The Feel-Bad Effect from Not-So-Close Facebook Friends

My good friend Stan James writes about how social networks amplify the feel-bad-in-comparison effect when you see people raving about how glorious their lives are:

In my trips back to Colorado, I have been struck each time by the discord between people’s Facebook lives and what they say in private. On Facebook they have been on an amazing vacation to exotic beaches. In person they confess that the vacation was a desperate attempt to save a marriage. On Facebook they have been to gliteratee tech conferences. In person they confess they haven’t been able to sleep for months, and are on anti-anxiety medication from the stress of financial pressures on their company

What’s interesting is that this feel-bad Facebook effect seems to come from a distinct source: not-so-close Facebook friends.

In the case of true close friends, you know about all the crap that is going on in their lives. From deep interaction, you know the specific pains and doubt that lies behind the smiling profile picture…

Since TV was invented, critics have pointed out the dangers of watching the perfect people who seem to inhabit the screen. They are almost universally beautiful, live in interesting places, do intereseting work (if they work at all), are unfailingly witty, and never have to do any cleaning. They never even need to use the toilet. It cannot be pschologically healthy to compare yourself to these phantasms.

So it’s interesting that social networks have inadvertently created the same effect, but using an even more powerful source. Instead of actors in Hollywood, the characters are people that you know to be real and have actually met. The editing is done not by film school graduates, but by the people themselves.

In the end, my friend’s strategy seems to be the right one: don’t spend too much time purusing the lives of people who aren’t in your life. And spend more time learning about the uncut, unedited, off-line lives that your friends are actually living.

Very true when reading other people's public content. People tend not to share their warts in public forums. Keep that in mind if you feel shitty in comparison when reading about the apparent charmed life of a blogger you don't know well in real life.

Four years ago I wrote a somewhat similar post but from the perspective of a person who writes generally upbeat tweets and blog posts. When you know you are going to blog about an experience before you have the experience, you want it to be good so that you can write a positive post that's fun to write and read. It changes the actual experience to be more positive. After writing about the (positive) experience, it's in the historical record. When you read old posts to remember your past, you feel happy about all the positive experiences you accumulated and recorded. It's not just about whitewashing the past or selective memory (though this is part of it); there's an anticipatory effect of sharing the experience in a public forum that changes the actual experience for the better.

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I just told a friend I was writing this post. She said, "This is a litmus test I use for how close I am with a friend. If s/he doesn't tell me anything bad about their life, I assume we're not very good friends."

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8 Responses to The Feel-Bad Effect from Not-So-Close Facebook Friends

  1. Lucas Oman says:

    This is spot on.

    Interestingly, Ben, you’re a member of the glitterati. You travel the world, are a respected entrepreneur and business person, and yet I’m sure you have the same problems, doubts, insecurities, and fleeting happiness everyone else does.

    The true sources of happiness and satisfaction, like family, for instance, are not as glamorous and are rarely portrayed accurately on television, so viewers continue to strive in vain for the false happiness they see others act out.

  2. DaveJ says:

    Yesterday one of my facebook friends posted photos of the inside of his colon from a colonoscopy, polyp included. Those are the best facebook friends.

  3. Ben I thought of this post when I read the “news” that west coast people are happier:
    http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn19200-twitter-mood-maps-reveal-emotional-states-of-america.html

    …..at least we on the left coast may feel a stronger need to appear cheerful

  4. Ben Casnocha says:

    I wouldn't say I'm a member of the glitterati, but it is true I have the
    same problems everyone has. :)

  5. Dani says:

    This feel-bad-effect reminds me of annual Xmas cards as well.

  6. Franziska says:

    But what’s the point of having a personal blog when you only blog about good things? My life is good, I am happy but I do have shit things going in my life and I sometimes have to share them because I want another perspective or I just need to write about it as an outlet. I find it rather sad that there are so many people who put up a charade just so that their “friends” think they have an amazing life.

  7. Krishna says:

    It’s but obvious. But why expect people to digitally share their seedy stuff when you life outside is a lot of that…? Misery may love company but remember social networks are just that (an occasional hello, or a “like” comment) where everyone is allowed a little posturing. I would not only not run my *good-friend-gauge* that calibrates on agony metrics, or rather I’d read it as my own level of boundless nosiness or even schadenfreude that is nearly to peak out, implode and destroy me altogether.

  8. Rebecca says:

    I prefer others to post only positive part of life on facebook. Close friends will share sorrows with us.The sorrow we feel can be felt by others as well.
    Reading their colorful life and comparing my life with theirs make me rethink about my life. Wow,I wish I can visit that place as he/she does! Maybe I should do some changes ,for example, explore more about neighborhood and strange places and make more friends. After reading their blogs,I find there are a lot of opportunities and there are other ways I can live in if the current life doesn’t satisfy me.

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