A few days ago I was writing about the idea of “context collapse” on social media. “Context collapse” is a situation where social relations are carried out without the normal boundaries created by knowing who you are addressing and in what situation. So on Facebook, your one message may be read by your boss, your boyfriend, your mom, a guy you met in junior high and a potential employer checking you out.
“We have a lot of social norms to invent these days,” reports The Message. “Learning to handle context collapse is the social project of the internet the way learning to live with strangers was the social project of 20th century urbanization.”
But is “context collapse” the right way to think about social media? Is there no context or is it more accurate to say social media creates its own context. I would argue that the social norms have, in fact, largely been created at this point– and created out of real world social situations with which we were already familiar.
I came across a 2011 article by Jennifer Garam on Psychology Today. Garam writes about presenting herself on social media when she is struggling with depression.
First of all, when I’m depressed, I don’t want my depression seeping out all over Facebook and Twitter. I don’t want to tweet, “Despairing and feeling like a failure,” and I don’t think that, “I’m consumed with existential dread” makes for a good status update. And faking cheerfulness feels even more painful. A few years ago, I went through a severe depression and was trying in many ways, one of which was via Twitter, to force myself into happiness. Not just regular happiness, but the hyper, amped-up glee that everyone displays on social media. And from this deep depression I tweeted things like, “It’s Monday, a brand new week full of new possibilities!” when the last thing I wanted to do was face another week. I didn’t feel like anything was possible and what I really wanted to do was crawl under my covers and never come out. And the disparity between my real life sadness and my social media cheerfulness made the depression hurt even more. So it’s best, when I’m overcome with depression or anxiety, to just lay off social media altogether.
Although no one has probably ever put it in so many words, you probably somehow understood– as Garam did– that the expectation on social media is that you will present a positive face. This is because we interpret it as a public gathering. If you were to attend a dinner party with a bunch of acquaintances, you would probably not open the conversation by talking about your feelings of worthlessness at being passed up for a promotion after working towards it all year. It would not be the right setting. Likewise, Facebook is not considered to be the right setting for that kind of revelation. The mood is supposed to be light and friendly.
You probably have a friend or two who use social media to vent about their everyday stresses and frustrations. There is also a good chance that you consider this to be unwelcome overshare, especially if you don’t know the person well. This is similar to how you would feel about someone who spent the whole evening at a party grousing about things.
What happens when you do grouse on Facebook? For the most part, you do not get the sympathy you seek. Studies have shown that positive messages get more engagement on the social media site. (Maybe part of this is that there is no “dislike” or “empathy” button and it is easy to passively engage by clicking “like”?)
When you do get a response to a message about a negative feeling or experience it is often not emotionally satisfying because it doesn’t always come from the people in your network that you expect. The response can feel a bit tone deaf and can make you feel worse not better. This happens when an acquaintance who does not know you well enough to understand your subtext answers. He may not know you enough to realize that what you’re posting is upsetting or painful to you at all or he may misjudge what it means to you, what is upsetting about it, and what would be the appropriate thing to say to make you feel better.
An example from my life came last week when the local library turned down a gift of the 16 books I have written. I posted about the episode on Facebook, and the first few responses did make me feel supported. Then one person in my circle, who had worked as a librarian, posted that “if they had wanted the books they would have kept them.” This was like pouring salt on the wound, because what was painful to me about the experience was not really that the library didn’t want the books, it was the sense that my life’s work had just been declared worthless. At first I wrote a few responses trying to explain this, but then I decided to just delete the post and go back to positive self-presentation.
I discovered recently, however, that there is at least one kind of negative share that does tend to yield satisfying emotional results. The same week that I had my run in with the library (it wasn’t a great week for my self-esteem) I discovered that I had been unfriended by someone who had once meant a lot to me. I only discovered this because I had installed an add-on called Facebook purity to personalize the FB experience. I had turned off a setting that alerts you when friends dump you, because I didn’t want to know. Somehow it decided to turn itself on just in time to inform me of this friend’s actions. (I have, in the past, uncovered other unfriendings when, for example, someone who I thought was my friend commented on a mutual friend’s feed and was described by Facebook not as my friend, but as a friend of my friend.)
Anyway, even though I hadn’t really been connected to this former friend in a while, having his lack of desire to stay connected made clear like that did sting a bit, and I started looking up articles about the psychology of unfriending. On Salon I found this:
As Science Daily explains, a quartet of factors determine how unhappy an Unfriended friend is likely to be at her demotion. If you two once shared a close bond, she’ll probably be upset (and annoyed, because you are setting all kinds of records in passive aggression, Unfriender). If she monitors her Facebook friend list closely, that also enhances the likelihood she’ll suffer. On the other hand, talking about any relationship tensions before cutting the cord has a mitigating effect, and if the Unfriended seeks comfort from her remaining friends afterward—you weren’t the last one, right?—the study suggests she’ll feel better.
After reading that I posted about being friend-dumped on Facebook, a large number of my other friends jumped in to say they liked me just fine, and I did feel quite a bit better. The difference in that experience and the library experience is that in the case of unfriending having other people choose to talk to you at all speaks directly to the underlying dread that you are unlikeable.
There are other exceptions to the rule of positivity. On Facebook, people often post about serious life issues such as illnesses or death in the family. These are the types of life events that we all agree are important to acknowledge.
At my church we have a moment in the service called “joys and sorrows.” Your place of worship probably has something similar even if it is not called by the same name. It is when the members of the community, either themselves or through notices given to the minister, share life events with the congregation and ask for their thoughts and/or prayers.
The types of “sorrows” that are shared are the types that are freely shared on Facebook. They are sorrows to be shared with an interested public because they are a major part of the person’s life. You expect someone to share that her son is in the hospital but not “I have been having an existential crisis lately because I don’t feel appreciated” or “I have been under so much stress because my kids won’t do their chores.”
Those thoughts you save for a few people with whom you have already established a certain kind of relationship. You might express these “sorrows” with a friend in the congregation during coffee hour, but not to the group as a whole.
In making this comparison, I am not saying that Facebook has become a replacement for church. What I am saying is that we already have a rule about the types of negative events to share with a community made up of both close friends and near strangers, of older people and younger, family members and perhaps people you work with. And so this notion of how to communicate in a mixed space has existed for some time and we’ve applied it to this digital “space.”
If Facebook has a similar code to church for negative news, it has a very broad acceptance of all types of positive news. In that it mimics idle chit chat. In every day conversation it is actually not all that unheard of to talk about what you had for lunch. What makes those kinds of posts so ripe for derision is that until now those were not the kinds of things anyone saw fit to immortalize in print.
Going back to an article I wrote recently about the question of whether young people are really more narcissistic than other generations, again, I don’t really think so. It seems narcissistic when you think of it as publishing or broadcasting. How self-focused do you have to be to broadcast what TV shows you like and what your cat just did and what you ate for breakfast to the public at large? If you think of social media as a conversation between friends going on in a public place, the equivalent of friends chatting in a restaurant where they can be overheard, I think you would find that if you compared the conversations going on in both places they would be equally as consumed by mundane, self-centered information. “Can you believe I got this sweater on sale for only $3?”
As for young people being more likely to answer polls by saying they are above average: You could assume this means they have a delusionally high regard for themselves or you could assume that having grown up with social media, which has an unwritten rule about positivity, they have learned that positive talk is more socially appropriate than revealing worry or self-doubt.
A study by Pew Research, reported in The Independent, suggests this is true. The focus of the article was political expression online.
Although Facebook and Twitter might be the perfect medium for spreading single-soundbite messages (think #icebucketchallenge) a new report from the Pew Research Center shows that social media actually stifles discussion on important issues.
Perhaps more alarmingly, the researchers found that social media use also had a knock-on effect on real-life conversations: frequent Facebook and Twitter users were less likely to share their opinions even in face-to-face discussions when they felt their online friends hadn’t agreed with their view point.
…The researchers found far from encouraging debate, social media nurtured a phenomenon known as the ‘spiral of silence’ – a term coined in the mid-70s to describe how individuals supress their own views if they believe they differ from those of family, friends and work colleagues.
If this applies to hot button political issues, it surely applies to other issues as well, for example, what type of feelings are socially appropriate to express. The over-sharing, relentlessly positive generation my have more in common with the stiff-upper lip generation of the early 20th Century than we recognize.