You Don’t Have To Be Interesting To Be Valuable: How Capitalism and Social Media Narrow Our Self-Image
Much has been documented about how social media — and capitalist politics in general — have caused us to engage with each other in more polarizing ways. Equally prevalent are the articles and studies on how social media can affect how we view ourselves and each other on a more basic level. However, I think it is deeper than that. I think that capitalism itself changes the way we think about our skills, our identities, our self-image, and our friendships, and social media merely exacerbates this underlying dysfunction.
This identity crisis isn’t just a social media problem.
At its core, I think that the most extreme form of capitalism forces us to think of ourselves not as individuals or humans, but as pawns in a worker placement game. Capitalism tells us that it is our skills and our strengths that make up our identity, that we are nothing if we can’t contribute something to society at large. This causes us to judge the self through a pragmatist rubric. What do you contribute? What can you add to the world around you?
In addition to being extremely problematic for those who face obstacles to contribution — like those living with severe disabilities or those trapped in poverty or racially inequitable systems — it also deeply affects how we view ourselves; selves which are more visible now anyway, due to the prevalence of social media.
I think that social media itself is not a bad thing, but viewed through the lens of this pragmatist worldview, it twists the knife of harmful self-image even further in. In my mind, it is more than just comparing ourselves to every page we see or image we flip by. It’s not about being as good as them, it’s about standing out; having your own thing. It’s about distinguishing yourself from them.
Beyond asking what someone can contribute, in a world of billions of people all sharing themselves online, it becomes a question of how to “stand out”? What’s your “thing” that’s going to help you go viral? How will you differentiate yourself from a nameless, countless surge of people you don’t even know? It’s an overwhelmingly harmful question, but it’s a necessary one to ask in a world where we premise our worth on standing out in a stack of similar job applications.
We are constantly being asked to monetize ourselves.
The darker turn comes when that capitalism re-enters the picture after you’ve found what differentiates you — or manufactured it. Say you’ve found your thing. Say you went viral. Say the world is enraptured by you because you have a unique skill that no one else has, or that no one else has perfected to the level that you have. What now? Well now it’s time to monetize yourself. It’s time to take that thing — that skill that you mistake for your identity — and grind it until you can make a living feeding into a narrow self-image which will sell.
You are that skill now. Not to say that some people can’t find meaning and fulfillment in perfecting one thing to the point of becoming that thing and monetizing it, it just won’t work out — much less be fulfilling — for the vast majority of people.
We are encouraged to “collect” people.
This problem existed long before social media came onto the scene, and it affects our friendships as much as our self-image. Everyone has that friend who takes a great interest in “interesting” people and always seems to have a great story to tell about “this person I met the other day”, but if you listen close, they don’t seem to care about that person, they’re interested in that thing that can fire up a conversation and make them feel interesting by proxy. In many ways, they collect people, especially people with interesting anecdotes or crazy mantras that work for them but aren’t broadly applicable.
My point isn’t to say that we shouldn’t travel, or that we shouldn’t be excited for someone when they find their “thing”, or that it’s bad to be interested in exciting stories. I just think that deep down, even though people can value getting really good at that one thing or finding what makes them unique, not enough emphasis is placed on what makes them human. We are so focused on differentiating ourselves, that we forget the iceberg of healthy personality that is premised on the things we share with others. People like being appreciated for their humanness, their kindness, their joy, the way they appreciate a sunset or find meaning in making a meal for someone else, or the peace that comes with knowing a person still wants to grow their relationship with you after you’ve told all of your fun stories and you just have to “be”.
So how do we fix this? How do we start thinking about people as humans and not simply as anecdotes to collect or monetize?
The solution starts with yourself.
It starts with looking at yourself and reflecting on the ways that you take actions in order to be “seen” as opposed to having an experience for yourself for its own sake. It starts with reflecting on how you view your worth; is it based on the entertainment you provide or the skills you have? Or is it based on the core things about you that make you human, not what make you useful? Is it relational or transactional?
For example, when you’re with your friends and you share a moment and start to pull out your phone to record it, think about why you’re reaching for it. Is it taking you out of the moment with them? Are you recording it to share it later? In the process, you may be able to document it for likes and follows, but in the process you will never actually have the experience itself. You have become the observer, not the participant.
There will always be someone “better” and that’s okay.
I think about this often. I love playing narrative-based video games. Right now, I’m currently exploring the world of “Horizon: Zero Dawn” and it is breath-taking. However, every time I start to be aware of my enjoyment, I have to push away the thought of “I love this, maybe I could stream it and make money or turn this into my thing. Maybe I could take a good screenshot here and share it with people.” Stop and think. Sometimes you can just explore a world, or a story and it doesn’t need to be useful of monetized.
For years I would get this panicked feeling whenever I would play a video game. I knew I would never be the absolute best at it, so why bother? There’s always someone with a video on YouTube who did it faster or better or beat that difficult boss without taking damage. There’s always a screenshot of someone who’s already built a more amazing city/zoo/farm than you ever will have time to. Learn to accept that. It’s okay.
There will always someone “better” than you. After years of thinking this way I realized I was missing the point. The games I was playing were experiences, a rich world in which to explore myself and humanity and to escape into a narrative. I realized I had lost my ability to experience anything without the nagging itch of globalism tempting me to view it as a contest, one I could never win. When I learned this, my real world changed as well. I stopped being as jealous in my relationships because I had stopped viewing everyone as competition and had just started, well, living.
Life shouldn’t be a contest, and that’s the problem with being able to monetize your life, whether in money or likes. You stop being able to experience it. Provide for yourself and the people around you, yes, but don’t let that define you. Find ways to enjoy yourself that aren’t a contest and don’t make you money. It’s worth your time.
Take your new self-image and look at others through it.
Once you start seeing yourself in this new way, questioning the drive behind your actions and centering them on your humanness, it becomes easier to see others in this way, to view them as beings that you share space with whose view of the world is shaped by their experiences. They are more than just someone who is interesting to you, whose value wears off when they get “boring” or “can’t hold a conversation.” Your interactions stop being transactional or performative. They become people who exist in their own world, who have taken time out of their day to share in your world. Start viewing them as a being to experience, not something to collect. Our friends should be more than just fun stories to share with our other friends.
Everyone has things about them that are deep, painful, joyful, wonderful, or just boring. That’s okay, and that leads me to my final point.
People don’t need to be interesting all the time.
Stop living your life trying to qualify yourself as an asset. Stop living to be interesting. Live for yourself and the people around you and empower them to connect with their humanness. Stop asking what makes them cool or different and start asking what makes them human, real, interactive, and meaningful to you. Stop going into conversations with anxiety about keeping the conversation going and just enjoy a person’s presence. I promise you, it will free you to appreciate people more when you view talking as an experience and a way to share yourself, rather than a performance.
This very much is not intended to say that we shouldn’t notice differences and appreciate them, whether it’s cultural, personality, family upbringing, race, gender, sexuality, you name it. Those are important and meaningful core characteristics. What I’m saying is that we shouldn’t take skill-based or surface-level characteristics and define ourselves — or our friends — entirely by them, or to set unreasonable standards for ourselves that rob us of any enjoyment if we don’t stack up.
This also isn’t to say you should stop being useful or interesting. Those are great things. Be useful to your community, your job, your family, but don’t forget to explore the identity that exists beyond that usefulness. Take a break from asking yourself what your greatest strength is and start asking yourself what fulfills you, who you want to share time with, and what ways you deeply connect with someone else beyond just what you find interesting about them.
Change the conversation about yourself. Experience life, care for people, explore things that fulfill you for their own sake, and cultivate the humanity in others. You don’t have to be unique unless you want to be. You don’t have to be interesting unless you want to be.
We may be citizens of a content-based online world, but don’t forget that in the end, you are always more than “content” to someone.