08/22/2012 04:28 pm ET Updated Oct 22, 2012

I Facebook, Therefore I Am

A couple of years ago, I wrote a post in defense of Facebook, in spite of its obvious limitations. It was basically benevolent, I argued. Its heart was in the right place. It provided an opportunity to reach out to people in your life whom you wished well, even if you had no intention of having any kind of real relationship with them. It was friendliness made manifest.

In the years since then, though, Facebook has taken on less and less the character of a social networking site and more and more that of a massive image-maintenance machine. Everyone posts photos of their beautiful vacations, their beautiful babies, their beautiful spouses, their beautiful homes. In other words, their beautiful lives. I'm not saying people don't have beautiful lives, but on Facebook, everyone's life is so damn perfect. And the number of likes or comments they get on photos and status updates is a gauge of how well they have convinced the world that their life is perfect. Which, judging by the plentiful likes and comments, is pretty damn well.

It's strange, because we all know that in real life, people's lives aren't perfect. Jobs are boring. Relationships are messy. Raising children is complicated and exhausting. Travel is riddled with challenges. And this doesn't even address the various psychological and emotional struggles we all face. (Whoever reported a bout of nihilistic despair in their status update? A panic attack?) But we can't resist the lure of other people's self-created versions of themselves, any more than we can resist the lure to similarly self-create and stay in the game. It's the Keeping-up-with-the-Joneses of this decade.

Hence the phenomenon known as "Facebook depression," a term coined by psychologists in 2011, where browsing other people's Facebook profiles brings on a feeling of dejection about the pathetic state of one's own life. The funny part, though, is that we're all doing it to each other. The same people who are making you feel like a loser because you don't have children are feeling like losers looking at your profile because you go on such exotic trips.

What exactly are we all doing it for? Is it some kind of frantic competition to out-perfect each other, or are we filling some kind of existential void with the prettiest stuff generated by our own lives? Are we like the characters in Don DeLillo's novel White Noise, who shop compulsively to assure themselves that they are alive? If they can purchase something, then they must exist. Perhaps Facebook gives us this same sense that we exist, in combination with the freedom to define that existence however we choose. We can literally reinvent the events of our lives almost as they occur. If we went on an amazing vacation to Hawaii, then we must exist. And if everyone likes our vacation photos, then our existence has been doubly validated.

One way to break the vicious cycle would be to all suddenly get brutally honest on Facebook. (Vanessa Grigoriadis wrote a Facebook expose in New York magazine a few years ago, where she described posting a dark status update and quickly realizing it was a misstep. It was ignored.) Or we could simultaneously, by general agreement, all delete our Facebook profiles and go back to communicating by old-fashioned methods, where we're not so inclined to aggressively promote the idea of our own happiness. (I'll count email as old-fashioned in this context.) But we would have to do it collectively, like a movement. More likely, we will all stay on Facebook as it continues to evolve and take on other social/existential functions in the years to come. And I, too, will probably stay on Facebook in spite of my growing aversion, doing my best to keep a low profile (so to speak) and resisting the urge to browse when I'm feeling blue. Part of me, though, will be quietly waiting for the revolution.