An open letter about social media to my 21-year-old self

Dear Me,

Look at you, all 21 and everything! You look so much younger and have a certain ‘je ne sais quoi’ in your eye… It might be your sense of entitlement and naivety to be honest because when I look at you now, 18 years later, you’ve lost whatever that look is that you’re wearing right now.

375200_10150381774340690_361085306_nFirst, let me begin by congratulating you on your wedding and new born baby. I know you have dreamy eyed notions that all will be perfect and you’ll live happily ever after with your little family. Hate to break it to you but that’s just your purist naivety talking. You’ll figure it out soon enough that playing house is far different than building a home. That babies are a lot more work than dolls and that husbands aren’t always the Ken doll you hope for. Here’s the thing though, because you made the choice to start a family young instead of getting a post secondary education, you’re going to be way behind. It’s the end of 1998 for you and you have no idea what you’re in for. You graduated high school without a computer course on your transcript only to find yourself an adult in a world run by computers.

I know at this point you’ve just learned how to send emails. Good for you! Just like brain surgery, right? Luckily, AOL sent a CD in the mail offering free internet for 3 months! Internet. Such a new concept. Check it out when your baby naps, really, it’s very cool. The computer you have now weighs a ton but never fear, as time goes on, they get lighter, more compact and more powerful. I’m actually writing this letter to you in a digital notebook on my cellular phone. It fits in your pocket and you live on it now. It’s like a third arm. It’s like a computer that runs on air that you take wherever you go. This is how the world communicates now. Remember all those hours spent on the telephone, sitting on the floor beneath it because it was attached to the wall? Yeah, it’s not like that. Remember, we all carry our phones in our pockets. We can send messages and receive them. We can look anything up like an encyclopedia online. The world is in an influx of communication, some good, some bad. It affects how you feel, it affects how everyone feels and how the world reacts to you and how you react to the world. It’s like we have been put under a spell and rely on ridiculous things to give us confidence. You’d think we’d be a stronger and smarter society because of the vast array of accessible knowledge but it isn’t always the case.

Yeah-baby-gif-joey-friendsOk, 21 year old you, you’re watching sitcoms like Friends and Seinfeld. They’re still new episodes but in 20 years, you’ll be watching reruns of the same shows because no one can afford to make sitcoms anymore and the cable companies are opting for something called ‘Reality TV’ which is just as entertaining but far cheaper to make. They make people famous for doing stupid things or just being alive. The public also rips people apart online, especially public personalities. There is this website on the internet now called Instagram. Instagram is a webpage of photos you’ve taken. You get your own account. You can add captions or not – think of it as a scrapbook only you can’t touch it, you just look. People use a thing called a ‘hashtag’ to garner attention for their photo. It is the number symbol – #. Kind of like a sign. If you’re looking for potatoes,  then write #potatoes and see what comes up. If you use too many hashtags, you’re criticized by the online community. If you don’t put any, you’re not doing your photo justice as far as how many people can see it. Right, so I forgot to mention, you WANT people to see your stuff. You want them to like it. To the outside world, if people like what you’re posting, people like you. There are so many ways to garner attention for yourself and your posts, there are even how-to’s now for “How to be popular online”. Huge corporations have started new departments just to handle their reputation on the Internet. It’s a game. Like Russian Roulette you push out your information and hope for applause and action. A game of Call and Response.

imageRemember the Trudeau family? Well Justin is all grown up now and is running Canada as Prime Minister. He seems to have this social media thing all under control. His posts are always friendly, informative, engaging, like reading the newspaper but with more photos and entertainment value. He is what I would call an information pusher but people lap it up. Move over Sylvester Stallone and Rocky, we’re all glued to our computers now, showing our approval of things as simply as with the press of a button. Justin Trudeau is always posting cute pictures of he and his family, he passes along information to us Canadians though this thing called social media and the citizens eat it up like chocolate cake. He keeps us abreast with all that is happening in the most transparent way. I’d imagine you’d still be getting your information from the morning paper and nightly news. It’s ok, who would have known we’d be trying to save trees and take over the world in one binary code after another? Even though Justin is an information pusher, he still had his myriads who respond online to his every word. He won’t be the one responding but it gets the message out instantly, which is how the world works now. No 6 o’clock deadline to make the news, news is happening 24/7 online. For the record, you love to watch his posts online because they are positive, informative and gives you a sense that you know your Prime Minister and his family, that you know who is running your country.

MTIwOTI1NzI4NDQyMjc1NzMwOne thing you should realize is that this social media thing has given people far more confidence – so it seems. With zero face to face contact, keyboard warriors duke it out online with words, right-fighting to prove a point. Opinions are like belly-buttons, everyone has one and without seeing someone face to face, people get gutsy with what they say. If a pop star puts on 5lbs, the social media sites light up calling him or her fat. A good example of that is a pop star called Lady Gaga. Your kids will love her and she will be a guilty pleasure for you. So get this, Lady Gaga puts on a few pounds because she finally beats or has her bulimia under control and the critics set the Internet on fire. What does she do? She takes her power back and spins it into a campaign to encourage positive body image. She called it “Body Revolution 2013”. As you sit there comparing your old school ideals of body image based on Barbie and Madonna, let me assure you we have evolved to be encouraging about accepting ones body. Lady Gaga started posting unaltered photos of herself, starting with a near nude one in a yellow bra, and encouraging her fans to do the same. Her audience was far more engaged in self love than in the hate that was initially put out by critics. She used social media positively to encourage her fans to embrace and share their flaws fearlessly, despite what critics said. This was one example you’ll appreciate in how a negative situation can be turned positive online. Not only did this help Lady Gaga’s fans but her too, in the face of adversity. She says to her fans, “My weight/loss/gain since I was child has tormented me. No amount of help has ever healed my pain about it. But YOU have.”

Social media can be used for good or evil, all depends what you do with it. One thing I will suggest for you and your kids is remember that social media is not a perfect example of what ‘real life’ is. Our self worth and confidence should not be measured by how many people ‘like’ us or our posts. ‘Like’ is a button on a social media platform called Facebook. Other sites have a thumbs up sign (YouTube), a heart (SoundCloud and Twitter), or a different variation of how one can show approval or disapproval. This is such a skewed model though because a photo of a girl in a bikini with get far more online action than a photo of a beautiful garden. It appeals to our primitive side. You could almost grunt, “Me like. Me no like.” and have it equate to the same. Be warned, the wankers come out of the closet on social media as they ram their opinions down your consciousness. Let me share another example.

There’s a singer nowadays called Adele. She just released a single called, “Hello”. Did you just start singing Lionel Richie? Don’t worry, the whole world seemed to have a hay day with this one. Within the same hour that I heard the song for the first time, I started seeing parody videos comparing Adele’s song to Lionel Richie’s. Get this though, she sings ONE WORD the same as he does. Not phonetically even, she just sings the word ‘Hello’ and every critic and their horse went to town ripping it apart saying she made a song like Lionel Richie’s classic. Give me a break! This is what the world has turned into, Amber. Although it’s full of great people, it’s also full of negative trolls  (trolls = people who like to bicker online, not actual trolls) just looking to tear you a new one… Again, with their opinion. You’ll have to thicken your skin quite a bit, Miss Long, to survive the Internet. There is no filter, although there is a delete button.

Here, watch Adele’s video. You’ll see it is not like your childhood favourite from Lionel to sing with your mom.

With this said, a lot of online campaigns have focussed on bullying, something that is a very prevalent topic these days. When you were growing up, you were told to suck it up or fight back. Now, bullying is a huge deal and a lot of it happens online. Not everyone has as much confidence and guts as Adele may have when mocked. She is famous and it is almost expected that she be critiqued, unfortunately. Your children will never know a world that isn’t influenced by others online. They’ll never know a moment when they don’t feel judged, 24 hours a day. They might always second guess themselves without the approval of others. They are born into this digital communication world and need to be taught properly how to be safe. Can you promise me that you’ll teach them how to be safe online once you figure it out yourself, Amber?

Let me tell you a true story why anti-bullying campaigns are at the forefront of people’s minds. A young girl named Amanda Todd befriended someone online in a chat room, a man. In reality, he was 35 years old and living in the Netherlands. During the course of their interactions, he blackmailed her to flash him on the webcam. She was in Grade 7. (He has since been charged, three years after the fact.) But Amanda lived in horror all the time. The first time the photo was posted online was around Christmas 2010. The man from the Netherlands came back a bit later and made a Facebook page with her bare chest as the profile picture. Amanda suffered from depression, anxiety and had to face the world being made fun of by her peers at school. She tried to kill herself once and failed. She made a moving video a few days before she succeeded in ending her own life. The video explained her situation with hand written cue cards and went viral (meaning was shared and watched a lot, like A LOT) after she died and had over 1,600,000 views in 3 days, it now has over 11 million views a few years later.

Here it is, if you can watch it without bawling your eyes out, knowing the story now:

Following Amanda’s suicide, more than one million Facebook (another social media platform that each person has their own “page” on) users “liked” her memorial page. This isn’t an isolated case of where social media goes wrong and tries to make it right. It is a very sad case though, of something going viral online. Since then, social media sites are littered with anti-bullying campaigns, usually referencing Amanda’s sad demise as an example to glean from. It’s not even funny what youth go through in 2015. You thought you had it bad in 1986 when your friend couldn’t come out to play with you… Normally people would rejoice with having their video played over 11 million times around the world but this is one case where it is heartbreaking. And that is life online.

7843885942_6a2b1aac43_bI guess what I’m trying to say in all this is as you come to learn how the internet works and with the introduction of social media, I’m writing to you to remind you to mind your manners. Remember that there are people, real people on the other end of the screen, looking at what you do. It is how you communicate with the world, Amber. THE WORLD. It seems like such a small place now that we can talk to people for free without long distance charges and send messages and pictures from our phones and we can delete what we don’t want to see and look for what we do want to see. It’s wild, actually. You would have never dreamt this up if you tried. One of your teachers always stresses that it is up to us what we wish to put into the world and for your time online, after hearing some of the bad examples as to how social media can fail, at least you’ll know to put your energy into being a positive influence. A lot of the time you will never meet the person you speak to, face to face. You may never hear their voice. But I can tell you that the world you live in now, in 2015, is a far scarier one to tread in. Aim to be like Arlene Dickinson (a Marketing Maven you love from one of those reality TV shows I mentioned before called Shark Tank), always upbeat and positive but still with some pointed opinions. Aim to be like Justin Trudeau (and his team who works with him) who is transparent but only puts out the information he needs to. Be compassionate. Realize we are all trying to survive the best we can and being online isn’t a seat in a courtroom where you have your own gavel to lay judgement on others. If you were in a park hanging out and someone came up to you out of the blue and yelled in your face, how would that feel? So, watch your words online. They never disappear. And if you are a real jerk, people take screen shots and show others so best stay away from being an online wanker.

I guess that’s it. I have so much more to fill you in on but neither of us has the time. You need to go change some diapers and I need to find a job to start paying off these ridiculous student loan charges you’ve drummed up getting your education in your 30s. The best advice I can give you is ‘just do you’. Be you without apology but be kind and compassionate at the same time. Online communication is often our ‘face to face’ meetings now and we are on this earth together. We need each other. So maybe think twice before posting those randy photos with the electrical tape, don’t bitch out your ex for everyone to see, keep your drama behind closed doors, avoid arguing with fools, take nothing personal and hold on tight, you’ll be ok.


3 Comments Add yours

  1. hanna says:

    Interesting post Amber. I really appreciate the personal connection you put into many of your dialogues through out this post. It gives a real time connection for your audience. Regardless, youve touched on many sensitive topics in relation to social media and you did a great job. This is an important read Id say

  2. Matt says:

    Cool idea Amber, I like the introspective nature of it and that is a SUPER cute baby photo of you. It’s pretty crazy how much things change, and I think that quite often we overlook the benefit of taking pause to look back and admire the beauty of change and growth.

  3. Alethea says:

    Loved this post! You conveyed your message so powerfully, yet in such simple words. I wish you’d do another one like this giving advice to your future self. PR campaigns come and go, and tactics keep changing with the seasons. But, advice on social media like this truly sticks. Thank you for this, Amber!

    P.S: I felt like I was intruding into your privacy by reading your diary.

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