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Perfection, positivity, and social media [excerpt]

Facebook can often be described as a “24/7 news cycle of who’s cool, who’s not.” This image highlights a major change in how young people analyze their social statuses: although previous generations certainly compared themselves to their peers, they didn’t have a digital system in place to capture exactly where they fell in the social rankings. In this shortened excerpt from The Happiness Effect, Donna Freitas analyzes the emphasis that university students place on “likes” when determining their level of social media success.

We don’t need social media to compare ourselves to other people or to worry about others’ responses to what we say or do. Engaging in status competitions is nothing new. It’s common, especially when we’re young (though adults are certainly not exempt). We compare our looks, our hairstyles, our opportunities, our friends, our successes and failures, where we’ve traveled (or haven’t), where we’ve gone to school, where we’re from, our clothes, and all sorts of material objects. The list goes on and on. We seek approval and affirmation all the time.

The difference with social media is that it seems expressly designed for this purpose of showing off, for bragging and boasting of all that one is, has, and does, as well as for others to judge these things. Facebook is the CNN of envy, a kind of 24/7 news cycle of who’s cool, who’s not, who’s up, and who’s down. In the process of showing off our successes and proving how happy we are, we are exposing ourselves to others’ high­light reels, too, and to the possibility of rejection. Unless you have rock- solid self- esteem, are impervious to jealousy, or have an extraordinarily rational capacity to remind yourself exactly what everyone is doing when they post their glories on social media, it’s difficult not to care.

The title of the actress and comedian Mindy Kaling’s first memoir, Is Everybody Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns), not only reflects her trademark humor, but it aptly captures this common pain, so much so that I borrowed it for this chapter. There is even a special acronym to capture the phenomenon of so much comparing ourselves to others today: FOMO (Fear of Missing Out), a kind of suffering that comes from witnessing the amazing times other people are having with­out you, and perhaps have intentionally not invited you to join. Some of us are really good at protecting ourselves from such comparisons, or at least being ambivalent about them, but many of us are vulnerable to this particular suffering, and social media exacerbates and escalates it to levels that most of us have never before experienced, nor have the emotional resources to withstand— at least not so consistently and constantly.

Photo by Priscilla Yu for Oxford University Press.

There are benefits to this, though. All those “likes” and “retweets” and “shares” can make us feel like mini-celebrities, at least for a moment.

Before social media, we may have sat in a classroom admiring some­one’s stylish outfit, or wishing we had a cute boyfriend, too, or that we had gotten to go to that fun party on Friday night. But there was only so much we could see and hear about. With social media, people can log on again and again, stare and envy and obsess as long as they like, and not only know that someone has a cute boyfriend but peruse all the gorgeous pictures of him, not only hear there was a party on Friday but see the hundreds of photos of people having a blast without them.

In the online survey, students were asked to respond either “yes,” “no,” or “not applicable” to a series of statements about how they feel/ are/ act/ what they do when they go onto social media. One of those statements was “I find myself comparing myself to others a lot.” Of the students who responded, 55% said yes and 43% said no (2% answered not applicable). Well over half do this type of comparing regularly, but when it came to responding to the statement “It’s important that others see me as having a good time,” only 35% of these same respondents said yes, and a whopping 60% answered no…

Only fifty students (16%) claimed that they’d never compared themselves to others or felt left out. Even those who said “I used to do it, but not anymore” talked about how they “got themselves over” this tendency, as though they’d healed themselves of a terrible habit, a kind of sickness that comes with social media. Some students suffer far worse than others. When students talk about feeling inferior on social media—even if only rarely or in their past—they discuss it as if it is an affliction, one that comes with the territory. And a number of students commented on how comparing oneself to others and having feelings of being left out are simply human tendencies that have been heightened to an unhealthy degree by social media.

As much as so many students try not to succumb, the phenomenon of comparing oneself to others— and the feelings of missing out that come with this behavior—seems to be one of the most common experiences of being on social media. Getting “likes” (and “retweets” and “shares”) is a central part of the performance of perfection and positivity. Not only does it prove that you “are,” as Rob might put it, but it also is a quantifi­able mark of success and affirmation (part and parcel of that “popularity principle” that Van Dijck talks about)—it confirms that you are perform­ing your social media duties well. On the flip side, the inability to obtain quantifiable public approval is a source of shame. It shows everyone not only that you are irrelevant, but also that you are performing poorly in the endeavor to showcase only your best efforts, your greatest successes, your most attractive traits, both physical and personal—that even when you are making your best effort, you still can’t measure up to the com­petition.

Featured image credit: Image by Tookapic. CC0 Public Domain via Pexels.

Recent Comments

  1. Subhra Barai

    For social media, I will comment ” Ignorance is bliss “. The only path to draw ourselves from this trickster is to IGNORE this monster, otherwise troubles will fall upon enormously.
    Thanks for the article!

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