On Mother’s Day, when I asked my mom if I could honor her on Instagram, she didn’t respond the way I had expected. I had hoped she would say something like, “Thank you. That’s so sweet.” But instead, she asked me, “Why on Instagram? I’m here.” I could have publicly honored her anyway, but I didn’t. She had a point. Social media is not for everyone — and that’s okay.
It was only natural for me to publicly praise the superwoman I get to call mom. My intentions were just that; I wanted to commend her. As someone who grew up in a community of vocal individuals, I often perceived their posts as signs of generosity: friends congratulating one another on social media for their achievements; parents posting their “proud parent” pictures, and professionals sharing their colleagues’ work, to name a few. I couldn’t help but wonder whether my mom had trouble navigating social media and was embarrassed to admit it, or simply preferred to not use it. She said it was the latter. She is reluctant to give up her privacy. The most well-intentioned posts could reveal too much, she would say. Alas, I commended her privately, celebrating and thanking her for her love and work, while refraining from publicly honoring her.
Cultural differences might explain why some of us are less inclined to use social media than others. My mom saw no value in a post that, to her, would lack humility — a prized quality in her home country, Japan. “The Japanese routinely berate themselves and praise others, upholding the culture’s traditional respect for humility,” writes Makiko Kumihara in The New York Times. “The right amount of modesty means assessing oneself on the harsh side with an eye toward stoic, self-improvement. The humility puts others at ease,” she writes. Sources second Kumihara’s explanation of humility. Although Instagram has seen a rise in the number of users from 24% in 2015 to 31% in 2017, according to Instagram Business, “60% of respondents report never posting on social media,” says Carmen Yeung of Synthesio — a company that provides insights into social media. The “survey found that while LINE, Twitter, and Instagram boast many users in Japan, many of them may not actively post,” she adds. Cultures interpret social media differently; some might embrace it, others might perceive it as a reflection of narcissism and arrogance, hence, negative responses. Social media can reveal cultural interpretations, sensitivity, and purpose, which can help us understand our roles online.
Privacy has benefits. It gives us room for introspection and ownership of our lives. Instagram can make us instantly intimate, exposing our lives to the public. In so doing, we often blur the line between our public and private lives. We sell our personal information to Mark Zuckerberg. Is private mode even a thing? (He did, to be fair, make privacy a priority(?)) Tara Westover, the author of Educated, encouraged graduates to live life beyond social media in her speech at the Northeastern Commencement Address 2019 titled “The Un-instagrammable Self.” We owe it to ourselves to step back and observe, listen, and live in the moment. Privacy can give us a healthy dose of mental vitamins.
On the other hand, social media can be a useful and effective platform. Social media is the television of our time, and, if used appropriately, can bring people together. Take the Arab Spring in 2011, a revolution that transpired heavily online. When we demand change across borders, the response is often global and extensive. And in this process, we can learn about ourselves. The impact explains why many users, including public figures, take to social media to express themselves and advocate their cause. In her bestselling memoir Becoming, Michelle Obama writes, “If you don’t get out there and define yourself, you’ll be quickly and inaccurately defined by others” (285). The significance of our online presence lies in our purpose.
Not using or wanting to use social media is valid. We need not conform to norms. Some wish to protect their privacy, which outweighs any online presence that may be of use to others. And they have a point: Without privacy, we’d pay a price. On the other hand, social media can be a useful and effective platform. We could benefit from a cost-benefit analysis of social media. What matters is that we understand our comfort zones, boundaries, and intentions — why we are posting what we post. Social media, after all, is an abridged version of our stories; life is worth more than our posts. As the late Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis once presciently said, “I want to live my life, not record it.”