Research has shown, time and again, that social media provides users with an ideal platform for self- and identity- expression. This expression can be explicit – sharing information about ourselves and our lives – or implicit, where we share links or content which alludes to who we are. In the last few days, for example, I have shared a link to a change.org petition asking the Irish government to prioritise mental health spending as a matter of urgency and a quote from Blade Runner. These posts says something about me and what I believe and, to a certain extent, allow me to tell my community what is important in my life.
Identity-expression, a core function of social media, has not gone unnoticed by content providers, who live and breathe on clicks and recently, the popularity and importance of implicit forms of self-expression have led to a flood of articles which are specifically designed to be shared. With the arrival of the “listicle” (short-form articles delivered in the form of numbered lists), pre-packaged, bite-sized facets of the self are now available to social media users to be share with “friends”. These sharable, clickable aspects of the self are just detailed enough to say something about the user and broad enough to go viral. A friend of mine recently shared a listicle from Buzzfeed which lists 23 things only women with big boobs understand : suitably specific and suitably broad.
In the main, these listicles follow the same formula and build to the same crescendo: Ugh! Isn’t it awful when you (insert problem here), and then you (other problem associated with the thing we are talking about). Then there are all the times people don’t understand (other aspect of whattsit) and they make fun of you for being (d’ya know….we know…we understand…we care)…and you make fun of THEM…but, at the end of the day, you (and everyone who has this thing that quite a lot of people have) are tremendous and it’s not so bad!!
Don’t we all want to tell people that we are tremendous? That, despite our foibles, even Buzzfeed, Cosmo and the Huffington Post think we’re great! There’s nothing wrong with telling our social media community that we also belong to another community and that we are proud of them! It’s fun, there’s nothing wrong with that….surely?
When it comes to content providers like Buzzfeed et al distributing identity based list articles centered on mental health, I think there’s a problem. Yes, it is true that these articles raise awareness of issues like anxiety and depression, but there is a potential downside. Perhaps I am taking these pieces too seriously. Perhaps they are meant as fluff; something to help you through the day, or just diversion. But isn’t there a danger inherent in allowing Huff Post staff the ability to list diagnostic criteria that are loosely based on actual diagnostic criteria? I am sure they are lovely people, but I am not sure about their professional qualifications. Is there not also a danger that, rather than suffering from anxiety or depression, the “sharer” is just feeling a little low or anxious? While posting these listicles may be therapeutic, is there not a danger that the “sharee” may see it as attention seeking or because the content comes from Buzzfeed, that it is not serious content?
It is true that talking about and sharing your thoughts and worries with friends is empowering, but couldn’t it also be said that sharing a Buzzfeed list trivialises actual illnesses that can only be diagnosed by professionals? When these listicles take the format mentioned above, can’t they make an illness sound almost romantic; they certainly make the illness sound “liveable” and make us think that the sufferer is powering through…ladies with big boobs ROCK cocktail dresses, apparently, people with depression are super intelligent…introverts love great literature…everything is awesome. What is even more worrying though, is that the criteria for actual illnesses are being unofficially broadened and this could lead to people misunderstanding serious conditions.
In the pursuit of “clicks”, listicles are efficient and successful; that’s why there are so many of them. We share these lists to express our identity, to share intimate details of our selves in an acceptable format and, we like to think that our online community understand and support us. However, when it comes to complex issues like mental health or physical appearance, there are better ways to share this information, “clicks” might not be enough.