The more I use Facebook, the more miserable I become (and vice versa). I’m not the only one: heavy users in particular are unhappier, lonelier, meaner, and so on.
Why is that? And why, then, do people keep using it?
This comes down to the most subtle and interesting conflict at the heart of Facebook: user versus user. Let me explain, via a little story.
Facebook is really just the digital version of a facebook, a printed book with everyone’s headshot and a brief bio – where they came from, went to school and what their hobbies are – given to students at prestigious colleges and universities.
I went to such a school, and at the beginning of every year, we’d grab the facebook and devour it. Who was that pretty face? Man, look at that dork! Doesn’t that person look like a nobody, a monster, a sycophant? Everyone spent hours with their friends going over it. Why, exactly?
We were too young to know it then, but what we really doing was performing social comparisons. After doing this, we placed everyone on a pecking order based on prejudicial judgments made according to the few superficial attributes that were in the facebook – a face, a smile, a name. But those verdicts made it difficult for us to get to know our peers as people. So. Allow me to ask again: what were we really doing?
Social comparisons are me-versus-you interactions, not me-with-you or me-and-you interactions. And so, induced to perform them, we were projecting our fears, shortcomings and inadequacies.
Why else would we need to play this game of judgment in the first place if we didn’t feel insecure, afraid of anyone more accomplished, pretty, handsome, well-to-do? Why would we have needed to place everyone on a pecking order if we felt a sense of safety and belonging in the first place?
People who feel secure, can relate to one another as peers – they do not much need artificial hierarchies. Peers are precisely what we should have been – but were not capable of being.
Our school facebook made being peers difficult, if not impossible. It took the better part of a year overcoming those foolish and mistaken judgments to get to know our peers as the people they were – not the mental images we’d formed. Once we did, we learned we were wrong. The rich kid had been disowned. The dork was funny and cool. The genius couldn’t learn a damned thing. And so on.
Students always build pecking orders – but they do not always build them so fast and so mindlessly. But that is precisely how we were induced to build them – almost instantly, by a kind of black magic – by this little facebook. And the real question is: why?
The idea of a facebook induces social comparison, which is a powerful drug, because it promises superiority. Perhaps that was not its original intent – but that is its effect.
And that lets us answer the question: why do people compulsively use a thing like Facebook which makes them miserable? They use it because they’ve become addicted to social comparison. But the fix that once produced a glorious high, now only produces a sense of dull relief that barely lasts a few seconds – after which there is deflation and despair.
That is why we, little students, turned so furiously to our facebook, too. Who would belong? Who would be shunned? Who would be at the top? Who at the bottom? Would it be him, her, me, you, us? You see my point. Humans are needy things – so much so that even a paper facebook causes a frenzy of social comparison. So, what happens if that need turns into obsession?
There is a healthy level of eating, of drinking – and of social comparison, too. But what happens if suddenly you can perform a million social comparisons a day?
The problem is when that foolish, irresistible idea – social comparison – becomes something that’s always a click away, not just with a class of dozens, but with pretty much the whole world, then the human psyche teeters at the brink of an abyss.
Imagine a world making social comparisons, performing me-versus-you interactions every 30 seconds or so, forever. I exaggerate to make the point, of course – but only a little.
Compare yourself with a few, and the human psyche can bear it, perhaps even benefit from it, gain a sense of perspective. But compare yourself with a world, relentlessly, constantly – and the self begins to shatter, into either narcissistic grandiosity (“I’m better than all of them!”) or depressive catastrophe (“I’ll never be any good at all!”).
The human mind simply is not built to cope with the immense pressure of being able to compare yourself endlessly with anyone and everyone in the world (or even in its world). Just as junk food puts our taste buds into overdrive, so too Facebook puts our social needs into overdrive, making us compulsive, obsessive and self-destructive.
Instead of forming genuine relationships, we burn out our empathy, grace, gentleness, creativity and insight, performing comparisons, building pecking orders, seeking validation.
Happiness and meaning come from me-with-you and me-and-you interactions, not me-versus-you interactions. The mind is meant to grow beyond the “am I better than them?!” one-dimensional question. If a mind is addicted to this question, how will it mature? It won’t. And that is what the hurt and pain from Facebook really tell us: anguish comes from maturity that is not happening.
Our little paper facebook made us instantly and en masse build our little hierarchies. That was enough to create misery and distrust that took months to overcome. But what if we had been able to compare ourselves with, well, everyone that everyone else knew? All the time? If the comparisons were updated every minute? So we had to check and recheck them? Well, then the rat race of social comparison would never end, would it?
In this way, we are becoming prisoners of our social appetites – slaves to me-versus-you interactions, through which we perform free, futile emotional labour that profits capitalism, but can only make us unhappier.
Because everybody is trying to compare themselves with everyone else, which is to say rise to the top, no one is able to relate, and the paradoxical outcome is that no one’s need for belonging can be satisfied at all. It is a mass prisoners’ dilemma of human sociality.
What is the opportunity cost? Well, when we are trapped performing social comparison, building hierarchies, and evaluating people adversarially, we cannot really do precisely the opposite of these three things: open ourselves, appreciate others, and be intimate with them. But that is what it takes to form genuine relationships.
All that is more or less what is happening on Facebook. Why else would people end up so miserable?
After all, if they were gaining a sense of belonging, intimacy and safety, they’d be happier – not lonelier, meaner and sadder.
The quest for comparison, the pecking orders it builds, and the evaluations they demand, are always just a click away. The result is always going to be the same. It’s never meaning. Just misery.
A longer version of this piece was first publish on Eudaimonia