In 2017, I quit Facebook for a year for the first time. Prior to that, I had been prolific on Facebook, sharing almost daily for over a decade.
Removing Facebook as an option for sharing my experience created a space in which I was able to see my impulses. The void created a fertile ground for new insights and awareness.
One of my insights was a framework I call the 3 levels of experience.
The three levels of experience are: Participant, Observer, and Reporter. They are best explained in contrast to each other.
Participant vs Observer
One of the most profound things I noticed in the void of my Facebook hiatus was how often I’d be thinking about what I might post about an experience while I was still trying to be in the experience.
Trying is an important distinction here:
I noticed that when I was thinking about what I might say about an experience, I was no longer in that experience.
To give a concrete example: I might be having lunch with a friend, and in the back of my mind I’d notice that I was thinking about what I would say about our time together. For example, I might be considering how I might frame it in a way to subtly convey a message about me, my work, and my lifestyle. This thought process wasn’t necessarily front and center, but I could observe it happening.
I might still appear to be present, listening to my friend, engaging fully in conversation, but I wasn’t fully there. A part of me was standing back, witnessing the conversation and considering how to report it.
This would happen in a myriad of circumstances: a conversation, a new client meeting, watching a sunset, doing a workout.
The act of thinking about what I might post — how I would frame it, the story I would tell — shifted my role from a participant to an observer.
At the risk of stating the obvious: Participants in, and observers of, the same event have different experiences.
Consider a sports game.
The players on the field have one experience of the game. Each may have their own experience, but collectively their experience is different from anyone else. They are in the action.
The fans watching from the stands, have a different experience of the game. And people watching from home have yet a different experience of the same event.
To distill Participant vs Observer:
One experience is in the action, the other is standing outside of it.
The outside experience is never the same as the inside experience.
(This, by the way, is why you should not ever tell someone “I know how you feel.” You can empathize, but you don’t know what they feel. You can’t be in someone else’s body.)
When we shift from participant to observer we lose connection to our own bodies. We exit the embodied experience and perceive an experience only from the mind.
This shift disengages us from full presence.
Observer vs Reporter
Eventually, the observer reports, which creates a third role: reporter.
Reporter is different from Observer. When we observe an experience, we take it in from a distance without pulling out specific parts of it. Although we might not see everything from our perspective outside the experience, we are not consciously eliminating anything from our view.
When we report an experience, we tell a story about it. Reporting is a form of selecting part of the observed experience to share with others.
All stories, by nature, select certain parts of the experience to highlight and omit other parts of the experience.
A story about an experience is not the experience. The story may be in the form of text, video, pictures, artwork, music, or performance. But it is not the experience itself. You cannot recreate an experience in words or even in pictures.
If we go back to the game, the television analysts, sideline reporters, and writers covering the game are all reporters. As they are observing, they are selecting pieces of the experience to share.
The play-by-play announcer who calls the game doesn’t tell you everything that’s happening on the field; they focus on the main action.
When we report on our own experience, we do the same thing. Whether you’re reporting to a friend, to your followers on social media, or to your journal, you are selecting pieces of the experience to share. By selecting and reporting those pieces, you reinforce them. Those become the pieces you remember.
Our Experience: Participant, Observer and Reporter
To be clear, this phenomenon isn’t “bad” and it isn’t caused by social media.
It’s actually a remarkable feature of our brains that we can participate in an experience and observe it and report on it.
My social media breaks merely enhanced my awareness of this tendency to “leave the experience early” in order to observe and report on the experience. I noticed how social media encourages us to be more in our observer and reporter role.
The capacity to observe our own experience and create a story around it can be beneficial, when used in the right place and time. (More on that in a separate piece).
The problem comes when we overuse it. When we shift too early into the Observer or Reporter role, we “leave the experience early.” This detracts from our experience of life.
Life is meant first to be experienced. Creating awareness of when we shift to the different roles can help us stay in participant mode so that we experience more of life, rather than watching it from the sidelines.