FOR MOST of human history, there was only one way to hear music or to look at art: You had to be there. For music, you chanted around the fire, or hummed to yourself while gathering berries, or, in the past centuries, gathered in a church or private room or concert hall. Likewise, to view a painting you had to venture into a cave or, in more recent times, into a church or private residence or museum.
The work was always part of a place and part of a tradition, which had its benefits, but which also meant many couldn’t participate. It wasn’t until the 1800s, with the advent of photography and then of the phonograph, that music and art could travel beyond a single time and place. And they traveled fast. In the early 1900s, Enrico Caruso’s recording of “Vesti la giubba” from the opera “I Pagliacci” sold over a million copies. The new star wasn’t just Caruso, but mass reproduction itself.
Now, in 2014, we think nothing of walking down the street in a T-shirt emblazoned with the Mona Lisa, while listening to Bach or the Beatles on our iPods. We cruise through various centuries, and various traditions, without a second thought. And knowing that most current artists and musicians want tweets, pins, likes, and, ultimately, purchases, we take it for granted that mass distribution changes the music and art that gets made. A Katy Perry hit, without digital effects, would hardly work around the campfire. “Transformers 4” wouldn’t mean much projected inside a cave.
What we’re still adjusting to, though, is the ability to mass-reproduce our own thoughts and images. With social media, we all have the potential to share our lives with hundreds of “friends,” if not thousands of strangers. Given that mass reproduction changed how we create and experience culture, how will it change how we create and experience our own lives?
Studies about Facebook have been plentiful. Some researchers conclude that it makes us feel alienated, envious, and lonely; to see yet another acquaintance on yet another beach doesn’t make our real thumbs go up. Sharing can move from catching up to one-upsmanship. The mass-produced images we’re accustomed to seeing are advertisements, and it’s hard not to view social media as advertisements for ourselves. Often we feel our own product — in other words, ourselves — falling behind.
Other researchers have concluded that Facebook makes us happier, helping us to engage socially and politically. Indeed, social media’s role in the Arab Spring drew considerable praise. Even for the non-political, just the anticipation of posting can stimulate the reward centers in the brain. Every activity, even the most banal and solitary, can now become part of a social context.
But how does the perpetual prospect of sharing affect the way we experience the world — when we’re living the moments that we’ll later post?
My friend K.C. Cohen, who is a guidance counselor at the Riverdale School in the Bronx, says that social media affects social interactions even before they happen. “Many girls say they can’t go to a slumber party without making sure they look cute. They know the night will be posted, so they feel the need to look good. They worry about being judged.” The heightened social context amplifies social pressures — how to dress, how to behave; teenagers are forced into becoming their own publicists. Indeed, if one girl posts an unflattering picture of another, it’s considered social sabotage, not unlike a political smear campaign.
Social media also affects experience while it’s happening, and how we remember it afterward. One friend, in her 30s, told me about a dull night out bowling with friends. When someone started snapping pictures, everyone started hamming it up; no one wanted to look bored in the posts. Later, looking at the pictures on Facebook, she said she envied her own virtual life; it looked much more fun than the real thing.
Even when our posts come from genuinely happy moments, we have to interrupt the moments to document them. As Maria Konnikova recently wrote in her blog for The New Yorker, “We think about how we’ll share something, and whom we’ll share it with, as we consume it.” I recently saw a cellphone toast — a whole table’s cellphones raised, everyone’s cocktail photographed and posted to Instagram. The power of a moment has become more evident in our desire to record the moment than in our desire to experience it directly. It’s as though we’ve become unsure of our ability to feel, and need to outsource moments to a team, in the hope that collective approval will stand in for meaning.
To have something to say, we first have to receive the world as individuals. If we slow down our pace of sharing, we might just have more to share.
Howard Axelrod is a writer living in Boston. His memoir, “The Point of Vanishing,” about the two years he lived in solitude in northern Vermont, will be released in the fall of 2015.