Thirty years ago I stood on the summit of Denali (Mt. McKinley) at 20,320 ft, the highest peak in North America. Surveying the magnificent Alaska Range in the midnight glow of Arctic summer (at -40 degrees F; with windchill at -100 F) was and remains one of the highlights of my life. From landing on the glacier to flying back to Talkeetna took 16 days. During that time we were completely out of contact with the world below.
A few years later, during a 20-day trip down the Grand Canyon, we were similarly out of touch, which was a natural part of the adventure. Indeed, working as a wilderness instructor and guide for 10 years in the 1980s, we routinely said good-bye to friends and loved ones as we worked 20 to 28-day courses in the backcountry of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Texas. These were some of the 'peak experiences' in my life.
Yesterday, I participated in a round table discussion with Nik and Ruby Roy Dholakia, both of the University of Rhode Island. Both are doing groundbreaking work on the future of marketing, in particular 'consumption.' Among other ideas, Nik and colleagues argue that social media are shifting the nature of our life experiences, like my summit experience on Denali and running the Grand Canyon.
If we think of a continuum of 'mundane,' 'special' and 'peak' experiences, we have all seen how social media are used to make the mundane 'special,' i.e., posting photos of food, checking in at routine coffee breaks, etc.
Conversely, bringing others along virtually on 'peak' experiences risks making those experiences less rarified, less extraordinary than the isolated triumph of standing on top of the world (literally or metaphorically) on your own or with your climbing partner. Posting or texting from the summit of Denali--as a friend of mine did a few years ago--is still no doubt 'special,' but it is somewhat less extreme than being there knowing that it would be several days before my wife even knew if I had survived the summit push and descent, let alone see my summit selfie.
Modern day adventurers will no doubt counter that documenting expeditions has a long history (including coincidently the Kolb brothers with Powell in the Grand Canyon) and that sharing an experience immediately and widely on social media heightens the experience, rather than contributing to its deterioration or demotion on the Mundane-Special-Peak scale.
Making the mundane special is mostly harmless. It brings a farcical and humorous dimension to social media (for example, a web site devoted to photos of people taking photos of food). On the other hand, social media's fascination with the mundane may have more serious existential consequences.
Meanwhile, existentialists should rightfully be concerned if, as my colleagues suggest, intensive life-defining 'peak' experiences are somehow reduced in their impact as we rush to document rather than simply experience our moments of personal triumph.