A recent study published in Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking looks at the relationship between Facebook use and perceptions of other’s lives. The authors, sociologists Hui-Tzu Grace Chou and Nicholas Edge from Utah Valley University, find that those with greater involvement in Facebook feel that others have better and happier lives than they do. This is amplified for those who have many Facebook Friends with whom they do not interact outside of the online platform. These findings have been picked up by several mainstream media outlets, and unsurprisingly, are used as evidence of the deleterious impacts of an over-digitized world. An ABC news story, for example, retrieved through Yahoo! News, concludes with the following advice:
“So if you are looking for a way to cheer yourself up…you may do well to log off Facebook. Call your best friend instead.”
The comment sections are full of vindicated technological dystopianists extoling the benefits of face-to-face (read: real) over digitally mediated interaction. To keep things consistent, I will share some of the comments from the news story linked above:
“I asked one of my 1,000 Facebook friends if anyone would drive me to the airport…I ended up taking a cab!”
“Cancel facebook and see how many of those ‘friends’ call ya.”
“Between people fooling themselves into thinking they have lots of ‘friends’ and becoming socially retarded with ‘Smart’ phone I see bad things for our future.”
“Get off Facebook and go out and make real ‘live’ friends. It’s much more fun I guarantee you.”
Admittedly, a study such as this is powerful evidence for technological naysayers. A negative relationship between Facebook usage and mental well-being indeed offers a dismal picture of a constantly connected populous. I counter this, however, by arguing that the problem rests not in the platform itself, but in the potentially unhealthy ways that some people engage with it—just as there are unhealthy ways to engage in all forms of sociality, including face-to-face interaction. In order to make this argument, I need first to clarify the social psychological process represented by the findings in this study.
A well established tenet of sociology is that we come to see ourselves as others see us. This was most famously articulated By Charles H. Cooley with his concept of the looking glass self. One would assume, based on this tenet, that if we all see each other as leading a happy, successful and fulfilling lives, that we would in turn come to see ourselves in this same light. The findings from the study obviously do not support this. Rather than basking in a shared aura of positive energy and self-esteem boosting reflections, we engage in evaluative practices that are somehow blocked from the targets of evaluation (i.e. our Facebook Friends). The sociological problem then becomes locating this blockage. Why does Cooley’s tenet fail to apply? Why do other’s positive evaluations fail to translate into positive self-views?
This is the case, I argue, because the looking glass self refers to an interactive relationship, and the relationships discussed here, though taking place through a potentially interactive medium, are not necessarily engaged in interactive ways. I want to draw particular attention to the finding that feelings of relative inadequacy are amplified for those with large numbers of Facebook Friends who they do not personally know. These relationships are less about interactivity and more about surveillance. They are less about mutual growth, depth, and closeness, and more about looking, judging, and comparative self-evaluation. They are about, as one particularly clever commenter from the article above points out “keeping up with the Kardashians.” These are not augmented relationships, but wholly digital ones, where the seer and seen, though officially connected, fail to interconnect. The social psychological process at work here then is not the looking glass self, but comparison processes.
According to comparison theory, classically articulated by Leon Festinger in 1954, we utilize others as a measuring stick against which we learn about ourselves. In constructing this measuring stick, we use all available information. On Facebook, “all available information” is highly selective, and consists primarily of flattering pictures, LOLs, and status updates about happy relationships, happy hour, and happily accepted promotions. Even public self-denigration is often met with an onslaught of positive comments, revealing the self-denigrator not only to be overly modest, but surrounded by close friends who think highly of hir. If we rely on Facebook as primarily a surveillance device, unable to incorporate any information not put forth on the Facebook page, then the measuring stick against which we judge ourselves will represent an unattainably fulfilling existence—making us feel bad.
This is an unhealthy way to use Facebook. And yes, the architecture of Facebook facilitates this kind of use. This does not mean, however, that Facebook is inherently bad for mental health. The architecture of Facebook also affords highly interactive, engaging, and mutually stimulating relations. When used primarily as a platform of interaction (rather than surveillance) Facebook augments existing and potential relationships. It allows us to keep connected with people who care about us, no matter how geographically far away. Facebook allows us to share good news and receive positive feedback. Facebook allows us to share bad news and receive support. These interactive activities promote sociality, mutual support, and an outlet for venting frustrations.
The point is that all forms of interaction can be practiced in a variety of ways—some healthy and some unhealthy. This includes face-to-face interaction. Just as poring over the carefully crafted photo albums and strategically curated wall posts of Facebook-only-Friends can lead to feelings of relative inadequacy, insecurity, and self-consciousness, so too can sitting in a coffee shop for hours discussing who has the nicest house, who has gotten fat since high school, and who does (and does not) deserve professional respect.
So if you want to feel better, stop stalkernetting and write on your best friend’s wall. While you’re at it, purge those Friends who are merely targets of surveillance, they are messing with your self-evaluative measuring stick.