Social media. Whether you love it, loathe it or have mixed feelings towards it, we cannot avoid it.
It feels as though everyone has some sort of presence in the ever-increasing digital world and its currency of likes, followers, and other attention-based metrics. But for some of us, it can be just as anxiety provoking as interactions within the offline world.
Here’s a situation I’m sure many of us have been in at some point: You spend some time thinking about something you may want to post online. You’ve spent hours carefully crafting your work. You’re feeling confident with it and you are finally ready to share it. You hit that “tweet” or share button to send it off into the world, and then there’s everything else after – nothing happens.
An hour or more passes by. The view counter increases but no one want what you have shared. The like counter remains stuck at zero.
Suddenly you are struck with an overwhelming feeling of dread, shame and perhaps even embarrassment – “I got it so wrong”, “That was so stupid of me,” or even “I’m a failure.”
Everyone likes to say that they don’t like likes, but the truth is that most of us welcome this feedback. It feels good to know that other people like who you are or what you have to share with the world.
To receive no likes is a negative reinforcement. It instils in us the belief that we are not very good or that people don’t like us. It reduces the likelihood of us doing it again. After all, calling the metric a “like” infers that the opposite action is a “dislike”. Surely?
There is a world of taboo and stigma that exists surrounding this issue. Firstly, to be seen as someone who wants attention has held negative connotations since the label “attention seeker” came into play.
So we might feel insecure about not receiving likes, but we cannot talk about it because to do so we put ourselves into the discursive category of being an “attention seeker”.
The attention economy
But the digital world is mired in an attention economy. Attention is the very thing that enables us to succeed because, in this age, we need to be visible. For those of us with disabilities and severe social anxiety, careers and work opportunities are just not set up for us. Many of us need to find paid work, but paid work is inherently social. Paid work values extroversion and face-to-face contact.
Unless you’re a well-established tech expert, the chances are you are going to need to earn through a mask. A mask that completely exhausts you on top of the general duties required of a job. So is it any wonder that we have a huge community of neurodiverse freelancers out there? It’s the only way for us to survive that provides us with the autonomy to work remotely, flexibly, and without being enforced into the neurotypical conformity that saturates the contemporary job market.
So we need to get online, and we need to become visible. In other words, we need attention and that includes likes. Being an attention seeker isn’t merely about self-indulgence; for many of us, it’s survival.
The problem for those of us with social anxiety is that putting ourselves out there can be just as difficult as applying for a job or going into a meeting with potential new clients. In fact, it can be worse.
The meeting in the boardroom might only be witnessed by one or two others, but that tweet with your latest article or piece of art is seen by thousands – perhaps more. There’s so much pressure to get it right. To develop resilience we have to pretend that we don’t care. And above all, we can never openly say that we do.
But we do care. Our digital footprints and the world of screenshots leave a permanent trace of what we put out there. Not to mention algorithms. One erroneous move online and you’re out of the game for an unknown time frame.
So we have societal judgements about attention seeking; technical features that leave visibility permanent and algorithms that can remove our visibility altogether. Is it any wonder why social anxiety is so prevalent in the online world?
It’s a precarious world, and the attention economy doesn’t play fair. It doesn’t care whether people are disabled or disadvantaged in some way. Those trying to earn an income online are seen as crass or self-indulgent. Yet those are the very people who perhaps need the most visibility. We don’t have wealth or the option to find fully remote work; employers don’t really want people like us. We don’t have capital, the only capital that is possible for us is that of attention; that of becoming visible and hoping that we can make our livelihood through this.
Whether you are introverted or someone with extreme social anxiety, this act of putting ourselves out there continuously can take its toll. This need to be visible is a complete paradox when we spend much of our lives attempting to be less visible to others.
It can make us feel like a commodity, as though we are attempting to be something we are not.
The important lesson is that we can still be ourselves – it just might take longer to be seen. Especially when we are not conforming to the social norms of social media. But norms are flexible and as with rules, they can too be broken. It takes people to come together and be in the right place at that right time, but one day we will hopefully begin to be seen in the right way. For who we are and not solely based on some algorithmic win.
So, next time you share a post that doesn’t gain attention, know that it’s OK to feel upset about this. You wouldn’t deny yourself of this if you received negative feedback offline. It’s your work. It doesn’t make you selfish or a narcissist and it’s valid to care about ‘likes’ or lack of them.
Attention is something that we need to financially survive in this world.
We need to step away from the stigma that “just for likes” is just something that self-indulgent people do. Because unless you’ve already made it in this world, most of us aren’t just using social media for fun or leisure. It’s survival.
Laura Barrett is an MSc student with a research specialism in cyberpsychology and online communities.