The premise of Seth Stephens-Davidowitz's article is simple: we don't live lives that are quite as exciting as we portray them on social media. The problem is he turns every piece of data into evidence of this phenomenon. Here are three examples that serve, for him, as proof of our hypocrisy:
1. "In the real world, The National Enquirer, a weekly, sells nearly three times as many copies as The Atlantic, a monthly, every year. On Facebook, The Atlantic is 45 times more popular."
2. "Americans spend about six times as much of their time cleaning dishes as they do golfing. But there are roughly twice as many tweets reporting golfing as there are tweets reporting doing the dishes."
3. "Owners of luxury cars like BMWs and Mercedeses are about two and a half times as likely to announce their affiliation on Facebook as are owners of ordinary makes and models."
Try to find the flaws those stats. In the meantime, I will relate that Stephens-Davidowitz "actually spent the past five years" unearthing them. Now, let's bitch about the above and explore why they do not support his brief.
1. OK, sure, lot's of people want to seem smart and share Atlantic stories about Chinese monetary policy when, in fact, they are reading an Enquirer story about Cher suing a duck. What hypocrisy! Or... maybe there is no reason to share something found in the Enquirer? Like, never? Not even if you find it mildly entertaining? The Atlantic article is an experience and the Enquirer article is a blip. Humans don't comment on blips. It's not that we are embarrassed about reading the Enquirer--it's that there is nothing to say about it. (Plus both journals are free online so the number of paper copies purchased is less relevant; or possibly: the fleeting pleasures of the Enquirer are best enjoyed in wood-pulp form; etc.)
2. Like most people, I took a beating in the bond market during the Great Recession and had to sell my country club membership for a harmonica. So along with the rest of you three-buck Chucks I now do dishes twice a day and golf rarely. As a common man, I thus conclude my experience is a common one and that it is not therefore remarkable that "there are roughly twice as many tweets" about playing golf as there are about doing the dishes. It's remarkable, rather, that there are any tweets about doing the dishes. If I wanted to devise a way to get as many people to mute and unfollow me on Twitter as possible, I’d tweet “Ugh, dishes again!” whenever I passed a sink.
3. "Owners of luxury cars like BMWs and Mercedeses are about two and a half times as likely to announce their affiliation on Facebook" because they are two and a half times more likely to give a shit about cars than the rest of us. My gearhead friends often say things like "Did you hear about the new Mercedes E-class? It's pretty cool, they [car based words appear here.]" From what I can tell my friends are not, in fact, saying "I saw that car in a rap video and I want some of that sweet, sweet status." They are likely saying something interesting about the car. Since everyone they know glazes over once the term "E-class" is mentioned, they turn online to find fellow give-a-shitters. Sure, they may also be classic Veblenian conspicuous consumers, but Benzo-ownership is shading in a Venn Diagram and not damning proof of vanity. Subaru owners, on the other hand, are point-A-to-point-B enthusiasts who see no need to announce their affiliation to the car they own, which is... an Outback? Wait, no...a Forester… The one with the doors.
Facebook and social media are definitely dangerous—or at the least psychologically tricky. We all know the person who lives like Sylvia Plath but Instagrams like Katy Perry. Stephens-Davidowitz's problem is that he thinks we are all doing that. Comparing Facebook to Google searches, he declares the latter "more honest," and even a "digital truth serum." "On social media," he writes, "the top descriptors to complete the phrase ‘My husband is …’ are ‘the best,’ ‘my best friend,’ ‘amazing,’ ‘the greatest’ and ‘so cute.’ On Google, one of the top five ways to complete that phrase is also ‘amazing.’ So that checks out. The other four: ‘a jerk,’ ‘annoying,’ ‘gay’ and ‘mean.’"
First of all, "My husband is a gay mean jerk" does not sound like a great status update. OK, correction: it would be the best status update, but I can see why pretty much no one uses social media that way—or Google for that matter. Who the fuck Googles “My husband is amazing”? (I hope the first hit is a frightening disease description on MayoClinic.com) Second, in trying to highlight a hypocrisy, Stephens-Davidowitz is implying we all share it. In other words, for the social media/Google divide that he describes to have its maximum impact, we must assume that the same woman announcing "My husband is the best!" on the Facebook Benzo Owners page is also Googling "My husband is a jerk” at roughly the same time.
Does that happen? Sure. "But they seemed so happy" is such a common expression that I'm wearing it on a T-shirt right now. But social media is a symptom, not the cause, of such a phenomenon. Really, what Stephens-Davidowitz is probing is the gap between public life and private life. As he himself points out—but does not heed—what he finds is nothing new, other than the form.
Social media is like a vacation album. We are more likely to see photos of husbands being amazing than jerks and more likely to discover people playing golf than doing the dishes. Social media tempts us to turn life into a permanent vacation album—and that is the problem. It's not how we use it, it's that many of us use it permanently.
So in the end Stephens-Davidowitz, or his copy-editor, is right. Don’t Let Facebook Make You Miserable. Delete your account.