The Dark Side of Social Media

There’s a definite downside to being good with social media. You get to see all the things you’re not supposed to see; the pictures of your friends having a laugh together, all those times they “forgot” to invite you, the beautiful women your ex “likes” photos of on Facebook, the women you compare yourself to on a daily basis without their- or his- knowledge, because you know what buttons to press, what keys to click, to trigger that magical formula and see the things you’re not supposed to see. Photos hidden from timelines. Photos someone liked in 2016. Photos from people who- with good reason- aren’t your friends.

Yes, I think it’s fair to say that social media is a little invasive.

Normally, when I conduct these sort of searches, I feel guilty. I feel guilty for invading someone else’s privacy- whether it’s that of an ex, a fake friend, a potential partner or some girl I’ve never even met. I sometimes think about the halachos of this sort of thing, and wonder if my social media searches are ‘kosher’, so to speak, or if I’m breaking laws about privacy and respect- things which are very important in halacha.

But today, I felt a different sort of guilty. I felt guilty for what I was doing to myself. I tell myself that I’d sooner know the truth about all those times my friends excluded me, saying I probably wouldn’t enjoy whatever they’d planned, and that there’s no harm in scrolling through the photos of other girls which he has liked on Facebook. It’s just some harmless fun, they’re none the wiser- who’s hurt by it? The answer is: I am. My hobby (or perhaps addiction) has become a way of hurting myself over and over again, presenting my consciousness with a series of images with no context, torturing myself with fictitious stories of how, why and when, and leaving me feeling emotionally battered and bruised, even more unpopular than I was before I started searching.

I’m not one of those people who thinks social media is totally evil. Actually, I quite like it, and before I learned how to unearth all those things I wasn’t supposed to see, I think it did good things for me. It’s a place for me to share articles, thoughts, divrei Torah, and photos. It’s a way to connect with old friends, meet new ones, and keep in touch with some of my favourite people on earth. Not a day goes by when I don’t feel thankful for the beautiful photos, inspiration and messages I receive from the select few who make the whole going online thing worthwhile.

But then I come back to the point I made earlier, about privacy and respect in Jewish tradition and law. One of the most famous Jewish prayers is called Ma Tovu, meaning “How good”. Many have the minhag to recite this prayer upon entering a Shul, and growing up, despite my lack of Jewish education, I remember learning how to sing the prayer in the tradition of many Liberal and Reform shuls. The text of Ma Tovu begins with a line from Parshas Balak, which reads “How good are your tents, oh Yaakov, your dwelling places, oh Israel!”, before continuing with quotations from Tehillim.

Quite often, this raises a question: what was so good about the tents and dwelling places of the Israelites?

The answer is pretty simple. The tents were positioned as to give their occupants privacy, carefully aligning the openings so that inquisitive neighbours- the Israelite equivalent, perhaps, of me sitting in front of the computer, conducting Facebook searches on people who’d really rather be left alone- couldn’t see in. This was admirable, as it gave a sense of privacy and dignity to the Chosen People, which is why we laud their tents with lavish praise.

But today, I started thinking about the flip side of this issue. I think curiosity is a part of the human nature; we all have that underlying desire to know what’s going on in other’s lives, starting with reading our sibling’s diaries, and gradually progressing to stalking our exes on Facebook and Instagram (unless that’s just me). And consequently, I think that the set-up of the Israelite tents, so that prying eyes were physically unable to see in, was really rather clever. It didn’t just protect those who were inside- it protected the outsiders, too, from seeing things they weren’t supposed to see.

In many ways, social media is the opposite. What seemed like a blessing- my ability to find anyone and anything on Facebook- actually turned out to be a curse, as there was very little in place to protect myself- let alone the other person- from what I was doing. I think that in the back of my mind, I’ve known this for a long time, but it only came to the forefront of my consciousness today, when I saw a post from a Rabbi I follow (I may or may not be adding this in to prove that I use social media for “good” things, too), entitled “The Grass is Greener & Social Media”. He spoke about how his neighbour’s grass seems much greener than his, and it stays that way all year round, for the simple reason that it’s artificial. It’s the shrubbery equivalent of the Instagram filters and Snapchat stickers we use to mask our realities- the filters which I can spot from a mile away and yet which still fool me.

A few moments before I read his article, I’d been conducting those addictive Facebook searches, only to find a picture which upset me deeply, showing several of my friends at an event I hadn’t been invited to. And I commented on the rabbi’s insightful, thoughtful piece that I’d just been thinking about exactly the same topic, not realising that mere hours later I’d be revealing my social media habits to the whole wide world. Simply put, I don’t believe in coincidences. I believe in hashgocho protis- Divine providence. I think that these events collided for a very good reason, sending me a signal too strong to ignore. Maybe I’ve seen enough. Maybe it’s time to stop. Maybe I’m at a point in my life where I don’t need to chase after things which will never be mine, because I’m only making myself sadder and lonelier, and tearing myself away from those who truly care.

If all those years of saying “Mah Tovu ohelacha Yaakov, mishkenosecha Yisroel,” taught me anything, it’s that sometimes, privacy can be a good thing. Not just for those who are shielded by it, but for those who go searching. Those who, like me, will inevitably see things that make them wish they hadn’t started looking in the first place.

2 thoughts on “The Dark Side of Social Media

  1. i wouldnt say it unless it were true, i always think of the old hollerith machine on display at the holocaust museum– the ones used to sort out jews and others for extermination.

    privacy is sacred, privacy is ethical, privacy is life. when people think of extermination they think of camps, they dont think about insurance companies sifting through your online data looking with algorithms looking for a reason to deny you life-saving treatment. the scale added to the horror, though the cold and inhumane methodology ought to be considered relevant as well, especially when we have still not evolved past it.

    Liked by 1 person

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