Social networking: A fun cocktail party not a psychologist’s couch

Projecting a brave and blissful face to the world when your wife has left you and you’ve been retrenched is nothing new. People have been “keeping up appearances” for hundreds of years.

But in the social media age, this has taken on whole new proportions and become a daily pressure (or pleasure).

Of course, creating an online persona is one of the wonderful things about the digital space. Real-life introverts often find the freedom to express themselves vociferously via social media platforms. Also, despite the inherently public nature of such platforms, many people are naturally private and use these tools to keep up with news, trends and their peers.

However, even the most over-sharing individuals will sanitise and skew their updates to portray their lives in a more flattering way. And who can blame them when everyone else seems to be so damn happy?

As Libby Copeland wrote on, by “helping other people look happy, Facebook is making us sad.” Her article cited studies where college students assessed their friends as being much happier than them, which in turn made them feel depressed.

Just take a look at your Twitter and Facebook feeds. How many actively sad or negative comments are there? People tend to post and tweet the good stuff and leave out the fact that they drank a bottle of whisky by themselves last night because they were lonely.

It might be called “social” networking, but it’s inherently narcissistic and nobody wants to look like Nigel no-friends in public. That’s why one day someone will post how wonderful their boyfriend is and the next day their status will read, “Amy is no longer in a relationship.” Amy is not exactly going to admit that her boyfriend left her for a blonde masseuse.

Despite this, an insurance company in Canada recently cut off a woman’s sick leave payments for severe depression because there were pictures of her partying and laughing on Facebook. She says her doctor told her to have some fun, but it didn’t improve her depression in the long-term. She’s now taking the company to court.

On the other hand, many people claim that following others online makes them feel connected and cheers them up.

If you’ve recently changed cities or countries, it helps to have a virtual network of followers or friends who keep you in the loop about home, even if they are staying at a 5-star bush lodge while you fight your way through a grey London tube station.

What Copeland’s article doesn’t mention, and few will admit, is that friends and followers don’t want to hear depressing stuff.

Your tales of tanning on a beach in Thailand and meeting Bono backstage might make friends feel sad or jealous, but baring your gritty reality will make them feel something even worse – uncomfortable.

Complaining is also particularly annoying in the social media space, because big social networking platforms are not for sharing that kind of stuff. People are there to have fun and enjoy themselves. It’s like going to a cocktail party and cornering people while you grumble about how much you hate your brother-in-law.

This tweet encapsulates it all: “you moan a lot. so i un-followed you. ‘k?”

Human beings are also attracted to success and power, whether they realise it or not. We may identify with someone who’s going through a rough period, but we don’t want others to know that we do. Success breeds success and admitting weaknesses or faults is not exactly going to make a future employer feel confident about hiring you.

We have always manufactured our public lives in some form or another, carefully cultivating a patina of accomplishment or happiness. Now it’s simply easier and more frequent.

Although it might make us feel depressed sometimes, we would rather hear the grass is greener on someone else’s Facebook page than listen to them whine about a broken heart or failed business. And that’s perhaps more a reflection on us than social media.



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