A few months ago, I realised that certain posts that showed up in my timeline on Facebook didn’t make me feel very good.
- another of my friends was writing a book
- somebody else was hanging out with exciting “famous” people
- yet another was pregnant
- somebody had a new exciting professional gig
I felt happy for all these people, of course. Amongst my peers, I’ve been reasonably conservative about connecting with people on Facebook, and bar a few exceptions (that’s life), I’ve only friended people I like. So, when people I like are happy, or have a new exciting job, or are about to be parents, or lead exciting lives, I’m happy for them.
But during times when I’m not feeling too good about myself or my situation, or going through a tough spot, or suffering a bout of self-doubt, learning about these good things in my friends’ lives actually brings me down.
The explanation is quite simple: social comparison. We tend to do that. Some more than others. We compare ourselves to others. It’s a background process, really, and I personally have a lot of trouble turning it off or at least down.
I’m somebody who is on the whole positive/optimistic about the internet, the digital world, social media. I think it is overall a good thing. For us as a society, and for us as people. So I’ve always looked at articles like this one with a bit of skepticism.
What I see described in some of these “facebook envy articles” doesn’t really fit with what I observe on Facebook. They sometimes paint a picture where people are actively putting their best foot forward and showing off the highlights of their lives, and others spend their time actively stalking their friends lives, seething with envy. I’m exaggerating a bit, but you get the idea.
When I noticed that learning good news about my friends’ lives was bringing me down, it took me a while to realise I was experiencing some form of Facebook envy — because the mechanisms I could see didn’t fit with what I had been (half-heartedly) reading about.
I didn’t see my friends as bragging. They were just sharing stuff about their lives. And of course, people are more likely to share “Yay got the book deal!” than “ate a cheese sandwich for lunch”. Or maybe they also share the cheese sandwich, but more people are going to like the book deal and comment on it. And so Facebook’s algorithm is going to push it to the top and make it appear in my newsfeed, rather than the cheese sandwich.
I also didn’t see myself as actively trying to compare myself with others. This was just part of the “keeping passively in touch” role that Facebook plays for me. Catching up asynchronously, and probably also asymmetrically. But behind the scenes, social comparison was working overtime.
I learned to take time out. Leave Facebook for a while and go do something else. It didn’t spiral out of control. Yay me.
As I was becoming aware of what my friends’ posts was sometimes doing to me, I started having second thoughts about some of the things I was posting. You see, I have a chalet in the mountains, in a really picturesque area in the Alps. I go there quite often during winter, as I take a season ski pass. And I share photos.
What’s going on in my mind is not really “see how lucky I am”, but more “I’m aware how lucky I am and I want you to get to experience some of this too”. My intention is generous. It is to share so that others can benefit too.
But I’ve realised lately that this may not be the impact my posts have on others. My sometimes seemingly endless chalet and mountain photos might be for others what book deals and professional success in my newsfeed are to me.
People with families, or two weeks of holiday per year, or who live in parts of the world that make travel more difficult or simply don’t have the means to move from where they are might feel (rightly) envious of some aspects of my life. I travel quite a bit. Aside from the chalet, I have a boat on the lake, go to India regularly. My freelance life has drawbacks, but one of the advantages is have is that I have quite a bit of freedom with my time and where I am, as some parts of my work are location-independant. And I live in Switzerland, for heaven’s sake.
Of course, I try to share the good things about my life, because I’m aware I’m privileged, and I don’t want to spend my time whining or complaining. I do complain, but about the small things, usually. Like people saying “blog” to mean “blog post”. The big things that bring me down are also much more difficult to talk about, and so I don’t often mention them. But I’m generally happy with my life and that is what I try to express.
I don’t experience what I do on Facebook as “self-promotion”. Every now and again I “do self-promotion”. I write a post that really has to do with my professional area of expertise, or I share information about something I’m working on. But that’s far from the majority of my postings. Most of the time, it’s really just “oh, look at this, I want you to enjoy it too!”
Now, however, I’m more and more aware of the part I may be playing in fuelling other people’s social comparison blues. Am I going to post yet another photo of how beautiful the mountains are from the chalet balcony? Or showing that I’m sailing on the lake? Or that I’m hanging out with the cats again?
I don’t know if I’m going through a realisation that will change what I post about or not. But it’s definitely changing how I think and feel, to some extent.
What about you? Do you get “bad feelings” seeing what your friends are upto? And do you think about what “bad feelings” you may unwittingly be eliciting amongst your friends through your postings?
And what is the solution to this?