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The Digital Hamster Wheel: Navigating the Labyrinth of Online Life


Black-and-white illustration depicting a tentacle monster with sharp teeth ensnaring a young woman holding a smartphone. Symbolic of social media addiction.


Introduction:


In this era of interconnectedness, we have witnessed a transformation that would have seemed otherworldly a mere few decades ago. With the advent of the internet, we've transitioned from simply connecting through chat apps and looking up information to being engulfed by a digital realm where reality intertwines with the virtual. As we look at the evolving virtual landscape, we can see a parallel emerge, likening our online lives to hamsters on wheels. This reveals the complexities of our interactions with social media and questions how authentic our online experience is.



The Digital Wheel Begins to Spin:


Our journey through the digital realm started innocently enough. The early 2000s saw the inception of a precursor to Facebook, Facesmash, which involved pitting images of fellow students against each other in a "Hot or Not" scenario. This playful inception eventually became Facebook as we know it today. Opening its virtual doors to the world in 2006, Facebook marked the mainstream beginning of an era where personal connections merged with a broader sense of sharing. As more platforms joined in, we unwittingly became digital content creators, mirroring the rise of reality TV, where authenticity merged with entertainment.



The Alluring Mirage:


The allure of social media is undeniable. We can share photos and videos, connect with long-lost friends and family members, and curate our best moments. Yet, like a mirage in the desert, the perfection presented online often belies the complexity of reality. Striving for perfection, we glimpsed others' seemingly flawless lives and compared them to our own. Then feelings of inadequacy, jealousy, and resentment creep in. The "Hot or Not" mentality of rating appearances gradually metamorphosed into rating our experiences through likes, thumbs-up or thumbs-down, comments, and followers. But in essence, it remained the same. We compared our abilities not to a handful of people we knew, but thanks to social media, we could see the world and compare to all of them. I found it daunting in the beginning to show my work online because of all the illustrators I could see online who were better than me.




An extreme close-up of a black-and-white illustration depicting a tentacle monster with sharp teeth ensnaring a young woman holding a smartphone. Symbolic of social media addiction.


Hamsters on the Wheel:


Today, we find ourselves caught in a cycle reminiscent of hamsters running tirelessly on wheels. We wake up and instantly reach for our smartphones, immersing ourselves in a stream of notifications, updates, and images. We record our every move, from breakfast to bedtime, seeking validation through digital hearts and thumbs-up. This incessant quest for external affirmation keeps us running on the wheel of likes and comments, often obscuring the authenticity of our emotions.



Struggling for Authenticity:


In this whirlwind of virtual interactions, we sometimes lose sight of our authenticity. Our online personas overshadow our genuine selves, and our connection with reality weakens. As we scroll through carefully curated feeds, we forget that each individual's life is an intricate tapestry of both highs and lows. Just as the hamster wheel offers repetitive comfort, social media provides an illusion of connection while distancing us from genuine human interactions.



Escaping the Wheel:


The analogy of the hamster wheel carries a profound truth. Just as researchers discovered wild animals willingly engaging with wheels in their natural habitats, we humans are driven by an innate desire for interaction and validation. A study done by Dutch scientists in 2014 observed how animals, when given the chance, interacted with the wheel even without a tangible reward. This could be attributed to their natural curiosity, a natural desire to run, and their liking the wheel to do that.



The Innate Desire:


When we peer into the realm of social media, we can't help but question whether our fascination with it stems from a similar natural desire. Just as animals play on the wheel out of curiosity or the desire to engage with something novel, humans are drawn to the ever-refreshing stream of online content. Is our infatuation with social media feeding the need we have as humans to connect with each other and socialize? Is this why it can capture our attention so quickly and has the potential to become so addictive? I have noticed that certain feelings conveyed in certain movies can actually alter my own mindset. For example, watching TikTok movies about people going through injustice makes me boil with anger. I can swipe to the next video for a new distraction, but if the algorithm picks up that I react stronger to those kinds of videos, it will feed me more of that. This could lead to perpetual anger, and that doesn't just swipe away. Every time I now get such a video, I instantly decide to swipe because I don't want my stream to be one of suffering.



A close-up of a black-and-white illustration depicting a tentacle monster with sharp teeth ensnaring a young woman holding a smartphone. Symbolic of social media addiction.


Embracing Our Nature:


The study that observed wild animals engaging with the wheel underscores the fact that certain behaviors are rooted in our fundamental nature. The creatures' interaction with the wheel, devoid of a concrete reward, indicates a deeper drive at play. Similarly, we have a desire to be social and engage with others because we are social creatures. By acknowledging this, we can approach the digital realm with a deeper understanding, appreciating the facets of our nature that draw us to it.



The Evolution of Engagement:


Just as animals' interaction with the wheel was initially intended to increase activity, our engagement with social media began as a means to connect and share. But it has grown into a complex phenomenon. As we ponder whether social media fulfills a natural desire, we must navigate this virtual landscape mindfully. Recognizing that our engagement springs from a mix of curiosity, connection, and sometimes compulsion, we can consciously balance our digital experiences with the authenticity of human interaction and genuine exploration. Also, leaving a comment, liking a post, or receiving one can give small jolts of dopamine, leading to a feeling of pleasure and accomplishment, but is it really any of these two?



Beyond the Wheel:


The wheel is more than movement alone; I think it created a misalignment with ourselves. For example, never has anyone I didn't know walked up to me in real life and cursed at me for no reason whatsoever. (Correction: it has happened but that was someone with a mental disorder, and I don't really count that one.) But this is a reasonable common occurrence online because people are anonymous, which gives a veil of false protection, or because children are children. This veil of anonymity can have advantages and disadvantages because people could open up about things they otherwise would never talk about. But I do believe that those raw feelings of someone who lives perpetually online will eventually seep into the real world. I see this already happening with certain interactions these days. I think we can harness this understanding to curate a digital presence that aligns with our authentic selves. In recognizing the allure of the wheel, we must remember that we have the agency to step off and rediscover the beauty of a balanced existence—one that values both the virtual and the authentic self.



Conclusion:


The journey from "Hot or Not" to the digital hamster wheel hasn't changed that much except for the amount of time we lose ourselves in distractions. The allure of the wheel is undeniable, and we should think about the effects it has on the real world and our real selves. We must acknowledge our innate desire for connection while also embracing the richness of reality beyond the screen. Just as a hamster can escape the wheel, we too can step off the digital treadmill and rediscover the beauty of a balanced existence—one that values both the virtual and the authentic.


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