Still skeptical about the link between social media and envy

It’s taken as a truism by the media and pundits that social media creates envy, but I think this is debatable. I cannot recall anyone I follow on social media posting about early retirement with millions or landing a lucrative tech job or anything that could be considered envy-provoking.

Have these pundits actually ever used social media? It’s the opposite: a lot of sad stories (such as GoFundMe campaigns for illnesses), casual dining, and people living surprisingly mundane lives. I don’t understand how shopping for clothes at Macy’s or dining at Applebee’s is supposed to be something to be envious of. I am sure that 6-figure tech jobs are more special or exclusive than going to Walmart or Outback Steakhouse. It’s not at all like how pundits depict it. Yeah, if your social circle is composed of only Google employees and tech founders, then, yeah, you may feel envy, but that does not apply to 99.9% of people who use social media.

The so-called intellectual web, which encompasses wide range topics and users unified by a shared value system, is the opposite of social media, in that its members tend to be much more successful compared to the typical social media user. Hacker News, Reddit ‘FIRE’ subs, and /r/WallStreetBets are way more FOMO or envy-inducing than Instagram or Twitter, I have found. Most people live very mundane, unaccomplished lives, compared to people in tech or academia. Average people are not involved in FAANG. “I have $3 million at 30, what do I do?” or “genius scientist discovers a new particle” are not posts you typically see on Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter.

The social media envy narrative also hinges on the antiquated notion that there is a clear divide between the rich and the middle class in terms of material goods. Even luxury brands have become increasingly commodified and commonplace. I am maybe old enough to remember when having a Mercedes Benz or a BMW signified uncommon wealth, but you see them everywhere, even in middle class neighborhoods. Cars in general have gotten more expensive, for all brands and types. In the 90s there was a clear divide between expensive cars and everything else, but nowadays a typical new 4-wheel drive will cost as much as an entry-level Benz.

The trend nowadays is for rich people to downplay the outward appearance of having money. Elon Musk and other famous rich people have made being miserly a part of their brands, whether it’s living in a $50,000 house like Elon Musk or being frugal like Warren Bufett. We’re sorta in an era now of rich people pretending to not be rich.

The commodification of consumer luxuries means that the immaterial–intellectual accomplishments, for example, or signaling social virtue (such as ‘wokeness’ or ‘supporting the current thing’)–have become the new signifiers of human value/worth, and a way to distinguish oneself from the masses. Writing a viral Substack article or publishing an important science paper, although it may not pay much and doesn’t cost anything to do, confers a much greater exclusivity than just buying an expensive handbag. No one is impressed by Rolexes, like in the past. Same for sports cars.

A pundit/academic like Richard Hanania, who in 2021 achieved seeming overnight success on Twitter and Substack with his contrarian political takes, is an example of someone who has much more status and success than probably the majority of people whom we would consider successful by more material standards. Not only is he making good income with Substack, at least 6 figures which is not bad for being a commentator, but he has considerable social status and influence among his large political social circle, which includes other political pundits.

FAANG jobs are pretty uncommon relative to the overall size of the labor force, yet Facebook has over a billion users. Twitter has hundreds of millions. Millionaires are only around 5-7% of the adult US population. It’s not mathematically possible for everyone on those sites to be in the top 1-5% of success.

Average people are not retiring at 35 with millions of dollars ‘from FAANG’, are not writing viral Substack articles, are not producing ground-breaking mathematics, physics, or science research, are not creating git hub repositories, and do not have a large social media presence.

A report by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt went viral, about how social media usage may be responsible an uptick in anxiety among young people, since 2009. I am not a teenage girl, so maybe this does not apply to my own experience with social media. Perhaps the issue is bullying on social media as source of the anxiety, but this is not the same as envy. The irony is that a hugely popular, influential academic like Jonathan Haidt has much more social status and a much more interesting and accomplished life, overall, than the vast, vast majority of people on social media.

But still, the notion that social media is full of super-successful people or even people pretending to be successful is likely false. Rather than highlighting how successful people are, the so-called ‘highlight reel of life’, social media only highlights the mediocrity of the typical user. It’s the exact opposite of the media narrative.