October 5, 2022

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Does social media make us unhappy?

Does social media make us unhappy?

I typically stay away from psychology and sociology on this blog, with the notable exception of one post discussing how the Dunbar Corollary could potentially transfer to social media tools as we collect friends in excess of our Dunbar-limit of 150.  However, a recent spate of articles and the publication of a new book touch on how technology and social media are redefining society and what it means to interact with one another had me asking enough questions that I felt it was worth a post.

Not long ago, the ever-observant Shonali Burke noted in a quick status update the presence of a Facebook type I’d apparently missed in my post The 11 Types of Facebook Users. Shonali noted a persistent perkiness threaded through status updates; I’ll call this type The Pollyanna. After some joking around in the thread, during which I suggested that we were witnessing the “Christmas-card-ization” of Facebook status updates, another friend of hers linked to a piece on Salon.com titled “The Anti-Social Network.” The basic gist of the piece is that by reviewing ever-positive content, we are essentially making ourselves unhappy due to the normal human reaction to compare ourselves with others. It also notes that if we are already down and log on to Facebook, it can exacerbate feelings of loneliness reinforcing that we are alone in our misery and suffering–not a cheery thought. Of particular note to me was this passage:

[…] Facebook is, after all, characterized by the very public curation of one’s assets in the form of friends, photos, biographical data, accomplishments, pithy observations, even the books we say we like. Look, we have baked beautiful cookies. We are playing with a new puppy. We are smiling in pictures (or, if we are moody, we are artfully moody.) Blandness will not do, and with some exceptions, sad stuff doesn’t make the cut, either. The site’s very design—the presence of a “Like” button, without a corresponding “Hate” button—reinforces a kind of upbeat spin doctoring. […]

This piece gave me pause for several reasons. First, with a few notable exceptions, the vast majority of my status updates are positive. Part of this is due to my personality; I have a fairly optimistic outlook on life and my status updates reflect that. The other part is that I’ve always assumed that my friends don’t want to hear me whining. There were a few downer posts, particularly when my dog was nearing his end–but even those I attempted to post sparingly. It never occurred to me that by gearing my posts towards the positive I could be making someone else feel unhappy. Do we really need to see others suffering and in pain to realize that we aren’t alone? This seems bizarre to me, but perhaps it is because I never viewed Facebook as a repository for every thought and feeling I have–I have always been very selective about what I post. When these tools (Twitter and Facebook mainly, but to some degree also blogs) started to become mainstream, I speculated that ordinary citizens now had the potential to receive the unyielding scrutiny previously afforded only to politicians and celebrities. Would they be able to handle it? I wondered.

Which leads us to the case of Nir Rosen. This is a textbook case of all of the warnings we’ve ever heard about Twitter–and yet, time and again, these flare-ups happen. Is it Twitter’s immediacy that contribute to situations like this? Or is it that when we are used to using to Twitter, and despite our large circles of followers/following we only interact with a handful, leading us to the false presumption that only a few ever listen? Rosen’s most interesting and yet troubling point is made late in the piece. He writes:

“I’m baffled by the fact that 1,000 new people started to follow me on Twitter. What do they expect to read? It’s a bizarre, voyeuristic Internet culture and everybody in the mob is looking to get in on the next fight first, to be at the center of the thing that’s happening, even if there’s nothing really there. Which might explain the thousands of stupid e-mails and tweets I have received from the mob wanting to get a punch in. But given that I have been condemned for seeming to condone sexual assault, it’s surprising how many hundreds (no exaggeration) of people have e-mailed me wishing that I or people close to me will be sexually assaulted.”

A thousand new followers, joining in for…what? In the best possible light, I suppose just to see what was going on. Many more were participating in the digital equivalent of attending the local public hanging, I think. And it’s gross. Chip Griffin wrote about this in his “Amateur Coarseness Threatens the Future of Social Media” post back in 2008. And, here we are in 2011–not only has there been no improvement, one could make the case things have gotten worse.

So there is unhappiness, and coarseness–what else? Enter distraction and overload, two themes of Sherry Turkel’s new book Alone Together, according to a review in the New York Times. I have yet to read Turkel’s book, but I do intend to soon. The impolite behavior demonstrated by an over-fixation on digital devices has bothered me for some time–and Turkel’s book exploring how technology is alienating us even as we are more connected than ever before sounds interesting to me.

Lest this be cast aside as standard social media navel-gazing, this has ramifications for communications, of course. For if social media makes us feel this bad about ourselves, and causes some to behave this poorly, how long will people stick with it? Are Unhappiness, Coarseness, Distraction, and Overload the Four Horsemen of the social media apocalypse?

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About The Author

Jennifer Zingsheim Phillips is the Director of Marketing Communications for CARMA. She is also the founder of 4L Strategies, and has worked in communications and public affairs for more than 20 years. Her background includes work in politics, government, lobbying, public affairs PR, content creation, and digital and social communications and media analysis.

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  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Does social media make us unhappy? « Media Bullseye – A New Media and Communications Magazine -- Topsy.com

  2. info@shonaliburke.com'
    Shonali Burke

    I'm SO glad you wrote this, Jen, because now I have a great post from you to link to when I write my overdue post re: the thread you reference.

    The whole thing is fascinating. I wonder though… can we really blame social media when we feel bad about ourselves? Thinking out aloud here… Social's the channel. If we're already down/depressed/feel inferior or insufficient in some way, doesn't that have more to do with our own make-up, possibly illness, and how we handle life, than social making it so? In other words, a bad carpenter blaming the tools, and so on.

    When I posited my original question, I could never have imagined the response it would get, both on Facebook as well as Twitter… so clearly I'm not the only one irritated by pseudo-Pollyannas (on the other hand, maybe I'm just listening to my own echo chamber!). But their "happiness" doesn't get me down, simply because I can usually tell the difference between a genuine expression of glee – and heaven knows I've done enough of those myself – as opposed to the type of update that would have one believe the person is a god(dess), awake 24/7, leaping tall buildings in a single bound as a matter of course every day, etc. etc. To me, that smacks of bloviating, and it's only when I see that kind of update consistently on someone's stream that I separate them out – at least, in my head – from the genuinely "good" updates that I see.

    So you just go on being happy on Facebook. I like it. Because, you know, my opinion is the ONLY one that matters. :p

    1. jared@fishnetmedia.com'

      Thanks for commenting! RE: "can we really blame social media when we feel bad about ourselves?"–I've thought about this, and I guess where I come down is that blame doesn't really matter as much as causality. Can we blame social media? Should we? No.

      But that doesn't matter if when we log on we end up feeling worse. The "Anti-social network" piece has a link to a Washington Post piece about how Facebook affected a group of women struggling with infertility. This article made me realize that yes, the actual tool is what is making these women sad. They were logging on and seeing friends post about pregnancies, babies, etc. Remove Facebook from this scenario, and how often would these women be confronted with this information, and more importantly–*how* would they come across it? Rather than an impersonal one-to-many delivery, it would be one-to-one, generally. I don't think we can ignore the fact that Facebook and other social tools allow us to broadcast information without receiving information back from the recipient, making it a very different way to communicate.

      There's another aspect I didn't get into in this post because, well, it was getting long, and that's the role gender plays in all of this. Women are more prone to depression, more likely to compare themselves to one another, and, more likely to use Facebook (not causal, all three are separate observations). Women also make most of the purchasing decisions in a household. I'm not sure what it means in the long run, but if unhappy women (like the infertility group) drop out of Facebook because they recognize the impact it is having on their happiness, what does this mean for marketers?

      I don't have any answers, just a lot of questions…!

      And, you know I love having your opinion shared–it matters to me!

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