A dear friend recently posted on my Facebook wall:
"Your Facebook brings me such joy because you are very clearly winning at life and I am dying slowly day by day. Miss you, bud."
The comment is an endearing hyperbole, but it took me by surprise for another reason. I wasn't sure what aspect of my Facebook gave the impression that my life was going so well. I had just changed my profile picture to one of me smiling at the end of a triathlon -- probably that. But it also brought into sharp relief how misleading Facebook profiles can be.
Although I portrayed outward success, I was in the midst of a turbulent few weeks. Work, money, relationships, and other situations were causing stress. Yet my Facebook let on none of this. All it let on was that I did a triathlon.
The nature of Facebook profiles is that they present a skewed reality. They show us in our best moments, at our most attractive; they speak of our biggest achievements.
And there's nothing wrong with presenting our best sides to the world. But we run the risk of reinventing "keeping up with the Joneses" in a more ostentatious soon-to-be-2015 incarnation.
When we see news feeds filled with friends getting married, friends adopting a puppy, friends getting their dream jobs, friends being surrounded by other friends on a Friday night, it's hard not to compare our lives to theirs. It's hard not to look at the way we feel on a day-to-day basis (which is less elated than one would presumably feel on their wedding day) and feel that we're doing something wrong, that we don't measure up.
This is where Facebook becomes dangerous. At its best, it's a medium to exchange ideas and keep in touch with friends and family. At its worst, it's a time-wasting, clickbait-luring, confidence-lowering stage that presents a harmful version of what life is really like. It facilitates damning comparisons. It's the social network of a fake society.
I suggest a Facebook detox. Take a minimum of one week away from Facebook. Make sure you announce it like this:
Now that you're spending less time on Facebook, pay attention to small changes that occur in your mindset and your relationships.
For one, now that you're not getting as much online social stimulation, you'll need to get it in real life. This could change the value you place on everyday human interactions. When people feel valued by you, they're going to like you more -- bam, authentic human connection.
We are, of course, social creatures. We need other people. When our social nature expresses itself virtually, we have the option of controlling exactly what we look like and what words we use. We have the ability to create a self-advertisement that sells us well.
But if our social nature expresses itself via looking someone in the eyes, observing body language and tone, and all else that comes from in-the-flesh interactions, we will be much more fulfilled. It's riskier and rawer, thus realer.
Here's a thought experiment: You're online dating. Someone messages you and you connect instantly. You have the same senses of humor and you share the most important values. His or her pictures look attractive. You talk often and get along swimmingly. He or she has all the qualities you thought you always wanted in a partner. You keep this online romance up for several months. You're beginning to feel that he or she might be the one.
Would you ever marry this person without meeting them in person?
Of course not.
It always comes back to real-world interactions.
The whole point of online dating is finding people with whom you're compatible so that you can then meet in person. It spares the trouble of taking a chance on a stranger at a coffee shop or bar and discovering that he or she is really creepy, or evil, or a huge Nicholas Cage fan.
But our social networks have taken on a reality of their own. They can constitute an entire social world because they're so well-developed. But ultimately, like online dating, they should just be a tool for strengthening relationships in the real world, not the virtual one.
The Irony of the Social Network
The most ironic and troubling feature of ubiquitous social network use is that people today often feel more alone and alienated than ever before.
You don't ever have to be vulnerable in a Facebook status, comment, or message. In other words, people never have to know the real you. Social media is safe. It's an artificial world over which users have near-total control. The trouble with real living is that it's messy, it's risky, it's unpredictable. We might make a mistake, we might be awkward. But it's real! We have to live in the real world, or else we'll feel the way a TV character would feel if it could look out of the screen and into a family's living room -- a specter of a human.
Maybe people are lonely because they feel no one else really knows and accepts them. This is not a problem created by social networks, but it is exacerbated by them.
I don't think Facebook is evil. I actually like it. But I like it when it's kept in its place. Like everything, it is harmful when used in excess. The comparisons and loneliness that result from an over-dependence on it make the social network dysfunctional. Temporarily tuning out of the Facebook world and into the world around us could turn our eyes towards the fulfillment for which we're searching.