You know when you go on Facebook and all your friends are going to a million parties every second with people who are more awesome than you? Scientists say that's an illusion — but it can still make you sad.
Specifically, Stanford researchers found that undergraduates underestimated how often their friends got lonely or had fights, and overestimated how much they partied and had fun. The researchers also found that underestimating the crappiness of other people's lives was linked to feeling crappy oneself — although its unclear whether students were sad because they thought their friends had better lives than they did, or the other way around. Slate's Libby Copeland applies these results to social networking: "[lead study author Alex] Jordan's research doesn't look at Facebook explicitly, but if his conclusions are correct, it follows that the site would have a special power to make us sadder and lonelier. By showcasing the most witty, joyful, bullet-pointed versions of people's lives, and inviting constant comparisons in which we tend to see ourselves as the losers, Facebook appears to exploit an Achilles' heel of human nature."
Copeland's piece includes some of the kind of talk about Facebook that just makes me feel old — teenagers creating "a character" in their profiles and experiencing "presentation anxiety" about how said character comes across. This kind of Facebook use frankly feels like science fiction to me, and I sometimes wonder if teens exaggerate their investment in social media just to mess with impressionable adults (kind of the way I suspect this Amazon tribe of messing with anthropologists). However, it's certainly accurate that the nature of Facebook encourages the documentation of fun over the recording of malaise, boredom, or misery.
The real disconnect, though, is between the fun depicted in Facebook photos and (some) status updates and the crushing e-nnui we often experience when looking at a lot of said photos and updates. Our posts on Facebook may depict the high points of our lives, but we're most likely to troll through others' posts during our low points — when we're avoiding a looming deadline, killing a dull evening at home, or stalking an ex after a recent breakup. It's not just that Facebook presents other people at maximum awesomeness (though it often does) — it's that we're most likely to view their lives from a vantage point that's decidedly un-awesome, and it's no wonder that a virtual parade of others' fun makes us feel even worse. I'm not one of those Luddites who thinks Facebook rots your brain or whatever, but I do think that when you're feeling down you should turn off your computer and pick up a book. Because there's nothing like literature for reminding you that other people are secretly miserable.
The Anti-Social Network [Slate]
Image via Vitaly Titov & Maria Sidelnikova/Shutterstock.com