A recent Stanford University study suggests that people tend to be depressed by the Facebook status updates of their friends, perceiving their own lives as less interesting and engaging.
I know the feeling.
I've noticed that most of my FFs talk about their sources of joy far more often than the causes of their misery. This is even true of my actual friends, most of whom are writers - people who publicly disclose their misery for a living (or at least a partial living).
Social psychologists call the tendency to present a positive version of ourselves "impression management," and studies confirm that it's the norm on social media sites.
This, researchers reason, has much to do with the comparative lack of social cues in cyberspace versus real life - cues like facial expression or tone. Other evidence not necessarily available might include, in my case, not having shaved in a week or being too preoccupied with the absurdity of existence to notice that my sweater is on backwards.
But everything is very likeable in my life... on Facebook. In short, we are free to appear to be happy. And yet not everyone on the network seems to have gotten the memo. Here's a sampling of status updates by some FFs who seem pretty uninterested in impression management. (They gave me permission to publish them.)
• "Four years fatherless. Feeling it in my body today. Accepting hugs."
• "Due to a womanly mishap, I had to run to the bookstore on my coffee break and purchase a pair of unisex sweatpants, which have a significant amount of extra fabric in the front and which make my crotch look like a walrus face."
• "Every night my brother is alive in my dreams, and every morning when I wake up he remains dead."
• " __ is tired of fighting.''
TMI, as the kids say/type/text, right? Or sometimes disturbingly too little? And there's something uncomfortable about watching people receive sympathy that, however genuine, is only virtual.
Nevertheless, as the likes and "HUGS" come pouring in, my resentment grows: I'm jealous. On Facebook, I'm usually trying to be funny or posting some left-wing op-ed bound to receive "likes" in the echo-chamber that is my Facebook friends, or talking about my current artistic project.
But in real life lately I've been a lot more focused on my romantic failings and reminders that my mother is dead and my father living a couple of continents away, psychologically and geographically. Who's going to "like" that?
Still, I'm too concerned about managing my impression to acknowledge all this publicly. And so, for the first time, I mention my mother's death on Facebook. My status update reads: "My mother died 12 years ago, and, well, it still sucks...."
Not the kind of confession that would make me a particularly engaging guest on Jerry Springer, I know, but it's still hard to write.
I want a response, but what kind of response? Of course, "liking'' would be cruel. Eventually, a dozen or so supportive comments arrive, which I find mildly gratifying, but I also notice that I haven't received nearly as many of those as some of those updates mentioned above. Are some self-disclosures more embraceable than others?
Maybe making the virtual more closely approximate the real, being honest that you're having a crappy time of late, isn't a bad thing.
While we know our positive self-presentation contains a good deal of BS, we assume others are being completely genuine about how much they love their jobs or their cat or the burrito they had for lunch. This despite the fact that explosively positive status updates like "eating the most delicious tofu burrito of my life!!!" reek of trying too hard and so reveal something far needier than a disclosure of personal difficulty ever could.
Except I fear there's a small minority of people out there who get genuinely excited about their burrito or the first snowfall of the year, people able to celebrate the universe in a grain of sand or a refried bean, taking immense joy in small pleasures.
Jeez, they're obnoxious.