Facebook acquaintances the new TV stars

[UPDATE: Welcome to those of you coming from Andrew Sullivan!]


Yesterday afternoon I shared a cold drink with a friend in one of Berlin’s beer gardens, taking a short break from the current heat wave to talk about my research. “I used to be on Facebook a lot,” she said, “but found that it left me feeling bad about my life.” It’s a sentiment that I’ve heard from lots of people over the last few months: you see others leading amazing lives, and wonder why your life seems so not-so-amazing in comparison.

My friend was quick to point out that she knows rationally that this makes no sense. Of course those people have problems too. Of course they post pictures of vacations (but only the flattering ones) and not of boring days at work.

In my trips back to Colorado, I have been struck each time by the discord between people’s Facebook lives and what they say in private. On Facebook they have been on an amazing vacation to exotic beaches. In person they confess that the vacation was a desperate attempt to save a marraige. On Facebook they have been to gliteratee tech conferences. In person they confess they haven’t been able to sleep for months, and are on anti-anxiety medication from the stress of financial pressures on their company. It is a strange case of schadenfreude for me to hear this, knowing that I had been jealous of their beach time and glamor.

What’s interesting is that this feel-bad Facebook effect seems to come from a distinct source: not-so-close Facebook friends.

In the case of true close friends, you know about all the crap that is going on in their lives. From deep interaction, you know the specific pains and doubt that lies behind the smiling profile picture.

No, the life-comparison danger comes from the weak ties; from those people you met at a conference, or the friends from High School that you haven’t interacted with since they friended you last year. From these people you get a constant stream of life, edited to show the good parts.

Since TV was invented, critics have pointed out the dangers of watching the perfect people who seem to inhabit the screen. They are almost universally beautiful, live in interesting places, do intereseting work (if they work at all), are unfailingly witty, and never have to do any cleaning. They never even need to use the toilet. It cannot be pschologically healthy to compare yourself to these phantasms.

So it’s interesting that social networks have inadvertantly created the same effect, but using an even more powerful source. Instead of actors in Hollywood, the characters are people that you know to be real and have actually met. The editing is done not by film school graduates, but by the people themselves.

In the end, my friend’s strategy seems to be the right one: don’t spend too much time purusing the lives of people who aren’t in your life. And spend more time learning about the uncut, unedited, off-line lives that your friends are actually living.

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14 Responses to “Facebook acquaintances the new TV stars”

  1. Tara Anderson Says:

    I often wonder about the people who post tons of updates on Facebook about all the good things they have going on in their life. If all that is really happening, how do you have time to brag about it on a social network? I’d much rather be out and about, not sharing things on Facebook and not caring about what others are sharing on Facebook either.

  2. jason Says:

    This hits way to close to home for most people. I doubt you’ll see too many responses in person that indict their own facebook update patterns.

    To supplement this perspective I also see facebook at a means to note acute moments of emotionally noteworthy episodes. Anger, frustration, etc. However even in these instances, you’ll rarely see an update share a moment of personal failure, life struggle or the mildly-directed life-toils that define all of us personally and professionally.

    And when on the rare occasion someone does share this struggle it’s refreshing, unguarded, and incredibly real. Perhaps the ultimate means to create real connection within an online social network.

  3. Caelidh Says:

    Ironically.. I post as real of stuff as you can get.

    It has alienated everyone .

    Not that i am a persistant whiner (although I am sure SOME would say I am).. I am just REAL… and I think that scares folks.

    If I say I am having a rotten day at work… and bored.. and I want to change or I am having a mid life crisis.. I say it..

    However,.. admittedly the vast majority of the stuff I SHARE on FB are interesting articles, websites (at least I think they are diverse and interesting and informative)

    Rarely I get comments to any of it.

    But I post a cute picture of a kitten .. comments.

    I notice that some folks post really vapid meaningless fluffy stuff… and they too get comments…

    I don’t understand it.. I am not always negative.. and I do post a lot of insightful positive things as well.

    I do need to backdown from “friends” FB posts… and just keep my business and organization contacts up.. so I know what things are going on…. My friends Posts are generally not very helpful

  4. Roy W. Zornow Says:

    In my post “Booking from Facebook” ( http://www.ekrap.com/?p=62 ) I argue that self-congratulatory posts function as fitness indicators, and that most online social networks lack the self-policing mechanisms that would enable them to endure.

  5. mike Says:

    Very well said. Can we be facebook friends?

  6. Anne C. Says:

    This isn’t really new, since anyone can edit their own story (in letters, on the phone, even in person). It’s just been amplified, with pictures/video/etc.
    The key, in my opinion, is to live a life you’re proud of. Take ownership of the choices you’ve made and the priorities you have. You love your job, but it doesn’t pay much, so you can’t go on exotic vacations? You prioritize your day to day happiness. You hate your job, but take exotic vacations to get away from it? You prioritize your exposure to the world over the day to day grind. You hate your job and never go anywhere? Make a change! Start small. Volunteer. See local tourist spots. Research economically feasible alternatives.
    If you’re living vicariously through others on the internet (and then punishing yourself by feeling badly about it), you really ought to take a good look at what YOU can be doing about it.

  7. Jonathin Says:

    I like this. In fact I like it so much that I am going to share it on Facebook. My hope is that casual Facebook friends will read it and think, “hey, I wish I could find interesting stuff to read on the internet like that guy!” For me, Facebook is all about making others feel left out. I am a terrible person with no self-confidence. Good day!

  8. SharonG Says:

    I would go as far to say that this is not a Facebook phenomenon. Much research is out there that was done on BBSs, IRC, and MUDs that all had this exact component to them; so I would say that it’s online v offline not a just a new specific brand like Facebook.

  9. Caruso Says:

    People on FB are boring, they’re stereotypes, they’re happy, they have tons of friends, have great vacation, great kids, go to interesting places, know how to have fun. They don’t like to appear serious, cute kittens? LIKE. Politics? silence. Bantering is good, big discussion and arguments should be avoided. I think people self-censor a lot when they post on Facebook because they’re talking to an audience made up of family, close friends, not so close friend, colleagues, ex-bf, you have to adopt a persona that fits them all : happy, positive, friendly, fun loving, trivial, seems a safe choice.

  10. BP Says:

    I too try to be as real as possible, post a cornucopia of unflattering photos and generally show my life as it is, hopefully alleviating some of the sense of the deadly seriousness of it all for those that get to have a laugh at my expense. I also deleted all my friends and took a year off in ’09 to get perspective on the whole thing, and have added back a core group of friends that are witty, sardonic, real, crass, and empathetic when necessary who I’ve spent real, quality time with at some point, who I’m amazed and happy to say number nearly 300.

    Facebook is a great tool and interface if you keep it in perspective and realize it’s an analog to reality, not reality itself, and that nearly everyone is fatter and less attractive than they look in their profile pic.

  11. Paul Says:

    I recently started hiding from my news feed all of my Facebook friends who I hadn’t interacted with in the past few years. I was overwhelmed with the quantity of updates from school classmates that I had fallen out of contact with, and seeing their lives in such detail made me want to recontact ALL of them. I can now stay up-to-date on everyone that I actually see in real life, and avoid being held captive by nostalgia. Hiding all game and quiz applications from the feed has also helped cut down on noise. To extend the TV analogy, it’s like being able to skip commercials.

  12. Karen Says:

    Can i be permitted to share this to my social network of friends?

    This struck a cord and i because it does to me, i know it will to most too. =)

  13. sandyg Says:

    I recently posted in my status update on FB that we should rename it “Bragbook” because it’s all people seem to want to do – tout their achievements or self-promote. Seems this is more common in the States than in the UK where culturally it is less acceptable to toot your own horn. Whenever I start feeling bad about my life because some of my friends *appear* to be having wonderful lives as that’s the image they want to cultivate, I remind myself that noone’s life is perfect, far from it, and those that try the hardest to appear happy and satisfied are normally the ones that are in fact the least happy and satisfied. Just like really rich people don’t wear fancy clothes or drive flash cars — because they don’t have anything to prove to anyone.

    And as for baby photos – yeah the kids are cute – but as one of the few remaining out of my highschool friends yet to procreate – I am thrilled I get to sleep whenever I want and don’t have to deal with screaming temper tantrums or changing diapers, and basically devoting my life to another being. My friends who are on multiple kids must enjoy parenthood I suppose as they keep having more – or maybe they just think “sod it, I’m trapped forever now, may as well give the little bugger someone else to play with so I don’t have to spend 100% of my spare time entertaining it!” :D

  14. Dee Says:

    “It is a strange case of schadenfreude for me to hear this, knowing that I had been jealous of their beach time and glamor”
    I’m sorry, but this says far more about you than you care to admit.
    If you are jealous of other people’s lives as you see them on facebook, then you really need to take a look at what you’re doing with your own life and start making it better.
    And if you really feel happy to learn that casual facebook aquaintences’ lives aren’t as fabulous as they seem online, then you’re actually a really shit human being.
    If you don’t actually like someone that you’re friends with on facebook, and their updates annoy you or make you jealous, yet you continue to stay friends with them on facebook, you’ve got some serious self-worth issues that need to be addressed.