By Viri Garcia
I confess that I’m on social media most of the day, but I promise it’s not for reasons you would expect. I don’t go on social media to retweet, repost, like, and share things. I go on there to laugh. To laugh at what we’ve become, while I quietly panic on the inside and wonder where we went wrong. Part of the answer has come from somewhere I never expected: an excerpt from a “boring,” scholarly book I had to read for class. The Affluent Society is a book published in 1958 and written by economist John K. Galbraith. It’s one of those books nobody reads unless they’re forced to, or are just really hyped about Galbraith. Either way, it holds social commentary on modern-day society that can be applied to explain our heavy use of social media.
When I first read The Affluent Society, I wasn’t sure what to think of it. But upon taking a closer look, I realized “Conventional Wisdom,” a term coined by Galbraith, gave us the key to answering questions about modern day society, particularly ones about our reliance on social media. He defines conventional wisdom as “ideas which are esteemed at any time for their acceptability.” In other words, conventional wisdom is a set of ideas accepted by society—but how do ideas make the transition into conventional wisdom? Galbraith explains that our universal ego and the fact that everyone feels the need for “the satisfaction of knowing that other and more famous people share his conclusions” is ultimately the way conventional wisdom is made. We accept ideas only after we see other people accepting them, which seems reasonable.
However, I’ve noticed just how much social media focuses on making everything relatable to users. I can’t log on to Twitter without seeing tons of people retweeting posts with captions like “Me,” “Literally me,” “If this ain’t me,” or “My life basically,” from accounts with handles like @sodamnrelatable, @commongirl, etc. I began to realize that either social media was attempting to change conventional wisdom (if it hadn’t already), or I had some pretty basic friends. I decided my first thought was right, which led me to my next question: What ideas are we spreading, and what does that say about us?
Upon a closer look at the vast collection of “relatable” posts, I noticed two trends which we have seen before. The first one was the normalization of incompetence, depression, anxiety, a lack of accomplishments, and procrastination. These are all negative traits we would never wish upon anyone, yet we’re now beginning to assume that they’re commonplace and even wish to experience them if we haven’t already, just because everyone else thinks they’re humorous and cool. We want acceptance more than anything, even when the mold for “normal” includes toxic personality traits that prevent growth.
The second trend I noticed is the idolization of the rich. We have come to worship this one percent so religiously that we appear to have forgotten about ourselves. People who haven’t worked a day in their life and have attained extravagant lifestyles without educating themselves or holding a steady, hard-earned job—such as Kim Kardashian—are beginning to acquire a massive following (Kim has over 50 million Twitter followers), while other famous figures who have worked hard and put their heart into their work, such as Neil Gaiman, are brushed off by most people in our generation (Gaiman has two million Twitter followers). Maybe Twitter followers are meaningless, but our nation still recognizes Kim Kardashian more than Neil Gaiman or any other author; people accept her ideas and lifestyle more easily, even if we know a life like hers is unattainable.
We romanticize these picture-perfect lifestyles because they are more appealing, and neglect the challenges we face when we want to achieve our goals. This trend of acceptance and worship of an easily attained, luxurious lifestyle has become conventional wisdom. Galbraith also makes an appropriate comparison of conventional wisdom to religion—society becomes obsessed with a set of ideas to the point where they become our religion, and their articulation is a “religious rite.” However, through our own iteration of conventional wisdom, we now demoralize ourselves and worship people with impossible lives. What does this say about our generation and modern-day society?
This new societal religion may have many negative repercussions, such as the death of self-esteem, but it also has positive aspects if it’s not overdone. All religion involves worship, but this rise in celebrity idolization should also involve worshiping oneself. In elevating such people, we must also remember that they are human—just like us. Their lives may appear perfect, but they go through many of the things that we go through. When it comes right down to it, this worship is a monument to the human individual, rather than to one all-mighty god. However, when practiced incorrectly, this religion could lead to the complete opposite: demoralization of the individual. This is demonstrated in our society in the form of girls being obsessed with wanting to lose weight to look a certain way, twerking to impress someone who will never care, or pretending to be stupid because it’s cool.
The two trends that define today’s conventional wisdom seem to point towards the inevitable death of our self-esteem. Romanticizing incompetence has become cool thanks to social media—and truth is, it sucks. I’m not saying we should quit using social media and live in the woods like Thoreau, but we need to become more aware of what we’re portraying as “cool” and support each other via social media. After all, social media’s purpose is to spread information. We now hold the power to change conventional wisdom in our hands. It may suck right now because of us, but we can still fix it.