Prince Ea looks up from his phone. He stands before the ocean. The orange of the late summer sky seems all too perfect; he’s clearly chosen his moment. As he sits, he thinks (or he looks like he thinks). What is Prince Ea thinking about? What’s brought him here? The water hits the rocks but we can’t hear it. Just an ambient tone. He turns to us now, eyebrows raised, adjusting his shoulders to steady the impact of what he’s about to say. Prince Ea looks up from his phone and says: ‘Did you know the average person spends four years of his life looking down at his cell phone?’

The American poet Prince Ea – real name Richard Williams – uploaded his spoken word poem ‘Can We Auto-Correct Humanity?’ and the accompanying video to YouTube on September 29th, 2014.

2014 was the year people started to hear the alarm bells. It wasn’t when the alarm bells had started ringing, but it was when people decided they wanted to listen. Prince Ea’s ‘anti-social network’ had tapped into a growing fear amongst parents and technophobes, the self-righteous and the misinformed. Social media was no longer trying to bring us together; it was trying to tear us apart.

American spoken word poet Prince Ea.

Admittedly, the video was easy to mock at the time. It’s not difficult to laugh when the poet recalls an attempt to meet his friend ‘face-to-face’ only to be hit with the devastating: ‘what time you wanna Skype?’ We all figured he sort of had a point, but who was really interested in what the prince had to say?

Now, as we read reports of a Russian infiltration of Facebook steering the attention of voters, social media’s function has people more divided than ever. Critics say the quantity of information is too large to be properly (and safely) managed, while blind optimists shake it off with little else to offer the discussion. We can say with absolute certainty, however, that the potential social media now evidently has is scary precisely because it’s unprecedented.

‘it’s common knowledge that employers use social media to screen candidates.’ 

This doesn’t justify the scare-mongering (although it definitely feeds it), but it indicates the necessity to re-evaluate the relationship we have with our online selves.

I’m a final-year student which means these scare-articles aren’t the only horror stories I read, hear, and experience on a day-to-day basis. Stories of applicants being rejected for a misplaced comma or failing to meet the expectations of the robot short-lister are some of my favourites to kick me into action. But the fact is, what is most likely to cost me a job is myself apparently. Specifically, myself as I appear online.

It’s common knowledge that employers use social media to screen candidates. A CareerBuilder study last year revealed that 70% of employers do this, while 54% have decided against hiring based on what they must have found. (Among the reasons for these decisions included that a candidate posted too frequently, which seems overly harsh). But you can’t just delete your online self. According to this same study, employers are 57% less likely to interview someone if they can’t find them online. Your online self needs to be pristine, which is a scary thing to think about considering most 20 year olds activated their social media accounts in their early teens.

The solution is simple: delete anything you don’t want to be seen by an employer. Some apps can inadvertently help you out with this – I’d like to thank TimeHop for reminding me to delete all the awkward photos from my GCSE graduation day. Presumably because there’s always a gap in the market when it comes to lazy students, there are dedicated free and paid services to do this so you don’t have to – and Rep’nUp for example.

‘70% of employers use social media to screen candidates.’

See, my social media presence is generally clean, but I thought I’d try some of these apps out anyway for the sake of getting hands on. BrandYourself seemed to offer the most interesting services, advertising itself as a personal-branding tool. So, I entered my name – James Hacker – and online details into its free reputation scorer. I thought at its worst it would bring up a photo I’d forgotten to set to private (one of those pesky GCSE photos which apparently haunt me). Disaster struck when it offered an analysis of the Wikipedia entry for ‘Yes, Minister’ character Jim Hacker (no relation). I suppose that might be my own fault for getting frustrated and quitting before it could finish, or maybe because I share a name with someone else. If your last name is Smith or Jones, then I’m afraid this service really isn’t for you. It also suggested I pay a yearly fee of $99.98 for the full service. I think I’ll manage my own Googling.

The very fact we must clean up our social media accounts speaks numbers. The idea of age restricted services (which once formed the basis for many copy-paste hoaxes) has become a very high-profile discussion amongst UK politicians as of late. Matt Hancock is pushing for these limitations on social media platforms, suggesting that the companies have failed in their duty of care. Facebook’s Messenger Kids platform which launched recently has fallen under fire for promoting use of social media to a highly vulnerable audience, despite it being marketed as a safe app to be used within families.

Is this the root of the problem then? Has social media left too significant an imprint on us? According to a 2018 study conducted by The Pew Research Center, 51% of 18-24 year olds in the US admitted that they would find it difficult to give up social media. 14% suggested it would be ‘very hard’. The data is revealing; social media has made its mark. Can we loosen its grip?

If we search ‘social media detox’ on Google Trends, we can see that the popularity of the phrase picked up in 2014 and has only increased since. The exact same is the case for the enquiry: ‘how to detox from social media?’ – 2014 was the year people chose to hear the alarm bells.

‘the key, presumably, is a nice, healthy balance.’

At their core, these detox plans promote self-care. They’re genuine. Articles tout the benefits of taking a month away from your Twitter feed, claiming it improves well-being dramatically. (These claims may or may not be true, but I would presume it works on a case by case basis). One term that raises its head in these kinds of articles is the ‘Comparison Cycle’: that social media encourages a detrimental self-reflection as we sit idly by, observing the cherry-picked moments of our friends’ lives. I can only imagine the people most affected by this cycle are school leavers or graduates.

The cycle is supposedly a tremendous force – it takes a lot of strength and confidence to break free of it – but removing yourself from the online social scene hardly seems like the best attack plan, considering the value an online presence can have. While it might work for some people (and if it does, congratulations, you’ve happily broken the cycle), it’s easy to see people caving in and reinstalling their apps well before their detox month ends. The key, presumably, is a nice, healthy balance.

Except, there’s so much to balance. So much to balance at once, in fact, that it’s more like a juggling act. We have to think about how often we use social media; how we cultivate an online image; how to manage a personal history published online; what people say about social media and how we choose to feel about that. Our data is out there and that will never change. We’re scared into an attempt to manage information which has been out of our hands for a very long time. We’re scared because we don’t know where the data is stored – even if it is safe we can never see where it is because it’s not really anywhere. We’re scared because we’re told that that data could direct or destroy our livelihoods. We’re scared because our online presence is requested to succeed not only in any given social sphere, but now in the job market too. And as for the job market? Well that might just be the scariest thing of all.

Your online presence is hard to manage, and there’s no prerequisite for this kind of scenario. You’re a juggler with no act to follow: you can’t know if, when, or where you’ve dropped the ball.

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