{sxsw lessons} On Social Media’s Effect on Our Relationships with Ourselves & Others

by Rachel on March 15, 2012

“We put the version of us most likely to win approval out there. In a culture that raises women to be pleasers, we are all about approval.”

That was the opening slide during the How Women Present Themselves in the Digital Age panel at SXSW on Saturday afternoon. It was the first of many times during that session I thought “YES!!!”

I went to three sessions that discussed how people present themselves and interact with others online: How Women Present Themselves in the Digital AgePsychology of Narcissism and How It Affects Brands, and The Algorithm Method: Love in the Social Media Age.

Social Media & Insecurity

The first, How Women Present Themselves in the Digital Age, was one of my favorite panels during SXSW. The session was mainly about how women’s desire to be liked plays out online. The panelists were Tiffany Shlain (filmmaker and creator of the Webby Awards), Susan Orlean (staff writer at The New Yorker and author), Margaret Johnson (Editor of HuffPost Women), Bianca Bosker (Senior Tech Editor at The Huffington Post), and Lisa Ling (executive producer/host of “Our America” on OWN, former field correspondent for The Oprah Winfrey Show, and contributor to ABC News’ Nightline and National Geographic’s Explorer).

Lisa felt very strongly that all the technology surrounding us makes women more insecure than ever before. “It’s exacerbated all the insecurities I had growing up,” she said. “Already it’s fucking hard enough to be liked by your friends.” (Aside from just being excited to hear Lisa Ling say “fuck” so emphatically, I totally agreed with her point.) Tiffany pointed out that the very language we use in social media — “Like me,” “Follow me,” “fans,” “followers,” etc. — is inherently judgmental.

I thought that was a really interesting point. We see the Facebook Like button is everywhere, but how does its ubiquity affect the creators of the content that is being liked, commented on, shared, etc.? When we put something on the Internet, we are doing it because we want a response, and we take it personally if we don’t get one. “The silence can be deafening,” Bianca said. “When you put something out there and don’t hear anything it can be like…’holy shit.'”

So why do we take it so personally? Well, someone in the audience made a really good point: because our fans, number of friends, comments, page views, and followers suddenly matters. In the Psychology of Narcissism session, one panelist, Michael Dolan (a strategist for Spooky English PR) was adamant that the best way to decide if someone is an influencer (and therefore worthy of attention, swag, opportunities, and money) is to use numbers. He said he won’t work with anyone who doesn’t provide metrics. While not every company is looking at numbers, it’s clear that the most popular people on social media (Lady Gaga, Kim Kardashian) are now richer and more powerful because of that popularity. And it’s not just celebrities — we see this with everyday bloggers too. Casie, the blogger and self-proclaimed narcissist on the Psychology of Narcissism panel called it “social Darwinism; if you don’t have [the numbers], you get left behind.”

The idea that social media makes people insecure was also something discussed in the Algorithm Method session (my other favorite session at SX), though it was discussed more in the context of relationships and technology. Panelist Elizabeth Bernstein (relationship columnist at the Washington Post) talked about how, for a lot of people, texting is about power and control — you don’t have to reply immediately, and the longer you wait to reply, the more it can mess with the person who is waiting on the other end.  “We revert back to 14-year-olds on our phones,” she said.

At the How Women Present Themselves in the Digital Age panel, Tiffany and Susan seemed to be more of the school of thought that the web actually plays to women’s strengths. Susan said that her husband doesn’t get how she’s comfortable meeting people in real life that she’s only known online, but it makes perfect sense to her (and to most of us who were in attendance). That we can form communities so easily and  is part of what attracts   It’s a place where we can connect and build social circles without limits. “Women are the original social media,” Susan said.

Who We Are Online vs. Who We Are Offline

During that same session, Margaret, brought up another question that I heard discussed several times at SX: are you the same person online and offline? Lisa, Bianca, and Tiffany all gave a strong “no,” but each had different reasons. Lisa said that it seems like online, everyone just projects the life they want. She talked about how there is a lot of pressure to be on display with all the photo sharing, and that that makes us feel like we need to share more attractive photos of ourselves. Bianca said that she’s different online, but not in a bad way. Rather, she can highlight a part of herself online (her “inner nerd,” she said) that her friends might not want to hear about at dinner parties. She can write about her thoughts on, say, Google+, because this is an audience that wants to hear about it, while people in real life may not be as interested. Tiffany and Susan said they were mostly themselves online, though Susan said that she’s nicer online (she said if a stranger came up to her on the street and started talking to her — essentially what we do on Twitter — she’d freak out). The next day at the narcissism panel, Casie said, “Everything I put online is real but it is very crafted.” She said she’s selective about what goes online because she has to maintain her wholesome, friendly, positive image. She doesn’t Tweet late at night, doesn’t do any negative reviews, and doesn’t even blog when she’s having a bad day.

While I think we all know that people are different online and in real life (as Bianca pointed out, we’ve all seen a friend’s amazing vacation photos and known she was fighting with her boyfriend the whole time), I’m fascinated by why this is. Personally, I felt more like Susan in the “as real as I can be” camp. I’d like to be more real, but there’s a line I don’t want to cross because I want to be gainfully employed and respectful of others’ right to privacy. But when it comes to, say, posting the most flattering pictures of myself…yeah, I want to look my best. That said, Casie’s comments had me cringing; I felt like she crossed the line between filtering and just being fake.

Jacob Small, the clinical psychologist at the Psychology of Narcissism panel, tried to answer the question of why we do that. He said that inauthenticity can be a way to protect ourselves from our true selves and that narcissists (and not everyone on social media is actually a narcissist) seek validation and positive reinforcement. He said that putting something out there for validation isn’t necessarily unhealthy but “it can cross a line to compulsive in people who are pre-disposed to it. ”

How Social Media Affects Our Relationships & Going Offline

The Algorithm panel talked a lot about how being so plugged in is hurting our relationships. Panelist Susan Miller (CEO and founder of YourTango) talked about a YourTango study that showed that the two things couples fight about most these days are actually communication and not feeling valued. Elizabeth got into how technology is part of  that — both because people communicate so poorly on social media and because people are actually jealous of their significant other’s phone. She talked a lot about how people text and e-mail the most inappropriate things — breakups, good news, bad news, death. I actually disagreed with her that this is all inappropriate; I think it’s generational. I feel like a lot of people my age didn’t ever go through that period as teenagers when we talked to our friends at night on the phone for hours…we just started with texting them for hours. I think we’ve developed a more nuanced way of communicating via text or IM and I think that might be why we’re so much more comfortable having so many of those serious conversations via text. Like, if someone who typically texts me calls me, my first thought is, “Oh no…who’s dead?” (I really wanted to tell her that and when I finally got my chance, it ended up leading to an awesome conversation — but more on that in another post!)

I think everyone knows that social media and technology can affect our relationships in a bad way, but it was nice to hear how professionals handle this. I mean, if I feel too stressed out and plugged-in and I’m an Average Jane, I have to imagine that, you know, Lisa Ling feels even more stressed out. But it sounds like everyone feels this way. “The world now demands that you create this 4 dimensional entity,” Susan said. “It takes something out of you. It’s like one of those Tomagatchis. You’ve created this thing and now you have to feed it.”

Bianca said that she was so busy responding to other people all day that by the time she’d get home, her parents or her boyfriend would try to talk to her and she’d have this “WHAT DO YOU WANT FROM ME?” total overreaction. Now she won’t respond to people via e-mail or on social media at the expense of eye contact with someone real. At the Algorithm panel, Michael Lazerow, the CEO of Buddy Media who I just loved, said that people get really pissed when he’s tweeting but hasn’t answered their e-mails yet. “But answering your e-mails is doing your work,” he said. “Tweeting is my work.” He said people just have expectations of us on social media that might not be right for us.

No one is rejecting those expectations as much as Tiffany, who has started unplugging for an entire day each week. She said people are shocked to hear this, but she said her family observes the Sabbath (more out of tradition than for religious reasons) and she said that it’s a break from getting “too much input” from the outside world. “It resets me in the most beautiful way,” she said. “I can’t be a good mother and a good filmmaker if I answer all those e-mails.” When I asked her how she handles the fact that people expect you to be on social media and e-mail 24/7 (and, since their “likes” and “follows” are what keeps you in business, they get upset with you if you don’t send a fast response) she said you just have to be firm.

“This?” she said. “Shabbat, the Sabbath? It’s not like a new thing.” Everyone laughed, because it’s so true; people have always known that you need some time to unplug and be alone with the people you love. Why is it so hard to believe it’s true? I talked to Eric about it later and I think we’re going to start spending 24 hours unplugged each weekend now. I’ve been moving more in that direction on the weekends lately, just because I often feel so burned out that I can’t make myself look at a screen anymore, but I like the idea of making it an official thing.

When we were walking out of that session, Meghann turned to me and said, “A lot of that stuff we already knew, but sometimes you just need to hear someone else say it.”

And that’s so true. Sometimes you do need to hear it, and hear that it’s a problem that everyone struggles with. The tone during these sessions was just so comfortable; it felt like it was friends discussing this, not women that I consider to be, you know, kind of amazing. It was both reassuring and depressing to feel like everyone feels trapped by social media at some point or another.

I just love discussing how people interact and relate to each other and how people interact through social media so these sessions were right up my alley. I could go on and on about what was discussed in these three sessions (and there are some other aspects of the How Women Present Themselves in the Digital Age session that I’ll mention in future posts) but I’ll end things here. I’d love to hear your thoughts on these major themes and on some of the quotes and points I shared!

{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Alison March 15, 2012 at 12:46 pm

Thanks for this, Rachel!

I identify with the issue of feeling like I might burnout, and the need to almost completely unplug on the weekends. Your summary brings to light a lot of things I have felt and never articulated: waiting to respond to a text and the issue of power, feeling jacked up if a FB or blog post doesn’t get a certain amount of likes or views. I’m glad it was discussed and that I’m not alone. It makes me realize the need to be more intentional about how I personally use social media, and also how I should separate my work social media from my personal social media.


2 Katrina @ 'Sota is Sexy March 15, 2012 at 1:13 pm

Wow. This hits home on SO many levels.

As a woman, I often times feel pressure to present the “perfect package” through my social media presence. I not only *feel* the pressure, but actually *surrender* to the pressure by untagging unflattering photos, making sure to post “fun” images from my Hawaiian vacation (none where I look too fat in my bikini, of course), not posting photos of myself in the same outfit twice, etc.


It’s almost as if the web has become a forum for boasting. I must have seen AT LEAST thirty or so photos of flower arrangements girls I’m friends with on Facebook received this Valentine’s Day. Got engaged? Post a photo of the ring! Surprised with a present from your boyfriend or husband? Tell all your followers about it! Got promoted? Going on vacation? Bought a new car? Brag, brag, brag!

I’m totally guilty of this, by the way. I think we all our to a certain extent. But as you said, sometimes hearing the obvious from someone else is what finally flips the switch. That’s how I felt when reading this post.

You mentioned numbers and analytics. I recently started blogging and have noticed something quite interesting in my numbers. My most popular posts are the ones where I’m brutally honest, and don’t paint myself in the most flattering light. One is about not wearing makeup (complete with some NOT cute photos), one is about the worst pimple crisis ever (again, REALLY fugly photos) and one is about accidentally sitting in someone else’s vomit in a cab.

The more I think about it, the more it seems that the way to stand out in social media is to be honest and transparent. I think people are sick of seeing the perfectly veneered facades we present online. Seing a “real” person is not only refreshing, it’s WAY more interesting.


3 Mel March 16, 2012 at 11:49 am

I read a really interesting article the other day on how the fitness brands use this boasting mentality to their advantage. Because the people who are already active and want to show off are the ones sharing sponsored motivational quotes or talking about the apparel they bought. It definitely made me do a double take too on the kind of bragging I put out there.


4 Christina March 15, 2012 at 2:38 pm

After staring at a computer screen all day at work, the last thing I want to do is go home and stare at one.
Dedicating one full day to unplug sounds amazing, including T.V.
Studying people and their interactions with all things media is beyond interesting to me.
Just yesterday I mentioned to someone how I seem more cheery and optimistic since I stopped burying my head in every news headline and death-ridden TV news broadcast.
Odd the effects it can have.
Thanks for posting Rachel. And thanks for being you and telling it like it is. Keep it Real.


5 Bridget March 15, 2012 at 3:35 pm

I am totally jealous of my boyfriend’s phone. He’s on it ALL THE TIME. Whether texting, playing games, reading emails, all that. We actually got into a huge fight about him playing Words with his exgf. I was trying to explain it my mom and it just sounded SO RIDICULOUS. But really, if we’re laying in bed together and you’re playing a game with your ex, is that ok? or am I insecure because that completely bothers me? It sounds to selfish and dramatic girlfriend to be like PAY ATTENTION TO ME not your phone!
I love my iphone as much as the next person but when does staying in touch with distant people get in the way of staying close to real, live people?


6 Savannah March 15, 2012 at 3:51 pm

Great post Rachel! All the sessions that you talked about seem fascinating. I sometimes wonder if people like me are being left behind a bit due to social media. I am someone who definitely prefers face/phone time to social media time. I have all the requisite trappings (FB, Twitter, an abandoned blog) but I hardly ever use them. I’d rather be out actually doing things than spending all my time online updating the world about my life. But that’s just me, maybe I’m a throwback since my 20’s were spent in the late 90’s- early 2000’s and social media was totally different back then. Do you think there will eventually be a social media backlash? And is the constant need to connect online vs irl more suited to certain personality types? Audio/Visual learners vs Tactile? (does that make sense?)


7 Rachel March 15, 2012 at 5:11 pm

I think social media definitely attracts certain personality types more than others (they debated that in the narcissism session…does it create narcissists or just attract them?) and I also think it’s a generational thing. I think it has a lot to do with when you “came of age,” you know? I feel like social media and technology was so tied to my social experience in college that it’s hard now to imagine doing those things without it. But then I can’t IMAGINE

I sort of hope there will be some backlash — at the very least, I hope the people who don’t like it will stand up and say so and remain firm in their refusal to drink the Kool-Aid. I think it’s good to remember that people got along JUST FINE for a really long time without it and can continue to do so today.


8 melissanibbles March 15, 2012 at 4:57 pm

I’m with Savannah above. I’m more connected to my real life than virtual life. I have Facebook, Twitter, and a blog, but they’re things I use for fun and can’t imagine taking them so seriously that I would worry about how many people “like” what I say on Facebook. Most of my friends are this way too. My Facebook feed is usually the same five people updating every ten seconds and its annoying. I don’t understand people who need that much attention.

As far as unplugging, I spend too much time at work online and when I’m home I like to be outside, at the gym, the movies, etc…not on my computer. Everyone’s different though and some people like being online. I really do think it’s a security thing though. People need constant attention to make them feel secure and like they’re part of something. Thank God we didn’t have the internet when I was in high school (we didn’t even have it in college until my junior year). I feel like kids are really missing out on being part of real life. It’s sad.


9 Rachel March 15, 2012 at 5:19 pm

I also feel like I spend too much time online at work so when I get home, I’m much more inclined to be away from the computer like you said…working out, cooking, and reading really help me “feel human” again (I don’t know why I always call it that, but it’s always the phrase that comes to mind at the end of a long, plugged-in day). I have been working in the evenings from home though, which has been tough…but I don’t check my e-mail or social media as much in the evening, even if I’m at my computer.

In terms of not taking Facebook/blogging/Twitter so seriously, I think that for some people, particularly creatives, it’s become part of our jobs to take it seriously. Susan hit on this quite a bit in the panel…she was basically saying that as a writer, she’s expected to tweet often and have a strong web presence. I didn’t take it so seriously until these things were directly tied to my career and therefore my success. It’s hard to not to take it seriously when you have the powers that be telling you that yeah, popularity matters and you actually cannot advance to the next level in your career if you’re not popular.


10 melissanibbles March 15, 2012 at 8:11 pm

There’s a difference between people who are writers that take it Twitter and Facebook seriously and people who call themselves writers but tweet nothing but “Getting frozen yogurt!”, “Can’t wait to watch Glee!”, etc… I don’t think any of those women that were on that panel use Twitter that way and when they do it’s very rare. I think people who use Twitter as part of their career should be more selective in what they tweet and how often. Thank God I don’t use my Twitter for my job haha!


11 Emily March 15, 2012 at 6:56 pm

I read the part about taking a weekly technology “sabbath”, and I thought, “That sounds really great… but I could never do that.”

Hmmm. Sounds like I have a problem & I’m in denial. Although, to be fair, a significant amount of my weekend computer time is grad-school related. But instead of making excuses, I could set aside a day anyway. If I have to do schoolwork, so be it, but that doesn’t mean I have to get on FB, twitter, and 12 blogs too.


12 Rachel March 15, 2012 at 7:00 pm

I had the same thought — that a lot of my weekend computer time is work-related. But I think I could actually get more done if I did it all at once and didn’t spread it out over the whole weekend. And I completely agree that it’s one thing to use the computer for doing work and it’s quite another to use it for social media. I think it’s OK to use your computer during that time if you absolutely must do work; I think all the social channels and e-mail is probably what stresses me out the most because responding to those demands feels like doing others‘ work.

If you do make it a goal to unplug, let me know! I’d love to hear updates!


13 Emily Susan March 15, 2012 at 11:18 pm

Awesome post, just awesome. I too am jealous of my husbands phone/computer/ipod, and I am just as plugged in as he is. Our fights are about too much time on the computer. Terrible. We both are in graduate school and part of my job is to “keep an online presence” for a scholarly journal, our computers are hardly ever more than an arms length away. This is a real problem in my life and a the only major problem in our relationship.

I am going to be attempting to be more “unplugged”. It is going to be hard. I was away from my computer for a little less than 24 hours TODAY due to travel and family obligations. I actually found my self dreading turning on the computer and actually felt my stomach start to burn with acid and anxiety as I logged on to my school email. What if a professor I am working with had emailed me or the Facebook page needed updated and I hadn’t answered? This is difficult for me because, yes, I have had profs get upset with me because I hadn’t answered an email by the 4 hour mark.

I completely agree that it is harder to unplug when your career is on the line. However, I am going to stand firm, if this means having to send out a mass email saying I will be away from my computer for the weekend, so be it.


14 emily March 16, 2012 at 8:05 am

If you have to send a preemptive mass email, that’s like you feel the need to excuse your behavior, as though you know it’s wrong of you. And really, it’s not.

I think that part of setting healthy boundaries is not making excuses for them. At least, that sounds like something my therapist would tell me.


15 Rachel March 16, 2012 at 8:24 am

@Emily Susan — I think that’s awesome that you’re going to start unplugging more! I know that sick feeling well…I used to get that when I worked at ELLE and I, too, was expected to always respond to things immediately. I understand why you’d want to send out the mass e-mail; less as an excuse and more as an FYI perhaps? I find that bosses/coworkers/friends tend to be less upset when you’ve told them in advance you won’t be available. But I agree with Emily that it shouldn’t be an apology or a justification, just a declaration of this new boundary.

Keep me posted on how this goes! I’d love to hear updates!!


16 Dallas March 16, 2012 at 9:17 am

This is a thing at my job and I just put up an out of office reply.

“I will be out of the office from Friday, March 16th at noon. I will return to the office on Monday, March 19th. Your email is important to me and I will respond as soon as possible on Monday. Thank you for reaching out!”


It’s a non-apology that clearly sets the boundary.


17 Emily Susan March 19, 2012 at 12:59 pm

My email would definitely by just an FYI, if I ever get up the guts to write one. So far, I have not had any problems with just checking my email once or twice a day, hopefully this will be a lasting solution.


18 Chrissy (The New Me) March 16, 2012 at 7:17 am

Great post, and this sounds like an amazing panel. I’m a writer (going to grad school for fiction right now) and as such, I know the importance of building an audience. Personally, I use social media sites to reflect the parts that are appropriate to the situation.

I don’t think this sort of compartmentalization is unique to social media. We do it in our real, physical lives as well. We put on different hats, adopt different behaviors, and allow different facets of our personalities in and out, depending on where we are. I would never get drunk and use foul language in class, but on a Friday night at the bar, it’s on. This doesn’t mean I’m being dishonest in any way about who I really am. I am many people, and they all have a time and place. In life, and online.


19 Mel March 16, 2012 at 11:46 am

Oh man, this is really interesting!

The part about women portraying themselves in media reminded me of a girl I met while on vacation a few months ago. On vacation, she spent a bunch of time telling me how lonely she was because she lived with her boyfriend and didn’t get to spend a lot of time with her friends anymore (or that she’d lost some from them moving away, etc). But when we returned to life and she friended me on Facebook, I see a post every freakin day about what she’s doing and who she’s going out with. At first glance, I would never assume she was unhappy or bored. A part of me wonders who *is* she trying to impress?


20 Danielle March 17, 2012 at 2:28 pm

The public digitalized ‘braggadocio’ seems to be the new norm. It’s really sad to me, in so many ways. It seems like another way that women distance themselves from one another. Where is the meaning in this ‘image-creating’? Why not use the internet as an opportunity to further empathic understanding? The internet is one of the best tools that people have got right now; it’s so widely available. It’s in a perfect position to become a power of good…


21 Rachel March 17, 2012 at 9:48 pm

It is, and a couple panelists/audience members brought that up! They pointed out exactly what you said — that it’s a huge opportunity to empathize with other women. Why don’t we use it as such?!

I’m not sure why it’s such a performance…I often wonder if we approach social media like our own little reality TV shows, and like reality TV, it’s not real at all — it’s a carefully-edited entertainment property. I feel like seeing so much glamourized (but fake) versions of “reality” might make us more inclined to create our own if that makes sense? Just like reality TV can make anyone famous, so too can social media; maybe we’re just naive to think that any form of entertainment (which social media is) featuring real people will actually be real.


22 Beth March 18, 2012 at 2:35 pm

Wow. This was a fantastic read, Rach. Thank you!! I absolutely agree. I am always feeling like I’m on the verge of being a total narcissist when I create my posts, but then have to give myself a little credit and make the allowance to have fun. Because it IS fun to put yourself out there- you want to be a person who exudes a positive nature, is spirited, and oh yeah, drop dead gorgeous, too. There is pressure to always look on point; taking pictures these days has become entirely different from taking pictures in the past. Whenever someone asks me to take a picture with them, my first thought is, “Okay, this is going to be on Facebook…” It’s crazy how it… CONTROLS us, but at the same time, when you’re really happy and doing what you want with your life, you’re proud of that, too, and you want to share it with other people, and hopefully inspire them, too.


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