If a Life Falls in the Forest and No One Is There to LIKE it, Does It Make a Sound?

Comes a time when you realize, you’re basically a straight-up Luddite, or at best the loyal opposition to the social media age, and you might as well embrace that and shout your point fearlessly into the tailwind of techno-utopianism.


To that end, I’ve been thinking about the posting addict, or the Facebook and Twitter compulsive. You know who you are…and if you aren’t. These are the people who share constantly, scores of times a day, if not more. Usually, the posts and tweets are ephemeral. They tell us what the Sharing Addict had for breakfast, or how the traffic was.

Children and their endearing malapropisms are good Facebook fodder. You’ll get lots of likes when you use family conversations as material for posts to amuse people (some of whom your kids have never met), and applauding comments about how brilliant and/or cute they are. Emotions online are sung about two octaves higher than the score of reality.

What accounts for compulsive posting, and is it a problem?

I’ve asked a few people why they post a lot, when it’s not expected for their professional lives, or for political activism. They usually answer that it takes so little time, and that it’s a good, efficient way to stay in touch, at least a little. And, they find it enjoyable to see who likes the comment, or comments on the comment.

I accept them at their word. But that mild, pro-social impulse doesn’t really explain why I’m seeing pictures of someone’s bowl of soup on my Facebook page, or why some don’t dare to eat a peach, as T.S. Eliot might observe, without letting Twitter know.

I wonder, to recall the koan, if a life falls in a forest and there’s no one there to LIKE it, does it make a sound?

I fear some social media mutation on vanity and voyeurism, one that compels people to look at themselves doing things, even crimes, and even sex, and to have an audience look at them as they do their living, such that they simply can’t stop. It feels too good, this admiring and looking at themselves, this ongoing curation of the self in the motion of doing its normal, quotidian activities, so that it becomes a needful thing.

Otherwise, how to explain the compulsion toward banal sharing. Or, the inscrutable impulse for rapists to self-incriminate by posting details of their assault online (more troublingly, perhaps they feel they’ve done nothing wrong), and young women who agree to have their boyfriends tape them having sex—which, as sure as night follows day, becomes fodder to be posted on social media “revenge” sites against them when, as sure as night follows day, the relationship ends?

I get it, in one sense. Looking at memories of things done, even things just done two seconds ago, can be more satisfying than the event itself, since the living of life often demands a great deal of energy from us, even when we’re enjoying ourselves, but the memory of living that life demands much less.

Maybe social media addicts mostly wanted reassurance, affirmation, and figurative “likes” from their real-life friends in the pre-Facebook age. They had a vanity jones, in other words, perhaps grounded in insecurity (if they’re good looking, we tend to say they’re insecure) or perhaps grounded in malignant narcissism (if they’re not good looking, we tend to say they’re arrogant). Now, the compulsive poster doesn’t need as many face to face confidants to satisfy the vanity jones.

An hours-long, ongoing, spontaneous conversation with a friend is a laborious dissertation in comparison to the rebus-like declarations and telegraphic effusions or take-downs of Twitter. Social media is a more efficient, fast-food affirmation.

Is all this a problem? Most likely, yes.

A woman who was part of a group of tight-knit friends in college innocently strolls through Facebook one day, and gets hit over the head with the emotional two-by-four of having to see a photo of all of her tight-knit group of friends at a reunion—everyone but her.

Let’s say you have a friend, actually a close friend, and one you’ve known for a really long time. Before Facebook, you saw each other fairly regularly.

It’s not the same now. Clearly, the close friend is still around, and still has time to do fun, social things. You know this, because she posts obsessively. She posts pictures of herself with other friends, at parties. She posts photos of the food she’s about to eat. She posts self-admiring updates about marriage, her husband, and family.

What used to be known as bragging is now the currency of a social life.

It’s possible that you’ve alienated the friend, or that she’s bored with the friendship. It’s also possible that Facebook and Twitter create the simulacra of contact, such that a friend genuinely feels as if she’s dispatched a social duty by posting about her commute, or another post to remind her followers, some of whom barely know her, about how much she loves her husband.

In her mind this might constitute being “in touch” with friends.

If you think this, be warned: many of us don’t consider the reading of these posts an act of being in touch with you. Not at all.

Social media is reconfiguring some of the basic concepts that undergird friendship, concepts of obligation, reciprocity, contact, availability, exclusivity, intimacy, and, in the examples here, good friendship hygiene.

I don’t want to be the authenticity fogey. Nor am I arguing that social media isn’t in some ways quite real. I also like it, in its place.

But it lacks many of what have been for millennia the signature features of friendship and social bonding. It lacks depth: the information shared is too public and often trivial for that. It lacks selectivity: all friends, be they people the poster has never met, or spoken to, or parents and former best friends, are getting the same information, assuming that the poster, as most often seems to be the case, isn’t using a private group setting. If everyone is a friend, then no one is a friend. Social media lacks one on one intimacy, by its nature. It lacks privacy and discretion: a personal Greek chorus witnesses your communication. And it lacks that messy, delicate, unpredictable but friendship-sustaining quality of entanglement:  When you’re at dinner with a friend, you can’t as easily walk away or flip off the smartphone when things get boring, uncomfortable, or socially taxing.

And more to the point: why in the world do you think we want to see a photo of your soup?

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7 brilliant Japanese words we need in English

Ever wanted to describe precisely how crummy you feel after a bad haircut?

Culture & Religion
  • English is a phenomenal language, but there are circumstances where words seem to fail us.
  • Often, other languages have already found a solution to expressing the complicated ideas that can't be succinctly conveyed in English.
  • If you've ever wanted to describe the anguish of a bad haircut, the pleasure of walking in the woods, or the satisfaction of finding your life's purpose, read on.

Don't get me wrong. The English language has some very excellent words. There's petrichor, the pleasant smell of the first rain after warm and dry weather. Paraprosdokian—which describes sentences that end surprisingly, forcing the reader to reinterpret the first half—is both oddly specific and fantastic to say out loud. I'm even a fan of new inventions, like tweetstorm, even if I'm not a fan of the experience.

But English-speaking culture—like any culture—has a limited perspective on the world. Just like English, Japanese also has some five-star words that English could stand to borrow. The Japanese have an entirely different perspective on the world than many English-speaking cultures—as proof, it's tough to imagine that the politely reserved Japanese have a word for defenestrate, or the act of throwing somebody out of a window. Here's the top 7 Japanese words that we could use in English.

1. Ikigai

(Flickr user Raul Pacheco-Vega)

Literally translating to "life value," Ikigai is best understood as the reason somebody gets up in the morning—somebody's reason for living. It's a combination of what you are good at, what you get paid to do, what you love to do, and what the world needs.

We often find our ikigai during flow states, which occur when a given task is just challenging and absorbing enough that we forget time has passed, that "in the zone" sensation. But it's more nuanced than something that is simply absorbing or a passion; it's a fulfilling kind of work that benefits oneself and others.

2. Karoshi

Karoshi, or death from overwork, provides a nice contrast to the concept of ikigai. Japan's work culture is so over the top that dying from working too hard is not uncommon. This word covers a range of ailments from heart failure to suicide, so long as the root of their cause is in working too hard.

As another hardworking nation, the U.S. could stand to better appreciate the dangers of overwork. Americans put in an average 47 hours a week, which is demonstrably bad for our health.

3. Shinrin-yoku

(Flickr user jungle_group)

This word translates to "forest-bathing," which sums up the activity fairly well. It's getting outdoors to de-stress, relax, and promote well-being. While the concept is familiar, we clearly don't place enough importance on getting outdoors to honor it with its own term.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, Americans spend about 87% of their time indoors, which is clearly too much. Meanwhile, being in nature is associated with a slew of benefits, like improving memory, reducing stress and anxiety, and even lowering inflammation. Scotland has the right idea—doctors in Shetland can now prescribe nature to their patients.

4. Shikata ga nai

Used interchangeably with shouganai, this term roughly means "it cannot be helped." You can think of it as the Japanese equivalent of c'est la vie´or amor fati. It's the idea that one should accept things outside of one's control with dignity and grace and not implode from the pressure of having no control over a terrible situation.

This concept is a bit controversial. During the U.S. internment of Japanese-Americans after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, many Japanese-Americans resigned themselves to their mistreatment, characterizing the situation as shikata ga nai.

On the other hand, when a tsunami devastated Japan in 2011, many outside observers commented upon the stoic way the Japanese carried on with their daily lives, an example of the positive side of shikata ga nai.

5. Tsundoku

(pexels.com)

While it's a little less high-minded than the previous words on this list, it's certainly one that I and others could use. A combination of tsunde-oku (letting things pile up) and dukosho (reading books), tsundoku is the practice of buying a book you swear you're going to read, obviously not doing that, finding a new book you swear you're going to read, and then letting these abandoned books pile up in your house until it's a certifiable fire hazard.

6. Irusu

Garden State (2004)

You're in a terrible, anti-social mood and don't want to see anybody at all today. Suddenly, your doorbell rings; you lie as still as possible in your bed (surrounded by the hordes of unread books you purchased), praying the unwanted visitor leaves. This is the practice of irusu, or pretending not to be home when somebody rings your doorbell. It's a very common experience, although maybe the modern-day equivalent is responding "Sorry, I just got this" hours after you actually saw a text.

7. Age-otori

Not everybody practices tsundoku, and I'm sure some extroverts are entirely unfamiliar with practicing irusu, but everybody can identify with getting a bad haircut. Age-otori is the feeling one gets after leaving a barbershop looking worse than you did going in. It's an ingenious word for the unique blend of regret, suffering, and shame you feel after you foolishly trusted your elderly barber when he said "Yeah, I can do a hard part."

Bonus words

While Japanese has some phenomenal words, there are some that the English language probably doesn't have need of. For example, a nito-onna is a woman so obsessed with her job that she doesn't have time to iron her blouses and so resorts to wearing knitted tops constantly. It's a wonderfully specific word, but its specificity probably doesn't translate to English-speaking contexts.

There's also the hikikomori, a mostly Japanese phenomenon involving modern-day hermits that don't leave their bedrooms for years and years. People like this exist in English-speaking contexts, but we generally characterize these as people suffering from anxiety, as loners, or hermits. In addition, part of what makes a hikikomori is the high pressure and highly ritualized nature of Japanese society, a feature that is mostly absent in English-speaking contexts.

So, write to our good friends Merriam and Webster. Let's see if we can pack a little more utility into the English language.

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