The Null Device
Positivity considered harmful (2): A new study suggests that social software such as Facebook may be making its users unhappy, by causing them to overestimate how contented their peers are with their lives (unlike themselves). The theory goes that, as these sites are self-curated experiences where users present generally positive images of themselves, other users don't get well-rounded views of how an online acquaintance's life is going, but have a cognitive bias to thinking that they do. Consequently, we overestimate our online acquaintances' life satisfaction, compare it to our own, and feel unhappy:
The human habit of overestimating other people's happiness is nothing new, of course. Jordan points to a quote by Montesquieu: "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." But social networking may be making this tendency worse. Jordan's research doesn't look at Facebook explicitly, but if his conclusions are correct, it follows that the site would have a special power to make us sadder and lonelier. By showcasing the most witty, joyful, bullet-pointed versions of people's lives, and inviting constant comparisons in which we tend to see ourselves as the losers, Facebook appears to exploit an Achilles' heel of human nature. And women—an especially unhappy bunch of late—may be especially vulnerable to keeping up with what they imagine is the happiness of the Joneses.Which makes sense, assuming that one buys the assumption that social software strongly discourages expressions of negativity or unhappiness. This is clearly not the case on all social sites; witness, for example, the (somewhat old) stereotype of the LiveJournal Angstpuppy, characterised by demonstrative levels of self-pity, often encoded into musical and/or sartorial preferences. Granted, that was in an earlier, weirder internet, and might get one unfriended or laughed at in today's more mainstream networks, though one does see a fair amount of kvetching on Facebook. Perhaps the best solution for the collective mental health is to encourage a culture of moderate self-pity and commiseration?