One of the most famous psychological experiments by Ivan Pavlov tells us that we can be conditioned to anticipate reward. In fact, anticipating this reward is more satisfying than actually receiving it. We have conditioned ourselves to anticipate likes and comments that come with sharing a photo on social media, spending hours on various editing apps and testing out different captions. In the end, the picture is filed amongst hundreds of others on an endless feed, each with their own filters, captions, likes and comments. Why do we do it? Why do we keep doing it? Because it’s rewarding, liberating, and completely in our control to be as cool as we want to be. And we want to be just as cool as all the other cool people we scroll through on social media.
The complexity of the human mind is unfathomable. And yet, those who devote extensive time to their social media presence can tell you without hesitation that it quite simply feels good to post. We want to post, and to post more, and to post better. Notifications have come to feel like rewards. In the way that face-to-face compliments feel good, so does watching the likes and comments roll in. These minor confirmations tap into very major human characteristics; they fuel our addictive desire to be noticed and our long for approval.
Social media is also liberating. Online disinhibition describes the phenomenon whereby we can be a different version of ourselves, by saying and doing things that we normally wouldn’t in a face-to-face reality. This online space is not work, school, or home, but a new and largely unrestricted place where we are more confident to construct and express ourselves as we please. It has even been shown that viewing your own social media profile boosts self-esteem. We are free to return to this perfect image of ourselves and our lives at the tap of a finger. We can prolong the parts that we want to remember, and temporarily avoid the parts that we don’t.
Social media offers troughs of benefits in terms of connecting with others, maintaining friendships, and sharing ideas. However, it is only a partial reality, void of all the nuances and trials of everyday life. It gives us the power to reconstruct a more perfect, “cool” version of ourselves; one that wears the coolest clothes, has the coolest friends, eats the coolest food, and travels to the coolest places. And with each like, comment, or follower that rolls in, we want more. And to get more, we have to be even cooler. Thus, the illusion of cool. Social media has us striving for one of the most elusive goals, where there will never be enough perfect photos with enough likes, but we will certainly keep trying.