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Reverse Schadenfreude and Facebook

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Thursday, Jan 27, 2011

At Slate, Libby Copeland writes about recent psychlogical research that suggests we underestimate other people’s misery and overestimate the uniqueness of our own loneliness. The lead researcher, Copeland reports, “got the idea for the inquiry after observing his friends’ reactions to Facebook: He noticed that they seemed to feel particularly crummy about themselves after logging onto the site and scrolling through others’ attractive photos, accomplished bios, and chipper status updates. ‘They were convinced that everyone else was leading a perfect life,’ he told me.”
  
That certainly captures my typical experience with Facebook—a vague panic at how much fun everyone is having without me. In my colossal narcissism, I find it particularly troubling to have the concrete evidence in front of me that I am not at the center of everyone else’s life and my company is not a prerequisite for their joy. Without Facebook (and other social media) it was much easier for me to put that dismal truth out of my mind. Before social media, what I would know about my friends lives was what they decided to tell me, and that decision alone was enough to make me feel included in the events they described. Finding out about their fun in a status update makes me feel as though I had been deliberately excluded.


The structure of Facebook exacerbates the problem of assessing the true extent of others’ happiness by nudging users toward only expressing enthusiasm and optimism—there is no “I hate” button, no thumbs down. Copeland writes:


By showcasing the most witty, joyful, bullet-pointed versions of people’s lives, and inviting constant comparisons in which we tend to see ourselves as the losers, Facebook appears to exploit an Achilles’ heel of human nature.


It’s hard to see what she means by “exploit” in this context, because you wouldn’t think Facebook wants to make its users miserable. It wants us to be friends, not losers. But exploit may be the perfect word choice, if the best way we can come up with to stifle that feeling of misery is to craft witty and sparkling updates of our own. When we share more, Facebook wins. If it has to count on us vainly trying to sublimate our misery in serial acts of sharing, then so be it.


The ongoing need to counteract each other’s apparent joys with expressions of our own would not only produce a negative feedback loop, it would also prompt us to experience a different kind of insecurity about our identity. Copeland points to what Sherry Turkle calls “presentation anxiety” in Alone Together: increasing self-alienation as one self-consciously produces a self online. This is a more acute ramification of the intense reflexivity that sociologist Anthony Giddens, for one, claims is an inescapable condition of modernity. (I wrote about Giddens here.) It’s a familiar idea—identity is destabilized by the waning of tradition and the rise of fashion, and what results is “ontological instability,” an ongoing need to posit and refresh oneself. Facebook obviously caters to that condition, and perhaps worsens it in the process, giving it an inescapable concrete foundation. There we can always see in an indelible way how frail and mutable our identities really are, even as our friends’ come to seem like demoralizing monoliths of optimism.

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