The Anti-Social Network
By helping other people look happy, Facebook is making us sad.
Facebook is "like being in a play. You make a character," one teenager tells MIT professor Sherry Turkle in her new book on technology, Alone Together. Turkle writes about the exhaustion felt by teenagers as they constantly tweak their Facebook profiles for maximum cool. She calls this "presentation anxiety," and suggests that the site's element of constant performance makes people feel alienated from themselves. (The book's broader theory is that technology, despite its promises of social connectivity, actually makes us lonelier by preventing true intimacy.)
Facebook oneupsmanship may have particular implications for women. As Meghan O'Rourke has noted here in Slate, women's happiness has been at an all-time low in recent years. O'Rourke and two University of Pennsylvania economists who have studied the male-female happiness gap argue that women's collective discontent may be due to too much choice and second-guessing–unforeseen fallout, they speculate, of the way our roles have evolved over the last half-century. As the economists put it, "The increased opportunity to succeed in many dimensions may have led to an increased likelihood in believing that one's life is not measuring up."
If you're already inclined to compare your own decisions to those of other women and to find yours wanting, believing that others are happier with their choices than they actually are is likely to increase your own sense of inadequacy. And women may be particularly susceptible to the Facebook illusion. For one thing, the site is inhabited by more women than men, and women users tend to be more active on the site, as Forbes has reported. According to a recent study out of the University of Texas at Austin, while men are more likely to use the site to share items related to the news or current events, women tend to use it to engage in personal communication (posting photos, sharing content "related to friends and family"). This may make it especially hard for women to avoid comparisons that make them miserable. (Last fall, for example, the Washington Post ran a piece about the difficulties of infertile women in shielding themselves from the Facebook crowings of pregnant friends.)
Jordan, who is now a postdoctoral fellow studying social psychology at Dartmouth's Tuck School of Business, suggests we might do well to consider Facebook profiles as something akin to the airbrushed photos on the covers of women's magazine. No, you will never have those thighs, because nobody has those thighs. You will never be as consistently happy as your Facebook friends, because nobody is that happy. So remember Montesquieu, and, if you're feeling particularly down, use Facebook for its most exalted purpose: finding fat exes.
Libby Copeland is a writer in New York and a regular Slate contributor. She was previously a Washington Post reporter and editor for 11 years. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.