Depression, Self-Identity and Reality: Living in a Fictional Story Created by Social Media

By Borja Moya

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I’ve traveled a lot. I’ve been living in several countries in Asia, South America and Europe, and what I loved the most was meeting new people. I’ve stayed in hostels, hotels, sh*tholes, I’ve been everywhere. I’ve traveled alone, which made it great to meet new people and get myself into every culture. But with that I discovered a terrifying truth that’s changing our society and we’re not noticing it: We’re outsourcing our identity to social media platforms.

That’s me in Chiang Mai, Thailand (2016).

I was surprised that a lot of people were traveling alone. However, what was more surprising was that, a lot of the people who were traveling alone showed symptoms of depression. But, was it depression?

Here I have to be honest with you and say that at the beginning of my trip through Southeast Asia, I used social media more often than usual. I even started to share more pictures than I’ve ever shared. But then I started to look around and saw people doing the same thing — feeling depressed and alone (actually some people I met told me that). They were in the most beautiful places in the world, but still, they couldn’t face reality.

Somehow, I could relate myself with them to some degree. I didn’t like that. So, immediately, I stopped using social media, and limited the amount of time I spent using messaging platforms to just a few minutes per day. That was when I started to see “the real world”.

Something interesting happens when you disconnect from your phone and focus on the real world. You start to observe. By that time I had read some articles about the relationship between the use of social media and depression. But this wasn’t just about people who were traveling alone. People who traveled in groups, were also showing symptoms of depression. Which leads us to the following question:

Is social media making people depressed?

Maybe these people have never traveled alone before. I don’t know. It could be that I happened to meet depressed people. Or it could be a bunch of things. But something was out of place.

Is social media leading people towards depression? Is there something deeper here?

I believe depressions are just the tip of the iceberg. Here there’s something more problematic than that: We’re outsourcing the perception of our own reality to platforms like Facebook, and as insignificant that might seem, it’s making us delusional and leading us to really bad outcomes.

I consider myself pretty lucky, because I could get out of this non-sense. Maybe if I hadn’t gone for this trip I wouldn’t have noticed what was going on. But by traveling alone and observing people for long periods of time, it hit me pretty clearly: Social media is transforming our identities and making us delusional with the way we perceive reality.

For the last few years there’s been (still is) this conversation around whether people should go to college or not. I’m not sure what’s my opinion on this, but for me deciding to go to college and studying marketing was a great choice. It gave me something I believe to be critical in order to understand what’s going on in today’s world: Being able to observe and analyze human motivations.

Part of my training was to understand why people behave the way they do, with big emphasis on the following question: Why do people buy stuff? And that’s very powerful. Once you know that, it doesn’t take long to realize that everybody’s got their own worldview, their own story and, deep down — once basics needs are met — people seek status when they buy or use a product or a service.

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Hollywood can teach us a lot of things about human motivations. If you go back — decades back or almost a century back — you’ll find out that movies couldn’t be more different from one another. Yes, they all followed a structure, because we’ve hundreds of years of experience telling stories, but not that much shooting video. So each story tried to find the path in what was a new medium back then — because when you don’t know the path, you have to create the path.

Over time Hollywood understood human motivations. And I could go even further and say that they educated us. They taught us what to expect and when to expect it. They let us know, by subtle clues, who was the bad guy, who was the good guy, and when something bad was about to happen. (Every horror scene kicks in with violin music, and as far as I know, violins have never killed anyone.)

Long story short, Joseph Campbell shows up with the Hero’s Journey template, and suddenly we get this magical recipe: Movies that “matches” the audience’s story, with the hero’s one, have better chances to become a blockbuster.

Why do you think we love the typical movies so much? Because they follow a structure. And that structure happens to involve us in — we could be the hero of the movie. That structure adds up to our inner narrative. It builds up our story and matches our vision about ourselves.

That’s why, even though we know how the movie is going to end, we enjoy it so much — I do, and you do, too. Because we’re able to engage in the story and match it with our own inner story. This is especially relevant with superheroes movies: Superheroes movies work better on depressing times or economical busts.

Believe it or not, reality works the same way. Our worldviews are filtered through our own stories. The way we see the world is based on our story’s structure. We work through stories.

The human mind is constantly creating stories, the one with the bigger emphasis? The story of self. That’s the most important story for everybody: my story. We’re storytelling machines.

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Storytelling has a big variety of structures, concepts, themes, genres, you go down the list. And it’s the same with our own stories. People go through live with different filters. Some people specialize in comedy, others in drama. It all builds up with the story you tell yourself, about yourself. In the end, our identity is just a story. It’s the way we see ourselves. It’s the way we interpret who we are.

But, all these stories are fictional. They might be true in a sense that they somehow happened, but our interpretation of particular events is totally up to us. It’s subjective. It’s just not a real thing. Because the way you see yourself and the world, might be totally different than your neighbor does.

Up until now this has been a process that’s just happened in your mind. Your own inner abilities have contributed, actively, in constructing your story. But when technology kicks in — especially social media platforms — our role in this process turns passive. We’re outsourcing this process to social platforms like Facebook.

These platforms are giving us better ways to construct our stories, our identities. They’re giving us a stage. But while all this process took place in our minds, under our own criteria, (biased criteria, but inside our heads, nonetheless), now it takes place on social media. It’s when you set up your Instagram account that you start building your story, showing it to everybody and becoming extremely attached to it.

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Imagine you go to your social media’s profile and start looking at pictures you posted four or five years ago. There’s one picture where you’re with your friends at a party, smiling, yelling, having a blast. You look at the picture and just remember how great that night was, and that your friends are awesome.

So far so good. But what you don’t remember is that that night you had a terrible time. You were at a terrible party you didn’t want to be in, and your friend was complaining about her partner the whole night.

Well, that’s a reality for a lot of people. You had a terrible night but, in some way when you look at that picture, where you smiled for five seconds, you think it was a fantastic night. How’s that even possible?

You start believing that’s the real you. In one way or another you’re modifying your perceptions of past events. And that’s where it gets tricky.

Moran Cerf on Impact Theory

Moran Cerf, PhD in neuroscience, explains in an interview pretty accurately what happens with your memories:

“Your brain goes with you and carries all of the history in the form of memories. All you have from what happened before you, stored in the form of memories. They’re not accurate. They’re compressed. That’s only about the past. You have no idea in the future, even though your brain tries to predict it all the time. This is what dreams are for. This is what decisions are for. You try to simulate the future and make predictions.
“You don’t know what’s going on. All you have is this sliver of reality which is the present. All you have. You control everything that happens there.
“The nice thing about the present is that it interacts with everything in your brain, and you can change things. What we learned in the last five years is that memories are different in how they work. If I have to summarize it to one sentence, they change every time you use them.
“If you have a memory stored here or what you had for lunch yesterday, and I ask you what did you have for lunch, you basically open them. Right now, you tell me a story, but whatever happens now goes into the story and you say it differently.
“If I ask you tomorrow what you had for lunch, you’ll open the modified version. So, every time I ask you the same question, you open a different version, which means you can actually change the past. You can change the experience of things.”

If you think about it, this is why therapy works. With each session the therapist helps you to change the memories of the event that caused you pain. Every time the therapist asks you the same question, you come up with a modified memory of the event. So you visit the therapist, until you get to a point where you change your narrative about what actually happened.

This is exactly what social media does to you. It keeps bringing you all these “happy” memories and with each session (every time you check your profile) it changes your perception of your reality. It pushes your fictional story to your mind, and you start believing your own BS.

Have you ever reviewed pictures from your childhood or any vacation and have this great nostalgia feeling? Do you ever stop and think about what happened that day? Maybe it was a horrible day, but somehow you manage to suppress those memories, and just remember the smile you used for a couple of seconds when the picture was taken.

There’s nothing wrong with sharing good memories and try to be happy. In fact, we tend to remember positive memories. The problem comes when the only things you remember about the past are the few happy events and lose control over your own narrative.

If you just put on a mask when you take a picture and smile for just a couple of seconds, but the rest of the day you feel and look miserable, then something’s very wrong. In the end, you’d end up living in your own bubble, the bubble that builds up your fictional story and rules your life.

While this has happened for a long time, this process only took place in your own head. But now? You’ve got your own stage on social media.

Simply put, social media is a game where the only outcome we worry about is how we look to others. And this isn’t something new, it’s been happening way before social media platforms showed up. The problem is that, while your status didn’t have to be more than anyone in the world — just more than the people in your circle — now that circle is the whole world.

What social media networks are giving you is a show, where you prove that you’re better than the people around you. It doesn’t matter if you’re feeling depressed, what matters is how you look to others. There’s also another side of this that leads to depression and anxiety. That’s when you see that the people in your circle (an amplified circle) are doing way better than you do.

Social media is a show. A show about status. It’s about who’s up and who’s down. These platforms give you a stage where you can play their game — the status game — where you’re the player (the product, not the customer — the advertiser is the one paying for your attention).

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It’s not coincidence that most casino strategies and game theories are embedded very deeply into these platforms. Because from the very first day, they knew what was this all about: Status roles.

Even though it is true that social media platforms allow us to efficiently construct our stories, it is also true that the process of building up our stories— which has always been an active and internal process — now it’s being outsourced to sites like Facebook. And people are spending hours and hours per day building a non-sense story fueled up by status. A story to which, in the end, you become very attached to it. You just end up believing it.

But let me tell you, that’s not the real you. Most profiles do not reflect reality. They do not reflect the outer reality, nor the inner one.

This might be a bit controversial, but here it goes:

Social media platforms are making people delusional. Facebook, Snap, Instagram, and the rest of them are tweaking your perception of reality and shaping your identity without you even be aware of it.

So, why is this happening? Sure, social media platforms are giving us a stage to play status games — a stage to prove we’re just a little above from everyone else. But I believe there’s something else here.

The hard truth is that sticking with reality is painful. In fact, facing one’s reality can be one of the toughest challenges anyone can face. And this is why these platforms come in handy. Deep down, people don’t want to acknowledge things about themselves. They just don’t. It’s easier to play the status game and feel great in the short-term.

Thus, it wouldn’t be surprising that people just act in life as a way to build up this stage, would it? And the worst of all is that they might not even be aware of it.

Maybe I’m not making myself clear yet, but this is way, way bigger than we think it is. It’s not only shaping our individual realities, but our society as a whole. And that could lead us to terrible outcomes.

After I came back from my adventure through Southeast Asia, I deeply thought about this, and I knew I had to find the truth. It was a hard task so I forced myself and wrote a book about my journey of discovering this truth. Which is kind of funny, because I only got to know what actually happened by writing the book — it wasn’t that I discovered it and then wrote the book.

That’s me, in Myanmar.

And I haven’t told this to anyone yet, but the process of finding out that truth was very painful.

You know those situations when you’re aware you have to do something (send that email, make that call or just check in with your doctor) and you avoid doing it because you might not like what you’ll find out? That was exactly the feeling I was trying to avoid. Nevertheless, I had no choice but to find out.

Reality was tougher than I expected. I discovered that most of the problems I was facing happened because I had built a different story, a different identity. And it was only by getting to the root of these problems that, to some degree, I was able to get to build my story, on my own terms, not the ones you get by outsourcing the process to Facebook.

In the end, everything ends up making sense. There’s a reason you don’t want to unveil the truth in the first place, but maybe we all should go through that process and become aware of our own selves. Otherwise this situation might take us to places we don’t want to be.

Deep down, everybody cares about his or her own story. But, collectively, we all suffer from the stories social media pushes us to believe. They do matter to all of us, because these stories are what shape our society and dictate our future. If you mess up with these stories, then Brexit happens, Trump happens, but also Wars happen. It shifts the situation from the wisdom of crowds to the madness of crowds.

We have to be very careful on how we craft these stories. In the end, social media is shaping our culture and society in ways we’re not seeing coming. These platforms are steering our society to places where these fictional stories that shape our identities will make us pay a very high price.

Your story isn’t done to you — it is up to you. I’m not saying you shouldn’t be on social media. I’m saying that you should be very careful and aware on how this is impacting not just your life, but our lives. It’s having an impact one way or another, so it’s just smart to go offense and tell yourself the kind of story that you want.

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