[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.