“Comparison is a thief of joy.” So said Teddy Roosevelt. The man was always good for a quick, incisive quote. In this case he could have been referring to social media. The purpose of Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr and other platforms have become much different from what was originally promised.
When social media appeared it was expected to deliver two different things. The first was to create democratic vehicles for the sharing of original, entertaining and valuable content. Sharing is definitely going on but most agree that the content is largely vacuous and self-serving and the few good bits are spread to the point of saturation and irritation.
The second promise was that social media would prompt earnest and real dialogue. That it would be a true exchange. That too has fallen short. It has become a broadcast tool where simplistic buttons are now the avatars for real conversation. A happy or sad icon is not a discussion or an accurate reflection of what we really feel and think. We are ‘clicking’ our way out of the work of communications and relationships.
Where social media has ended up should come as no surprise. After all, it leverages human behaviors that have existed for centuries. Yet, it makes worse our worse behaviors. Pride, envy, wrath, gluttony, lust, sloth and greed show up when we post, share, comment and click. They are certainly in evidence when we compare our life to another.
The fact is, we all wear masks. No one can be their truest self all the time or even in short doses. This begins every morning when we look in the mirror. Our image gets a little distorted and by the time we face the public, a mask or two has been affixed in place. We do the same thing on social media. Our profiles and posts are a deliberate and calculated curation of an idealized image we wish others to see and believe (and what we wish we could actually be).
If our social media lives were real then all we would experience is a constant parade of fabulous looking meals, infinite stretches of sandy beach and endless ski runs, ever burning candles on plump cakes, always smiling and satisfied loved ones, and feet perpetually dangling off docks in sunny weather. Perhaps between these events there would be an inspirational quote, quips about the weather, and pet videos. That would be the entirety of life.
To be fair, social media is not new. The last couple of generations catalogued similar lives using photo albums and scrapbooks. Everything captured in these books was with good intent but did not reflect reality. We all smiled for the camera and now we share only our best smiles online. Social media is akin to the vacation slideshows our parents inflicted upon dinner guests.
Social media is fascinating. On the one hand, it builds social connectivity but it also isolates and creates the situation of being “alone together”. It grows self-esteem but can also fuel narcissistic traits. It fortifies friendships but can end them based on one post or tweet or the lack of response to a post or tweet.
Our personal online slanted representations have a profound effect on our wellbeing according to Keith Campbell, who heads the department of psychology at the University of Georgia and co-author of the book The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement. In short, the desire to promote a ‘healthier and happier you’ online actually makes you feel progressively worse the farther it strays from reality.
This is the crux of the matter. Social media is not a content medium or sharing medium. Social media is a validation and comparative medium. Individually we use it to seek feedback. We all want to feel worth, love, and belonging. The ‘likes’, comments and shares we receive appear to validate our activities, our choices, and our life. We will always search for endorsement and corroboration to substantiate and justify what we do. Right now we are seeking it the wrong way and in the wrong place.
As a group we using social media as a comparative medium and it is not really working for us. The University of Salford in England did a study on social media’s effects on self-esteem and anxiety. It reported that 50% of the participants said their “use of social networks like Facebook and Twitter highlight reel makes their lives worse”. Participants believe their self-esteem suffers when they compare accomplishments to those of their online friends.
Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman likens this to self-inflicted degradation, “We live in a world of communication — everyone gets information about everyone else. There is universal comparison and you don’t just compare
yourself with the people next door, you compare yourself to people all over the world and with what is being presented as the decent, proper and dignified life. It’s the crime of humiliation.”
Social media also heightens our natural insecurities and frays our defenses. Steve Furtick brilliantly observed, “The reason we struggle with insecurity is because we compare our behind-the-scenes with everyone else’s highlight reel.” Everyone’s social media self is nothing but a highlight reel.
Security and self-esteem stem from having strong relationships and achieving goals. There are no shortcuts. It is the result of a good life, well lived. Not an Instagram or Facebook life selectively shared and enhanced.
While thinking and writing about this I remember a phrase my mother often used. She would say, “Comparison is a poor teacher.” I get it now. If you compare yourself to others you have already lost your sense of self. And when that happens, on go the masks and up go the posts with photos of your last meal and your feet dangling off a dock.
This post was originally written in 2016 but recently updated.