Mimetic Theory and Social Media

It’s a natural combo … As explained by French thinker Montesquieu, oh, about 400 years before Facebook:

“If we only wanted to be happy it would be easy; but we want to be happier than other people, which is almost always difficult, since we think them happier than they are.”

That quote appears in an article in Slate this week, which argues that Facebook is “the anti-social network,” a “very public curation of one’s assets” to create a picture of happiness and perfection, which makes the rest of us sad. In even clearer mimetic terms, you seem to have something I desire (happiness, perfection, popularity), and, per Montesquieu, the simple fact that you seem to have it blocks me from getting it, because what I want is more of it than you appear to have.  And on Facebook, you appear to have it in spades.

As Alex Jordan, who led one of the studies mentioned in the Slate article, says in a Word of Mouth interview:

“Negative emotions tend to occur mostly in private settings, and negative emotions are often purposely hidden from other people, even when they’re experienced in public. … When people browse Facebook … they consume this constant stream of smiling photos, and announcements of adventures from their friends and family, and they don’t always recognise that the portion of lives that they’re receiving are sometimes pretty heavily edited and fictionalised almost, like a television drama, in a way.”

That Word of Mouth interview features a dissenting opinion to this research. In it, a college freshman, Jan Asplund, argues that this was all true at first with Facebook (when he was a sophomore in high school), but now that people have been using it for a few years,

“rather than overwhelmingly positive, most of what I see on the website is just banal. It seems like Facebook is just such an ingrained form of communication that there’s pretty much no thought that people consider unsuitable for it. That means my friends will post things encompassing the whole range of human emotions: boredo, sadness, anger, frustration, just apathy.”

(That’s the whole range??)

Asplund goes on to say that the way people sculpt their Facebook accounts is not really different from the way we do this in real life, creating our public personas. That seems accurate to me.

I see all of the above in my friends’ postings. Some people still post only the up! moments, the socialising, the funny stuff that happens to them and makes them look good (often it makes them look good by showing they can take a joke, or overcome adversity … like this line from a yoga memoir: “You know the hippie laugh. It says: I’m light of heart! Yet aware of my foibles! Also free! Very, very free!”) — and that’s the way they appear in public, in person, too; a few people post the many bad or frustrating things that happen to them, a litany of anxieties and struggles, perhaps wanting their friends to comfort, support, and reassure them; and most people seem to post a mix of things, so that their profiles are a grab-bag of human existence – I never know what I’ll find when I reach in: a lovely image,  a rehash of someone’s dream last night, lay meteorology, a prickly comment, or an essay about something happening in the news. People post when they’re lonely, sad, grateful, bored, happy, hungry, and outraged; when they’ve just broken up with someone, when they’ve just fallen in love; when they’ve completed arduous projects, when they’re stuck in traffic or in line at the grocery store. Really, if you have more than 10 or 20 friends, you can find the whole lovely, unraveling, complex fabric of life on Facebook. Sort of what you’d get it you could read everyone’s minds, feel their hearts, and listen to them converse in a real-world coffee shop.

Of course, about a third of my friends don’t post at all, or perhaps once every month. What’s that about? Because I have ample free time for online surfing, I tend to assume that these non-posters are the ultimate ‘happy, happy!” persona creators, keeping radio silence in an effort to convince us that they are supremely popular and in demand, too busy with exciting social lives off-line to spare any time at a computer. But maybe they really are! Or maybe they are truly the consummate purveyors of Facebook oneupsmanship. Or just voyeurs. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) I think they like to keep us guessing like this.

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