“Science proves Facebook is a major downer”, reads the title of a recent article posted on Salon.con. In this article, writer Tavis Riddle explains how a new scientific study indicates a correlation between Facebook usage and a negative affect. Essentially, Travis argues, online interaction is not as satisfying as “real” social contact, leading people to feel unhappy after using social media sites like Facebook. Participants for the study were recruited from a college campus and asked to answer an initial set of questionnaires, one of which was intended to measure their overall satisfaction with life. Then the participants were sent 5 text messages per day for two weeks, and after each text they had to answer questions about their happiness, social interaction, and Facebook use, among other things. The results of the study showed that the more people used social media, the worse their mood was, and vice versa.
While I absolutely agree that there is a link between people’s use of social media and an increase in negative mood, I don’t necessarily think it is the result of a lack of connectivity. Whereas the article is making the argument that people feel less gratified by their online interactions than their physical ones, I would argue that people feel equally if not more satisfied by online social connections. In her article “Social Networks and Internet Connectivity Effects”, Caroline Haythornwaite examined the various kinds of social “ties” on the Internet and ultimately found that people’s online connections were as “real” as their offline ones. She wrote, “Overall we find that, when asked, online participants themselves report strongly held, close ties with others that are as important to them as any offline tie.” (136)
Moreover, Haythornwaite found that people’s online connections, known as “weak ties”, were very gratifying relationships that provided access to a lot of what she called “social capital”. Social capital is essentially a set of resources that are embedded in social relationships. These resources include information, job opportunities, access to new ties, emotional and financial support. These “weak ties” are actually not all that weak, she argues, because we can get a lot of resources out of them. Haythornwaite goes on to explain that people also use social media to maintain meaningful relationships with their “strong ties”, people that they are close with in the offline world. In any case, she argues, our online connections are still very real and we can actually gain a lot from maintaining them.
If Haythornwaite is correct, and people’s social media ties are in fact as strong and gratifying as their offline ones, how can we explain the correlation Travis Riddle is talking about in his article? Why are people’s affects so negatively influenced by their social media usage? One theory I have, although it is still very much in the early stages of development, is that people feel insecure about their own lives when they see other people’s activity on social media sites. However, it is important to keep in mind that almost everyone’s “online persona” is going to seem enviable because those people are actively trying to perform the best version of themselves. In other words, we tend to feel depressed when we use because it seems like everyone else’s life is great, but in reality everyone is putting on a performance of sorts because they want to present themselves in a good light.
In her book, Nancy Baym talks a lot about the concept of “disembodied identities”. She argues that digital media disrupt the notion that one body gets one self. Instead, she explains, digital media allows people to create a multiplicity of identities, which opens up new opportunities for exploration and deception. This can be seen very prominently on social media sites like Facebook, where people are able to present a version of themselves that will appear the most likeable to other people. This can be done through features such as “tagging” and status updates. For instance, most people are far more inclined to post a status about their new internship position than about the job they were just fired from, because the latter is not conducive to a “good” profile. In general, people want to construct an online identity that is attractive to others, and social media sites give them the ability to do so with quite a lot of control.
This is what Zizi Papacharissi calls a “performance of the self”. She writes, “Autobiographical performances, aimed at sustaining self-storytelling, reflexively employ performativity to traverse from private to public and back.” (1991) Essentially, people tend to use social media sites to create a carefully constructed identity that they then perform for their friends and social ties to witness. Naturally, they want to be received well, so they are going to try and present themselves in the best way possible, which is what we then see. Subsequently, because everyone in our network is performing these enhanced versions of their identities, we feel less confident in our own identities and our mood becomes increasingly depressed. Thus, the link between mood and Facebook use is not so much about social connections, but more about the individual identities we encounter.