This past weekend I went to a college friend’s wedding in Washington D.C. It was the usual beautiful ceremony, beautiful bride, good food and great friends that weddings tend to be. We all wished the bride and groom well as we sat down at our tables to indulge in wedding food.
My table comprised of all of the college friends of the newlyweds. The pair had been together for several years and we had all taken classes together and all lived together at some point in our university lives.
But as things tend to go, we had drifted apart since our graduation dates and had moved to various parts of the country. The wedding was the first time we had all been together again in quite awhile, and we were excited to catch up.
I had known a bit of what was going on in each person’s life because of Facebook. T ran marathons, competed in half Iron Mans, swam ridiculous distances across mountain lakes and was very active in a presidential campaign. C had traveled the country competing in long distance canoe races.
Z had just moved up to a new government position. L largely kept her life offline, updating only when she traveled or during important life events.
Everybody seemed like they were living amazing lives. I had lived vicariously through T as she campaigned over the last year. I followed her journey one morning when she competed in a race across Lake Cour D’alene in Idaho. Her status updated itself every time she reached a refueling boat.
C had driven from Kansas to Alaska in a little truck with a canoe on top and had competed in a 400 mile race along the Yukon and I had eagerly consumed the photos he posted online.
I felt so envious of these people as I had read their sagas on Facebook from my couch. They were out there, living their lives and just crushing it on the job front. I felt like the lone person in our group who wasn’t very successful.
But then I was surprised as T turned eagerly to me to ask about photographing political rallies around North Carolina. She asked about my travels overseas and hung on to my words even though she is a seasoned traveler herself.
My other friends wanted to know about my newspaper job, photographing President Obama during a recent visit, Barry Bonds at the Fort Bragg MLB game and multiple other events that have happened throughout the year. And I realized that my life is pretty cool, but not as cool as I pretended it to be on Facebook most of the time.
While 2016 professionally was the best year of my life, personally it had been incredibly difficult to get through. I realized every person sitting at the table, myself included, had put forth a Facebook persona.
As the evening progressed, I learned that one of them almost got a divorce, one lost multiple jobs, another was laid off and had had to live with relatives for a few months.
If all I did was follow these people online, I would think that they were the most amazing people with beautiful lives. I wouldn’t have a clue about their actual personal lives. And let’s face it: most of us on Facebook never put out information that could potentially make us look bad.
The U.S. National Library of Medicine calls this the “false Facebook-self.” Users on Facebook and other social media sites expose themselves to the outside world via real names, pictures, their friends lists, feelings and even their likes and dislikes are made public. Because of this, we often will create a persona that lives the life we wished we lived, rather than what we are actually doing.
It’s a phenomenon that is not new. People have always wanted to show themselves in the best light. Carl Rogers developed his theory of incongruity, the precursor to the Facebook-self, in 1959. He theorized that we are torn between the “I am” and the “I should” of ourselves, thus creating an incongruity in our real selves vs. our perceived selves.
Basically, he said that perception is reality, and if we create a self that we feel we SHOULD be, that’s what will be perceived regardless if that isn’t exactly who we are.
We do this with social media all the time. My profile photo is of me standing at the Allée des Baobabs in Madagascar, even though it has been almost four years since that trip.
Why do I still use the photo? To make myself look like I’m doing something other than sitting at home scrolling through Facebook, to create that false narrative that my life is in fact, “cool.” People don’t know that that trip was during one of the most difficult times in my life.
I’m not saying we should all air our dirty laundry on social media. I am saying that maybe instead of relying so heavily on each other’s Facebook-selves to stay in contact, we should actually pick up the phone and call each other.
We are missing out on each other’s lives because we have this perception of being connected to one another. The reality, however, is that we are substituting these online connections with real relationships, and are in fact, further apart than ever.