I recently decided to back away from Instagram. Don't get me wrong--I love sharing good photos, brilliant quotes, and my own electric insights with zillions of people worldwide, or at least my 61 followers.
But I myself follow 32 excellent Instagrammers. Their fine photos and provocative declarations pile up in my feed faster than I can read them. I start to feel that I am falling behind, that I am missing things I should see, should know about. But I have only so much time in a day to scan that Instagram feed.
How do those people feel who attempt to follow 100 folks and more? Like those young people I see hunched over their phones downtown, ignoring the passing parade of real, live people and even the companions sitting on the bench with them, rapidly scrolling through the latest postings. And then there is that haunting hope for just a few more likes and comments to bolster one's sense of worth.
It occurs to me that we were not designed to interact with hundreds of humans per day. At least not electronically. It's different if you are working the cotton candy stand at Coney Island.There you hand a wand of fluffy sugar to a real person. There are smiles and frowns and sticky fingers and small talk and directions on how to find the Tilt-A-Whirl. That job, most of us could handle.
Reading scores or even hundreds of postings a day is different. Each one demands something new from our brain: some analysis, a positive or negative reaction, or a much-needed comment on how wrong the person is. So the user flies along, covering as much virtual ground as possible, touching only lightly here and there.
Rather than getting to know a few people well, we have glancing acquaintanceships with hundreds or even thousands.
And how much do we learn from the time spent scanning and posting on these feeds? Instead of reading a book on early 20th-century photojournalists and the world they revealed, you can just post some touching images you came across of little children in dirty white dresses in front of tenements. What does it mean?
One social media researcher at Lincoln College, Oxford, predicted a baleful result of this activity: "The mid-21st century mind might almost be infantilised, characterised by
short attention spans, sensationalism, inability to empathise and a
shaky sense of identity."*
I ask this question: Would Napoleon have used social media much? I doubt it. He was too busy learning about Egyptian tombs and planning how to take over Europe. Like other towering figures from history, he was focused and he was busy doing things. He did not bother about how many strangers liked his ideas. His sense of identity was by no means shaky. Maybe when I'm tempted to slip back onto social media I'll ask myself, "What would Napoleon do?"
Photo: Marlon Brando as Napoleon with Jean Simmons in Twentieth Century Fox's 1954 film Desiree.