Have you ever just thought “I wonder what that old classmate is up to,” and found yourself scouring the Facebook timelines of old friends and acquaintances?
Most of us have at some point. Maybe there’s the friend who landed their dream job working in TV production – another who relocated to Bora Bora and lives in a beautiful house by the sea. Then there are the people who never seem to stop travelling and posting pictures of all their endless adventures (and almost daily smoothie bowls). Welcome to the age of social media stalking…
Haters gonna hate (don’t hate!)
Whatever you glean from people’s social media feeds, chances are they give across the idea that they’ve got their lives together – and perhaps don’t feel you have. For the perfectionist, it’s sometimes hard not to draw comparisons between yourself and online friends based on what you see on the surface. Says the ego in a moment of self-doubt: “why not me?”
Unsurprisingly, researchers at the University of Missouri found that this “surveillance use” of Facebook can cause the surveyor to experience envy – which can, in turn, lead to depression. This is not just a millennial problem – the connection between envy and depression was already established before the internet.
No-one has expressed this connection quite so well as Morrissey. In 1992, the former frontman of the Smiths, sang: “We hate it when our friends become successful.” The artist makes clear his own experience of friend envy and associated depression in his autobiography, aptly titled Autobiography, writing: “When my old friend Simon Topping appeared on the cover of the NME, I died a thousand deaths of sorrow and lay down in the woods to die.”
What is it we envy of others? Will Stor, in his book Selfie, talks about the “neoliberal self,” our modern notion of how the ideal person should be: “an extroverted, slim, beautiful, individualistic, optimistic, hard-working, socially aware yet high-self-esteeming global citizen with entrepreneurial guile and a selfie camera.” Our sense of “self” – or our identity – relies on possessing some if not all of these qualities, and we tend to be envious of those who seem to possess the qualities we can’t see in ourselves.
We all cast ourselves as the heroines of our own stories, and we expect our lives to play out like the stories we read growing up. I recall the tentative future professions of my primary school classmates, among which were: musician, astronaut, and artist. Pessimistic maybe, but I doubt the majority followed through with these childhood dreams. Success is finite in the increasingly competitive world we’re living in.
Our obsession with self-presentation, Stor reminds us, began with Ancient Greek individualism. Today, most of us still want to emulate the current societal vision of perfection. We have acquired a new tool to do so with social media. Arguably, platforms like Facebook increase the possibility of inducing envy in a friend because it is easier to present a curated version of ourselves. Developments in the technology have also enabled us to survey the lives of a larger number of friends than ever before – likely leading to more envy.
Using social media for surveillance purposes can be harmful beyond inducing envy in the user; it may seem like common sense, but research has shown that keeping tabs on an ex-romantic partner through the social media network is associated with poor emotional recovery and personal growth. For the broken-hearted, researchers emphasise the importance of reduced exposure to an ex-partner both online and offline.
Clearly, there’s an increasing importance of social media literary as we venture further into the digital age. We should still be asking: “what can this new technology do for us?” But we should also be asking: “what will it do to us?”
Social media surveillance is different to using Facebook to stay connected with friends and family and sharing your milestones, emphasises Professor Margaret Duffy, who co-led the University of Missouri study. These networks have brought us together – though used wrongly – they have the potential to cause us harm.
It’s all lies
Sometimes the surveillance habit is difficult to curb – it can stem from innocent curiosity – or simply from nostalgia and a desire to reconnect with our pasts. And yet the network is designed to keep users clicking and scrolling, and occasionally this can take us into unchartered territory. Awareness of the problems associated with social media surveillance can be liberating, though.
We have built ourselves a world where we can get closer to perfection: we can present on social networks a curated version of our better selves, minus our odd quirks, our flaws, our insecurities. We can doctor our selfies and only show the photos we like.
We can share our achievements and joyful moments without revealing our failures and moments of self-doubt – of which no doubt there are many. Research shows that women in particular – are constantly plagued by (often misguided) self-doubt. The knowledge that others too are curating their own social media feeds like this – and that they too perhaps harbour the same insecurities – might help put things into perspective.