In all the discussion around what’s wrong with Facebook, everyone forgot to ask the generation most affected.
I am 22 years old, and I can barely remember a time when I did not have a presence on the internet. By the time I was 9, I was spending hours playing Webkinz or chatting with friends over AIM after school. In the fifth grade, I lied about my age to sign up for an account with Facebook.
At the time, parents didn’t really know much about Facebook, which was of course exciting to me and my friends. Soon, driven by the thrill of “likes” on our posts, my friends and I planned hours-long photoshoots of ourselves. We would pick apart the smallest of details in the photos, trying to predict which photo would get the most likes. I remember deleting photos when they didn’t get enough likes, as my friends reassured me that it was simply posted at the “wrong time,” when not enough users were online to like it.
Unlike online chatting or video gaming, which facilitated conversation and entertainment, Facebook lured me into unspoken competitions and seeking approval from others. “Her profile photo got more likes than mine, so she must be cooler and prettier than me.” This was the thought buzzing in my head at the age of fifteen—it was toxic and I was addicted.
Once Facebook was discovered and infiltrated the boomer generation, Instagram became the app of choice, as we wanted to get as far away from our parents as possible. We all downloaded FaceTune, an app to help us filter and edit our skin and bodies, so we could look thinner or prettier—oftentimes unrecognizable to how we actually looked. Everyone used these apps in order to keep up with what we perceived as never-ending competition for validation.
Most people my age were not surprised at all by the information the Facebook whistleblower brought forward, especially as it related to Instagram’s impact on teen girls. The experience of using Instagram is markedly different for women than it is for men. Men can open the app and judge women’s looks, but were not socialized to post their own photos for scrutiny or validation. While boys were encouraged to have traits and qualities outside of their image, girls were increasingly socialized to feel their image was the most important thing about them.
As sad as it may be, the reality is that I know many young women who still feel that the best way to get male attention and validation is to post a revealing picture on Instagram. While Instagram did not create this gender dynamic, it certainly made it severely worse for my generation.
As we spent more and more time being voyeuristic online, we felt less capable of connecting with people in real life, causing increased feelings of isolation and depression.
I know many young women who still feel that the best way to get male attention and validation is to post a revealing picture on Instagram. While Instagram did not create this gender dynamic, it certainly made it severely worse for my generation.
This is not the future to which we are bound, though: The concept of ‘likes’ and image alteration does not have to be central to every social media platform. Likes were an experimental feature in the early days of social media, and its creators quickly learned they could turn the primal desire for status and validation into billions of dollars.
There can be a new paradigm for social media, one that actually fulfills Mark Zuckerberg’s purported mission to “connect the world.” Instagram often creates offline to online connections, where we meet in-person and then follow each other’s social profiles without ever seeing one another again. What if we flipped that? More online to offline social interactions is a way to expand one’s social universe while actually encouraging meaningful, authentic interaction. Many new social media founders are tinkering with this idea, exploring how we can actually expand our social media networks into offline friendships.
Other social apps, like Co-Star, which connects friends over astrology, point to the potential unbundling of Facebook that we may see in coming years. While video-sharing app TikTok isn’t perfect, for the most part it does reward creativity and authenticity over just attractiveness. There are ways to connect beyond the illusion of Instagram, or other apps that incentivize people to post about the most rose-colored version of their life.
When raising money for my social media company Flox, which encourages groups of friends to meet together in-person, I had at least one investor tell me to “be more like Zuck.” Perhaps they thought this was genius, but they missed the mark here.
Gen Z’s version of the future will not be the metaverse. It will be the authentic reality in front of them.