram were to display to my friends (and the world) the awesome experiences I was fortunate enough to enjoy — a way of subtly bragging that is all too normalized in today’s world. Since I was only posting pictures of “awesome” experiences and destinations, there’s a high likelihood that my posts could elicit envy from friends. Purposely posting content that could make people I love envious, all in exchange for a cheap dopamine hit — what kind of friend does that?
This epiphany made me realize how utterly backwards most social media products are constructed for mental health and human well being. These platforms:
Users are rewarded through engagement and notifications when they post content that their networks respond to, creating an incessant chase of attention and dopamine. People envy “influencers” who are able to monetize their large followings and lavish lifestyles (whether real or staged) — turning them into the 21st Century’s version of movie stars.
While this reward cycle fits well into American consumer culture, I worry that it leads to the idolization and pursuit of material wealth and attention, which are unlikely to be the keys to fulfillment or happiness. Rather, this pursuit leads to envy, anxiousness, stress, depression, lower self-esteem, and many other potential downsides. At it’s heart, social media today serves as a feed of “things you weren’t invited to,” or things you don’t have but desire.
At its inception, social media (and the internet more broadly) was hailed as an unparalleled opportunity for human connection and interaction, bringing together people and ideas that would never have met without the web. Selling makeup was not envisioned as the highest form of this new ability to connect.
There are other social platforms that live more closely to the purest iteration of connecting people who otherwise wouldn’t be, but on a more human level. The most notable of these, Chatroulette, saw viral popularity after launching in 2009. If you’re not familiar with Chatroulette, here’s the gist: you are randomly paired in a video chat with a complete stranger. You can see and hear each other, as well as type messages to one another. At any moment, either of you can hit “next,” and you’ll each be paired with new strangers, never to see each other again (unless you exchanged contact info).
A New York Times article from 2010 describes the journalist’s experience trying out Chatroulette:
“At one moment I was sitting in the living room with my wife, and on entering the site, we were siphoned into a dimly lit room with a man who told us he was in Russia. Moments later we were watching a woman dance half-naked in a kitchen in Turkey, and then we stared in shock at a gaggle of laughing college students in a dorm room somewhere. With each click of the mouse we were transported into a stranger’s life — then whisked along to another jarring encounter.”
As mentioned above, one immediately apparent difference between Chatroulette and Instagram was the degree of reality — users on the other side of the screen were often in their apartments or homes, sometimes dimly lit or with dirty clothes lying on the floor of their bedroom. Instead of polished, filtered, #Blesssed beach photos, you met people in their most intimate and real lives, which admittedly could be in depressing (yet relatable) settings.
Further, users were comfortable letting strangers into their lives because they were anonymous strangers! There was no fear of judgement, no “points” to earn, and no way for this stranger to affect your “real” life. No one felt the need to impress strangers who lived outside of their personal, social, and professional networks. This anonymity in turn allowed users to be extraordinarily honest, authentic, and weird.
While strange at first, this intimacy could be incredibly rewarding. During the height of the Chatroulette virality while I was in college, a friend of mine met a girl in Alabama (he was in Chicago), whom he spoke to for five hours straight, and eventually exchanged contact info. He was a social person and had plenty of friends, and yet rarely had five hour one-on-one conversations with most (if any) of them — yet was randomly connected to this person and found deep, genuine connection to someone with a completely different life. I noticed a similar phenomenon while traveling solo a few years ago, where I was more forthcoming and vulnerable to fellow travelers whom I knew I would never speak with again, and in turn found incredibly deep and rewarding connections.
Some people on Chatroulette chose to entertain their semi-captive audience of strangers. One user, Steve Kardynal, comedically danced along to pop songs such as “Call Me Maybe,” while improv pianist Merton composed songs for each stranger he was matched with, describing their appearance and actions. Ben Folds, a musician who some believed was secretly behind “Merton,” performed similar Chatroulette improv sets at concerts with live audiences.
The strangers who found themselves on the receiving end of these performances seem genuinely thrilled and amused at their private show. Performing on Chatroulette differed from other social platforms like TikTok because it meant having an audience of one — a real person you could see and interact with, without the potential to accumulate views, shares, or follows. The purpose became the pleasure and amusement of that one person — not the incitement of envy from many.
The underlying characteristics behind Chatroulette made it much more personal, human, and intimate. These were in stark contrast to “popular” social media, and included:
Chatroulette quickly burned out in 2010, at least partially due to the massive influx of perverts exposing themselves on camera. It still exists today, along with dozens of other random video chat sites such as Omegle. Most of these were similar plagued with nudity, never found a broad audience, and generally feel cheap and dirty.
The essence of the concept remains an opportunity in my opinion, if executed well. This would include first and foremost a computer vision filter to identify nudity and permanently block users who violate social norms. It’d also allow users to match with one another based on a variety of dimensions, interests, or goals, add friends / share contact info, and host group-chats. The mission would remain to connect people who otherwise wouldn’t be, in an authentic and human way. This is the social media originally envisioned by internet pioneers, and one I believe would go a long way towards improving the mental health and well being of its users compared to today’s offerings.