• Firdaus and Sarah from 15th ELEVEN

#MW15: Journeying through Social Media

Social media can be a very challenging place to navigate. Dealing with it can affect one emotionally, mentally and even spiritually as well. Here are our perspectives on the challenges that we faced and continue to face on social media and how we deal with them.


Firdaus

Social media: something that almost nobody can live without today. I am no exception to that. 2 years ago, Instagram was a huge part of my life. Mindless scrolling and constant messaging on the app took up a significant portion of my day. I felt the need to document so many aspects of my life, both major and minor, on my Insta stories and got a “high” from seeing the number of views I would get and the likes on my posts. I was not even anything close to being an influencer.


Yet, subconsciously, the need for online validation, had been cultivated. The superficial nature of Instagram meant that it was a never-ending race to capture the best picture or to showcase an exciting life. I became caught up in the imaginary race, focusing my energies on trying to show that my life had value. Seeing other people go out and lead seemingly eventful lives left me feeling inadequate and thinking that I always needed to do more. Eventually, such a lifestyle took a toll on me.

The growing sense of dissatisfaction left me wondering what it was really that I was trying so hard for? Did validation from people online really matter that much to me? In trying to capture the perfect moments and clicking a picture or video at crucial moments, I felt that I had missed out on the emotion of that particular moment and instead, all I had left with was a soulless recreation of a moment which was not truly lived. I had to get a grip on myself before things got worse.

After thinking long and hard, I decided that I had to do it: delete Instagram. It felt like a drastic step and I was very apprehensive. I had spent so much of time on the platform and it

contained the records of so many of my most memorable moments as a young adult. A niggling fear of losing contact with so many people, kept pricking me as well. Did I really have to make such a big decision? Surely there were other ways to manage my usage if I felt so suffocated by the platform. All these doubts were plaguing me.


Then I realized: the fact that I was thinking so much in itself felt like a sign of how much social media had taken over me, that a life without it felt unthinkable. Let me experience a life without Instagram and see how it goes. I proceeded to delete my account and all the posts, stories, highlights that had meant so much to me were gone, just like that.

The moment that my account got deleted is still fresh in my mind. Conflicting emotions, to say the least. It felt like a huge burden off my shoulders yet at the same time, there was an anxiousness about the immediate future as well. No more mindless scrolling, what was I going to do with my free time?

Whatsapp, Telegram and Reddit can be considered social media as well, so technically, I was not completely gone from social media. However, none of these had the same perceived toxicity that Instagram contained, to me at least.

The initial days without Instagram were very strange. Suddenly it felt like I had a lot more time on my hands but of course, that was an illusion. I always had that free time before as well, just that I did not notice it. I only offered a brief explanation about my decision to a concerned few who reached out to enquire about my well-being at that time. There was a feeling within me that my thoughts were still all over the place and I was not really sure on how to express it articulately to others yet. I did not know how to make use of the time initially and wondered if I had made a huge mistake on a whim.


The days passed and slowly, I felt myself becoming mentally sharper and was able to become productive with my time by concentrating on my work better, something that I really used to struggle with. My attention span, which had been on an all-time low, improved massively. Somehow, I also felt that I could hold conversations with people better. There were no more expectations for me to live up to, no more maintenance of a false image.

Undeniably, there were feelings of social isolation at first. However, I was still talking to those whom I was closest to on Whatsapp and that helped to negate the occasional pangs of loneliness. Generally, my mental health improved greatly despite the fact that I was more or less living under a rock. However, after about a month away from Instagram, I realized that my knowledge about current affairs had diminished greatly and being a humanities student, that was not a great place to be in. I had taken a much-needed break and was feeling refreshed. I felt ready to handle being on Instagram again but this time, determined to be mindful about how I was using the platform.

I created a new account, starting fresh, leaving behind any baggage that I had. Getting the balance right was something that I struggled with at the start but I did not let any content that I consumed, affect me profoundly. I was also more careful about what I was looking at and did regular reflections on myself to ensure that I was not slipping into my previous habits. I also overcame my FOMO in that time period. If I saw the particular content then great: if not, it was ok, I was not going to fret over it and rush just to ensure that I was not missing out.

One particular example that showed me the importance of being on Instagram was during the height of the Israel-Palestine conflict earlier this year. The mainstream media had painted an entirely different picture of the conflict. Social media was instrumental in depicting hard truths, showcasing the disparity between the reality on the ground and the narrative that the mainstream media were trying to push. The plight of the Palestinians, which would otherwise have gone unnoticed, was extensively highlighted on Instagram and Twitter, with the aim of bringing an end to the suffering that the people were undergoing. The power of Instagram in raising a cause, really came to the fore in that instance.

Now, I am in a better place mentally and have a much healthier relationship with social media and Instagram in particular. There is a better balance between the moments that I choose to live and the ones that I choose to document. Not everything that goes on in my life needs to be on Instagram and not everything that I see on the platform needs to affect me as well. Social media in itself is not toxic: the toxicity lies in how it is used. Don’t be afraid to take a step back if you feel that you need it. Ultimately, it is something that is in our control.


Sarah

Earlier in the year, a dear and very observant friend of mine asked me if I was okay. I was surprised by the question. It turns out, she had observed how much quieter I was on my social media, and linked that to my well-being.


My history with social media has its ups and downs. I enjoyed Twitter in my stan account days, but deleted it when I realised how it negatively affected my views of my own life, in a way that, I’m sure you’d understand, is damaging to the self-esteem of a young, impressionable teenager. I only had Instagram in 2018 after much persistence from my friends and, though I initially didn’t see the appeal, I quickly realised the value it brought for me.


You can’t deny the fact that social media is democratic. Anyone has the right to say what they want to say, whenever they want, how they want to, and there’s nothing but their remaining dignity or a cancel crowd (and sometimes, even the latter isn’t very successful) that can stop them. This makes it a revolutionary platform for content to spread, for influencers to influence, for education to become even more accessible, for friends and family to connect, and — at least where I was concerned — for activists to thrive.


Anyone who has known me for a while now would be able to tell you that I was…

Well. They’d differ on the terms they may use. Some might have called me an activist, others might’ve called me a social justice warrior. A mix of the two might give you an idea of my activity (although I will say — if “social justice warrior” is meant to be derogatory… it’s quite a pathetic attempt at it.)


It wouldn’t be too far-fetched to gauge that the height of my social media activity was during the BLM movement in May-June 2020, or on the onset of racist, sexist, homophobic or Islamophobic incidents throughout the years, and, of course, during Ramadan this year. It’s hard to claim that anything began in 2021 but, to jog your memory, what “began” as the occupation of homes in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood in Palestine, escalated into riots in the al-Aqsa compound, into bombing campaigns on Gaza, an unescapable strip of Palestine with a little over 2 million people.


Between the spiritual high of Ramadan and my anger over the oppression, I took to social media to catch up on what was happening. Now that I and the world had greater access to social media, I could see and hear the things that people screamed and cried about in their speeches, poems and art. Children with disconnected limbs. Lovers lost. Dream homes and bookstores reduced to rubble.


With all of this on-the-ground content came, too, educational material. All the debates and histories and policies and ideologies and philosophies and literature and research and what have you, trying to make (much appreciated) 1:1-sized meaning of the chaos and fitting all the other words into captions and stories.


In between those posts and stories, there was one post about a cruise that an acquaintance went on. A story about this song that a friend has been enjoying lately. Shop this and that. That chicken crossed the road to get to the other side. What that influencer had for lunch.


As you can imagine, the content on social media at that time, at least coming from the people I followed, was an emotionally confusing mishmash.


I, naturally, was energised by the unprecedented wave of support that my peers were showing for the pro-Palestinian movements. Let this mental image serve you: posting 20 to 30 stories a day, for about three weeks or so. Paragraphs and paragraphs of words. Consuming speeches, research, images and videos of corpses, bombings, information, misinformation, good arguments, bad arguments, all the waking hours of the day. I was even picking up formal Arabic so that I could understand the content better.


I know. That sort of mental presence and social media activity is exhausting.


The way I understood it, my fatigue could not compare with those living the atrocities. I saw it as a moral responsibility to do something, say something, whatever it was. Silence is complicit. I could not despair or stagnate, because the Palestinian people — among many others — were depending on the world for action.


I do still hold on to some of those beliefs. But others, I’ve let go.


Perhaps what heavied the whole situation further, though, was the easy conflation of the Palestinian issue with a Muslim issue, during Ramadan no less, and being a Singaporean, a Muslim, and a Singaporean Muslim. It wasn’t uncommon to encounter opinions that “this thing happen outside our country, you care so much for what?”, or “Singapore and SAF buddy-buddy with Israel and IDF, find trouble with them for what?” or “This is why we cannot let Muslims join the navy and airforce, sekali (what if) they fight for the other Muslim countries instead of defending Singapore”.


It became that the heartbreak, anger, rituals, camaraderie, passion and audacity of local Muslims were the reason we did not belong.


Around the same time, a string of racist, sexist and Islamophobic incidences cropped up and were the subject of more heavy conversations on our Instasphere.


It feels selfish, and even somewhat embarrassing, to admit that the combination of these thoughts (alongside rewatching Bo Burnham’s Inside for the third time in June) was enough to send me into an existential crisis.


Listen, I would rather be dead than to be caught claiming that Palestine was the reason for my existential crisis, because it’s not true. The local cases of racial, religious and sexual orientation discrimination that came after, whether or not they were connected to the Palestine matter, had a part to play, given the unfortunate intimacy between those issues and my lived experience.


What drove me to a terrifying paralysis was, simply, how I was using social media.


Because, how do you begin to put into words what the culmination of all of this looks like in your head?


How do you begin to explain the way that your life feels irrevocably changed from thinking it knows something it has never felt or experienced, like the mass destructions in Palestine?


And when that has been said and done, how, in all of that fatigue, do you explain the way your life is changing every second from something you have faced nearly all your life, like racism and Islamophobia?


If I struggle to even express the situation to you now, how was I supposed to effectively platform all of those issues without personal interjections that impaired people’s understanding of what I was trying to bring attention to?


Is there even a reason, or an audience, or a need to explain all of this?


Being stuck in a sea of content, with little awareness of how to navigate it, drove me into some terribly dark days.


You find yourself in a situation like this, and you end up learning things that you feel like you should’ve known long before.


Like the fact that people do not respond so easily to change, even when they understand why it’s necessary.


Or the fact that, because people (and, by extension, the world) doesn’t change so easily, it’s common to encounter despair in activism. But despair is just a frustratingly high bump on the road,

not a dead end altogether.


Or even that, it’s okay to feel something about a crisis that seems to have nothing to do with you — because it is still appealing to your humanity, isn’t it? — but the fact remains that some crises are not yours to despair over.


I’m grateful to Allah for helping me to come to these realisations, about how I was using social media, about the many ways and layers in which my words and actions affected the world around me. There is something empowering about knowing that, one person in a world of humans as I may be, social media lends an audience, a place, and some value to my words.


I should hope that I am a better consumer and user of social media as a result of it. I would be remiss, however, if I didn’t acknowledge the long pause I encounter every time I feel compelled to share a post now. On one hand, it comes with the awareness that there is value to pausing before speaking. This hadith comes to mind:


“Whoever believes in God and the Last Day should speak a good word or remain silent.” (Sahih Bukhari, Book 78, Hadith Number 163)


Especially with discussions as grey and complex as activism, there is always the chance that something you say may convey the wrong message, or that you’re complicit to something you were not even aware of before, or that you were simply not as informed as you thought you were.


The hope, of course, is that these stumbling blocks are all opportunities to humble ourselves, learn, and become more responsible users of social media.


On the other hand, the temptation to scroll past altogether, to stay silent altogether, is intense when you find yourself in a position like mine, and I will admit to staying much more silent on my social media this year than I ever have.


Another truth of social media is that, because it’s so democratised, everyone says anything. You can barely catch a breath. Bo Burnham, one of my favourite comedians whom I mentioned earlier, wrote a whole song about this (you might know the song as the glitching evil laugh TikTok audio), but let me share a lyric from that bit:

Welcome to the internet

Put your cares aside

Here's a tip for straining pasta

Here's a nine-year-old who died

We got movies, and doctors, and fantasy sports…


… and it gets worse. And you get the idea.


The reality of it may sometimes appear to be this: because content is so disorderly, so random, and meant to either grab your attention or be gone, it becomes too easy to slide past content that is difficult to care about, be it intellectually, emotionally, and so on.


In such a world, I’m conscious about how much more thought has to go into how I choose to portray content that is important, whether that is about the rights of single-parent families, or feminism, or climate change policies in Singapore, or ways to improve our public health infrastructure, or what have you.


Don’t get me wrong. The last thing I want to do is to buy too much into my own hype, to put myself on a pedestal, to be a figurehead of these topics. No, my role in all of this, though existent, is marginal relative to the survivors, the victims, the academics, the frontliners, the policymakers navigating these issues. I simply want to amplify their situation, their work, and raise awareness of them.


Yet, I have been accused of having the wrong intentions when I share such content. Even as I write this, there is a strong urge to redirect the conversation to their work rather than to my social media patterns, even when this article is about the latter.


So, where do I go from here?


Alhamdulillah, He has given me the time, space and capacity to reflect on my social media use, and to refine my views to this point. There are many, many ways to support campaigns and movements on your social media, and I urge you to question your intentions, get to the root of your purpose, and integrate these things into your activism.


For me, this culminates into, what I hope is, a more selective, intentional and ‘platforming’ sharing, a quality over quantity kind of sharing.


What that means, though, is that most of the time these days, I’m sliding back under my covers, recharging, reading more, saying less to more people, saying more to less people, and it’s something that I’m content with — at least for now.


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