30 March 2014
If you don’t post it on Facebook, does it happen in real life?
Do you have a Facebook tab open as you read this? If you don’t, I wouldn’t be surprised if you were to check it at least once while reading this. Opening a Facebook tab while browsing the web is a compulsion that many of its more active users suffer from, and in some cases, this can cause feelings of anxiety, envy, and depression. As we passively scroll through our Facebook newsfeed, we subconsciously compare our lives to how our friends portray theirs, and this often forces us to recognize our flaws, or at least become self-conscious to a certain degree. Even if our lives are as great as our Facebook friends’, Facebook has created an environment in which its users must actively prove this in the form of photos, check-ins, and status updates. This creates a subtle “social obligation” (Birnbaum) for users to actively maintain their profiles and portray themselves in a certain way, and this can insidiously affect their self-esteem. This is particularly true for socially conscious undergraduate students who are trying to create a positive first-impression through their Facebook profiles.
Just as there are the six types of people you encounter at the office, there are also the six types of people you encounter on Facebook. Matthew Birnbaum conducted research at Southwestern University, and identified six fronts that regularly appear on Facebook: “the partier, the socialite, the comic, the institutional citizen, and the eccentric.” Although this list may not be exhaustive and we may have other types of friends, these fronts are certainly applicable and recognizable. The most important thing to take away from Birnbaum’s research is the amount effort required to maintain these fronts, and why some students feel that this is important.
Unsurprisingly, Birnbaum found the partier and the socialite to be the most well-recognized fronts. Users convey these fronts by posting pictures of themselves with many different people as well as pictures that suggest inebriation. Birnbaum explains, “appearing in a photograph with others strongly suggested both sociability and desirability, even if a person did not possess either of these characteristics, because it was difficult for viewers to determine the actual relationship between the individuals pictured.”
Birnbaum found that the initial impressions made through Facebook were important to his participants. He found that 80% of his participants “[form] initial impressions of others within seconds of seeing a profile for the first time.” Just as you only get once chance for a first impression in real life, you only get one chance to make a first impression on Facebook. This awareness contributes to the “social obligation” (Birnbaum) students feel to maintain their fronts.
Before Facebook, reputations were primarily known through word-of-mouth. The reason that Facebook creates this looming “social obligation” is because it is a platform for a much larger audience. To create and maintain an impression or reputation requires a lot more of a conscious effort. Birnbaum writes, “no longer do friends and social acquaintances directly represent each other to a larger group of peers through casual conversations or an occasional photograph. Instead, platforms like Facebook require that students document themselves engaging in the behavior necessary to perform the fronts.” For example, the partier has to document his or her inebriation through pictures, and select the right pictures to convey his or her behavior to an expanded audience—and this is all a conscious effort. Facebook thus creates a social pressure that fosters our addiction to it by allowing users to portray their lives in a certain way.
This applies to the way we read and watch, too, according to Maria Konnikova. In her article “How Facebook Makes Us Unhappy” she writes, “we think about how we’ll share something, and whom we’ll share it with as we consume it. The mere thought of successful sharing activates our reward centers, even before we’ve shared an actual thing.” Has there ever been a time when you were reading an article, and you thought about sharing it on either your own timeline or a friends’? Did any form of social consciousness ever prevent you from sharing a link? Birnbaum might suggest that a person will only post content that supports the front they have created. Much of this may be occurring on a subconscious level, but it is important to recognize that Facebook has changed the way we interact with media.
Matthew Birnbaum discussed how Facebook creates social consciousness. Maria Konnikova took this a step further to show how this social consciousness makes us sad. She makes the important distinction between actively and passively using Facebook. She found, “people spent, on average, far more time passively scrolling through newsfeeds than they did actively engaging in content… and passive experiences, no matter what the medium, translate to feelings of disconnection and boredom.” An active use of Facebook, involves a “direct interaction with others—posting on walls, messaging, or “liking” something,” (Konnikova) and this certainly correlates with Birnbaum’s discussion how the six fronts are maintained. However, if every study suggests that people’s Facebook experiences tend to be passive rather than active (Konniva), envy is bound to set in.
A passive Facebook stalk may make us think that we know all of the details of a person’s life, but we are making presumptions based on only a sample size of information, and this causes the “disconnection” and “increasing sense of boredom” that Konnikova discusses. The site seems to be a double-edged sword: “We want to learn about other people and have others learn about us—but through that very learning process we may start to resent both others’ lives and the image of ourselves that we feel we need to continuously maintain” (Konnikova). Libby Copeland takes this a step further in her Slate Magazine article “The Anti-Social Network.” She quotes a study from Stanford University saying, “we want to be happier than other people, which is almost always difficult, since we think them happier than they are,” (Jordan qtd. in Copeland) and Copeland suggests that social networking only makes this tendency worse.
Facebook only highlights our positives and allows us to omit our flaws, which makes it even easier to perform the fronts that Birnbaum describes. Copeland even points to the site’s design that reinforces this notion: “the presence of a “Like” button, without a corresponding “Hate” button reinforces a kind of upbeat spin doctoring.” Facebook only allows us to like our companions’ accomplishments, but we only tend to see others’ accomplishments when we are passively scrolling through our newsfeeds, and this will create social anxiety and jealousy. The social comparison phenomenon that Konnikova cites is “further exacerbated by a general similarity of people’s social networks to themselves: because the point of comparison is like-minded peers, learning about the achievements of others hits even harder.” As we scroll through our newsfeeds, it is not random people we are learning about, it’s our friends, and their accomplishments can minimize our own, or magnify the fact that we have not accomplished anything. On its surface, Facebook should be acknowledged for trying to create a positive environment for its users through “liking” or “sharing” posts. These are both words with positive connotations. It is ironic that Facebook’s very design can foster these feelings of disconnection and social anxiety.
Facebook appears to be a two way street: we must actively maintain our desired front so that our friends don’t get the wrong impression. As Konnikova discusses, though, getting rid of Facebook would not resolve our issue, and the issue is our attention. How do we fill the gap of boredom that causes us to peruse Facebook in the first place? Facebook is merely an illusion—it does not fill the gap. In fact, Konnikova says that Facebook is not the problem; it’s the “symptom.” Stalking other people’s lives in our downtime is not going to make us feel any better about ourselves. Fulfilling engagement is obviously ideal, but can we even remember what we did in our downtime before we had Facebook?
Birnbaum, Matthew G. “The Fronts Students use: Facebook and the Standardization of Self Presentations.” Journal of College Student Development 54.2 (2013): 155-71. ProQuest. Web. 30 Mar. 2014.
Cagile, Daryl. “Facebook Privacy.” Cagle Cartoons. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Mar. 2014.
Copeland, Libby. “Is Facebook Making Us Sad? Stanford University Research and Sherry Turkle’s New Book Alone Together Suggest That Social Networking….” Slate Magazine. Slate Magazine, 26 Jan. 2011. Web. 30 Mar. 2014.
Konnikova, Maria. “How Facebook Makes Us Unhappy.” The New Yorker. The New Yorker. 10 Sept. 2013. Web. 30 Mar. 2014.