Followers, Likes, Retweets, Comments, Visits: Social currency. Can social popularity take us off the course of growth and where we were intended to go?
It was the dawning of social media as we now know it. Blogging had established its right as a citizen of the web and websites like Twitter and Dribbble were just coming out of the woodwork. The excitement and the thrill of seeing all of your friends using them was overwhelming. Getting followers, retweeting, having your shots liked and the like was addictive and fun. I was blogging regularly, but something about microblogging felt more like me. Heck, with my ADOS...err...ADD, it was a natural fit.
When I entered the web scene, I was green. I knew nothing of social currency like followers, likes, retweets, comments and visits. I viewed the web for what it was. What I loved about the social web when I first encountered it was something pure and something really great. A platform to have a voice and to share — to share what I'd learned. After all, I had learned much of my skill-set in all things web due to the kindness of people teaching on the web. My first love for the social web was pure and filled with good intent.
The First Things
I've been thinking a lot lately about the first things. Like when you first fall in love with someone or something and innocence and the purity wrapped up into those things. For me, it's like a good beer. If you love good beer, you'll know what I'm talking about. It's amazing savoring those delicious sips. The mellow buzz and subtle euphoria associated with its flavor and substance. For those that might have struggled with taking it too far, there's a huge difference between the first beer and the eighth. By the eighth, that substance has been stripped of its redeeming qualities and reduced to an addictive tool.
This isn't a rant against alcohol. Alcohol represents a metaphor for how we can take something innocent and pure; be it a romantic relationship, appreciation of a great beer, a delicious meal, a word of encouragement from an admirer of your work and twist it into something addictive and ugly.
With alcohol, it's easier for some to understand when your tendency has changed to an addictive one. With other addictive things in life, however, it can take some serious heart surgery to unveil the source of the poison.
Words of affirmation can make your heart soar. They can encourage you to reach deeper and do more — to do better on that next project. Especially for creatives that can be overly self-critical, affirmation for a job well done can be the catalyst for calling out greatness from within them.
For me, receiving praise for my work was just that: a catalyst for pushing me further. At first. For those that were kind, that uplifted me, that gave me a thumbs up, I thank you.
I remember a question that a close friend of mine, Jesse Gardner once asked:
Do you feel like your social popularity has hurt your growth as a person and designer?
That was a fantastic question that I gave serious thought to. Had I achieved no "status" at all, would I be better off today? The answer, I believe, for me, was yes. It was that question among many like it I had asked myself earlier that led me down a road of self-discovery and freedom.
I hope that you, the reader, can see me with a bit of grace and see yourself in my failures. The reason I chose to be vulnerable about my own failures is because I view social addiction as such a large issue facing us, that it needs to be brought to light. For many of us, it's hard to understand that we are addicted until its run its destructive path.
To be honest, I realized my issues with social addiction over two years ago, but I didn't experience it's destructive nature until nearly a year ago. I noticed a correlation between my perceived happiness and online social interactions. When I'd tweet and get a large response or post a shot to Dribbble and get "like" fame — I couldn't help but feel euphoric from that perception of "fame." A childish, puny version of fame, but it still deceived me. I found I always wanted more. More fame, more likes — more of the limelight. And you over there wagging your head at what was my addiction, yeah, you — close your live stats view or stop manically refreshing that post you're looking for the next comment on. It's all addictive.
The more you layer on the compliments, it feels fantastic, but what you don't realize, well, at least I didn't realize was what it is preparing your heart for — what your mind and heart believe is normal. It's a lot like running. Remember that first run? That first day is rough, but each time you train, your body adapts. It begins to welcome this new routine as "normal". Before you know it, you're running 5 miles a day and your body has adapted. It's become a part of you.
It's like that with the social web. You eat the "like" drug and boy does it taste good. You keep consuming it, but you want more. You don't realize that your mind and heart are now accustomed to this new "drug". Worse, what will happen when you take the "drug" away? Sadly, I'm not sure all of us will find that out.
When I discovered my addiction, it seemed mild. What I didn't know was what I would find out later — my true condition. When I realized that I kept returning, kept yearning for more of the "like" drug, I knew it was unhealthy, and so I began to pull back. To withhold posting tweets, shots, posts — I'd turn down speaking opportunities because I knew that if successful, they could enable the addiction within me. I'd play this little game every time I felt the urge to post anything. I'd ask myself "Rogie, what's your intent with this?" Most often that would result in not posting anything because I knew my heart's intent was wrong. What I learned later was a surprise.
I began to work on projects that I didn't think I would get a lot of praise for — sharing things that I felt to be truly altruistic, like guides or sharing my process in work. Things that would help others, not myself. This was a great move for me. When we are faced with issues of pride or self-centered behavior, often, the best thing is to do the opposite. To intentionally seek out things focused on selflessness and uplifting of others. Sharing, charity work, giving, a kind thoughtful word or focusing on others pain or needs.
The "drug" was removed from my system, and with most addictions, withdrawals happened. I'd fiend for attention. I'd be jealous of others for it. I'd notice others receiving the praise that I lusted for and I'd crave it too. But, this newfound knowledge was my ally. I knew that this "drug" was destructive, so I didn't return to it.
But what followed was an emptiness that taught me a very valuable lesson in life. You see, after removing the drug, it unveiled my true nature. My true nature was very human indeed — the need for affection, to be of worth and valuable to people's lives. To make a difference with my puny existence. To have "friends", but, I was doing it all wrong.
After removing the like "drug", I realized I hadn't truly invested myself in real, valuable, balanced relationships. Not these fake, smiling shiny faces, masked by a 50 pixel rounded rectangle talking about their next big achievement while privately hurting and dying inside. Online interactions are great, but they're no substitute for the raw, honest grit that you'll get with a real friend. A real friend will call you on your shit and tell you if you're slipping up. An online friend will publicly declare your "awesomeness" to the world trying to scream above the noise to be heard. I learned that my addiction had pulled a switcheroo. I traded deep, real, personal relationships for shallow likes, tweets and visits. No wonder my heart was broken. I'd been feeding it a substitute and an unbalanced one at that.
All these years, I'd been working so hard, to earn money for my family. I'd made the internet my throne — I'd wake up to this little glowing black box and hook up the feeding tubes again, never realizing that what I needed was a balanced meal, a balanced life. My "friendships" weren't balanced. They were one-sided 140 character statements on a screen, declaring how awesome I was. I didn't need to hear that. Nobody needs to hear how great they are all the time, because, the truth is...we're not "great". But, our connection to others and the beauty of a real friend challenging you in truth and love is.
What I needed to hear was how shitty I was doing, but nobody shares their emptiness online — it's too ugly. I needed to have a friend say, Rogie, you're screwing up in your life. Here, take my hand and let me help you fix it. If you only have shallow, positive relationships online, there's no-one to catch you when you fall.
This newfound realization was everything to me. I began seeing a counselor and finding how having false relationships through a glowing screen had hurt me. I began to return to real relationships, local relationships where you can look a dude in the eyes and laugh over a movie or a beer. I began to intentionally think about my friends and what they were going through. To put myself on the pro-active giving end of kind and thoughtful words, not just the receiving end.
And this return was hard. I found myself going back to the old ways, trying to milk a relationship of what it could return for my praise, for my benefit. But this real, beautiful return to balanced relationships was key.
Social addictions can be some of the most deceptive hurdles to overcome in our lives. When are we feeding our egos with false, shallow compliments from near-strangers? Are we basing our concept of our own success off of the compliments of well-intentioned, yet false online personas? Had I continued to believe the deception of social addiction, I wonder what growth I would have missed out on? Would my course be derailed? Has it already? Had I caught on earlier, I guarantee I'd be twice the designer I am today.
A passage in Proverbs sticks with me:
Walk with the wise and become wise; associate with fools and get in trouble.
In my experience, "associating with fools" in this narrative, represents an addiction to comments, likes and feedback that only builds and inflates our view of ourselves. Walking with the wise is to associate with those people that know when you need building up and when you need a swift punt of critique of your work or character. In other words, if faced with an endless sea of compliments or a road of critiques, I'll take the critical path — the path to growth.