In less than a decade, Facebook has become the social axis around which many of our lives revolve. As college students during the mid-2000s, my classmates and I were early adopters of the social media hub, using Facebook primarily as an extension of our social world. I doubt many of us realized that in just a few years, the website would expand beyond the walls of higher education to reach 1.11 billion users monthly in 2013.
When I recently received a Facebook reminder that my 10-year high school reunion was fast approaching, I briefly wondered why I'd bother going. I already know what most of my classmates are up to—my Facebook news feed never lets me forget. But can social networking sites, which offer a cursory look at complex individuals, ever fully capture what others are actually experiencing?
Online profiles, which allow users to construct their own images before interacting with others, often present incomplete and inaccurately rosy snapshots of people's lives. For instance, I want people to see the best photos from my recent tropical vacation, images of me and my husband cuddling in front of a beautiful sunset. I might not be as keen for them to know that the trip left me with credit card debt that now keeps me awake at night, or that my spouse and I had an argument 20 minutes after the sun vanished. Secure behind the safety of our screens, we can hide the messy, painful, and difficult parts of our lives, glossing over them with statuses about our successes. Yet when we present highly sanitized versions of ourselves for public consumption, we are denying others the chance to see us as we really are. Consciously or unconsciously, we are erecting barriers between ourselves and others.
What Facebook really feeds
By its very design, social media caters to several deeply ingrained temptations that many of us struggle with: pride, jealousy, deception, and alienation. We click through photos of the fixer-upper our college roommate recently bought, and feel superior about our own two-story home. We notice that a former classmate is working in our dream industry and think, "How did she get so lucky? I'm much better suited for that position than she is." We furtively exchange messages with our high school boyfriends, and then wonder when our husbands became so unromantic and boring. We look at the perfect lives displayed before us and, failing to see through the facade, we refuse to ask for help that we may desperately need, afraid we are the only ones experiencing trouble and disappointments.