Skepticism about the link between envy and social media

Facebook is in the news again because of controversy regarding whistleblower accusations that Facebook management suppressed information regarding the mental health effects of using Facebook. My prediction-like similar media controversy in 2018 in which I was correct that Facebook would recover and the stock would go higher–is that the whole thing will blow over. Nothing will come of it, in large part because no laws were broken, and Facebook is still a hugely profitable and successful business, and no one cares. Facebook being a shitty company in and of itself is not a crime, and controversy is hardly new to Facebook. I think at worse Facebook may face civil litigation. Outside of the media bubble and the blue-check Twitter echo chamber, The average Facebook or Instagram user or advertiser does not care about this. The job of the media is to create a false consensus.

Just as I am skeptical about the purported loneliness epidemic, I am skeptical about the common media narrative about how social networks contribute to anxiety and envy among users of said networks. Purportedly, as the narrative goes, people only share their successes on social media, not bad news or failures, and thus social networks only provide a distorted, overly-optimistic perspective of people’s lives. You are only seeing a carefully curated timeline or highlight reel of someone’s life, not everything else.

I wonder if the people who write these stories have actually used social networks, or are just making plausible-sounding generalizations and assumptions that will appeal to their overly-educated readers, who will take their word for it without doing any further research. Just because something sounds plausible or reasonable on first inspection, does not mean it’s true.

To quote Matthew Yglesias, it would seem as if the media lives in a bubble, in which people have exiting and envious lives, but outside of this bubble, maybe not:

That’s because decisions about how to frame issues are most often made by young college graduates who live in big cities and consume a lot of media created by other young college graduates who live in big cities. And while Republican staffers also inhabit a similar left-of-the-party-base bubble, the staff bias is constructive, pulling toward the median voter. For Democrats, it’s the opposite.

The reality is, as someone who uses social networks and has tested social networks, I think the opposite is more accurate: the vast majority of users and posts on social media are not exactly super-successful or anxiety or envy-inducing, nor only good news, unless posting go-fund-me links to solicit donations for medical bills is ‘good news’ or something to be envious over, in which case congrats on your appendectomy.

I followed 100 random male and 100 female accounts on Twitter and Instagram (I was unable to do this on Facebook, because following strangers is not allowed and will get your account disabled), for a total of 400 people. Anyway, there were few, if any, posts that could possibly be considered envy-provoking. No posts about super-expensive cars, exotic vacations, or lucrative promotions or job offers. One thing that stands out is how seemingly mundane people’s lives are. It’s the exact opposite of the mainstream media narrative: rather than social media highlighting how successful people are, it highlights mediocrity of the typical user.

By contrast, popular TV shows of the 90s marketed to young people, such as Friends, 90210, etc. feature actors who have exciting social lives, much more so than the typical Twitter or Instagram user, yet social media is supposed to be worse for mental health. Maybe because social media does not have the emotional distance/detachment of TV and film? Maybe it is implicitly understood by the viewer that scripted dramas not ‘real’, but with social media this barrier between what is real or fake is broken.

It’s the opposite on the so-called ‘intellectual web,’ in which posts about billion-dollar start-ups, wall street fortunes, ground-breaking genius discoveries, and highly-paid tech jobs seem to be a dime a dozen. There are posts on r/wallstreetbets, r/fire, r/financialindependence, and r/fatfire, which are communities adjacent to the intellectual-web, everyday about people with 6, 7, or even 8-figure investments, as if this is a common occurrence. If you don’t have 7-figures by your 30s in tech, what is wrong with you? I would say that is more reality-distorting than anything on Instagram or Twitter (unless you are following actual celebrities).

Meanwhile on social media, posts about clothes are very common. Or pictures dining at at mid-tier casual establishments. I am not sure how this is supposed to induce anxiety or is a distortion of reality (clothes from Walmart or Target are way more common and attainable than tech jobs or 6-figure Robinhood accounts, I assure you).

1 comment

  1. True, social media probably doesn’t induce the anxiety and envy the mainstream thinks, but it’s still a waste of time. It also doesn’t fulfill the innate need for social connection that real life people do.

    Of course, we can’t expect everyone to partition their time wisely and many probably do like keeping in touch with those from their past or who’ve moved far away.

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