Monday, 23 September 2013

The self-fulfilling prophecy of social media

What a pretty picture summer painted this year. If social media is to be believed, my friends and acquaintances have spent their summers smiling, whether they were crossing continents or raising a glass beneath the twinkly lights of a garden party. As for we parents in the medley, anyone would think we were in competition with the sun to kiss the freckled faces of our laughing children as they hurdled waves on expansive beaches. Illustrated highlights of the season include granita enjoyed against a Sicilian backdrop, electric eels encountered beneath the Ionian sea, huitres en famille en Bretagne and happy quantities of new wine consumed at a Viennese heuriger. The viewing has been a vicarious delight, and equipped me with some inspiration for next year’s holiday.

While I don’t doubt these vignettes are true, I can’t help wondering if they are really a true representation of their protagonists’ lives. After all, there are friends whose lives I’m party to, and I know there’s a shadier side, obscured by the public front of facebook. Where are the cockups at work, the bereaved, over-stretched finances, marital disputes and pessimism of the depressed? Without the counter of misfortune, the happy scenes take on a glow of fantasy. 

For me, the question is whether it’s a good thing, or a bad thing, this positive spin so many of us put on our own lives and project into a public arena. I admit that telling the edited version of my own life story – hot off the press – can be a very therapeutic exercise. Garnering a timeline of positive moments and happy events alongside a few humorous, shambolic misadventures can be a good lesson in counting your own blessings. There’s something comforting in reviewing the highlights of the last few years through photos and status updates, and there’s also some relief to be had in retelling a miserable event with a twinkle in your eye. 

While making light of moderately bad situations can be a helpful use for social media, there are also the friends who withdrew from public when their lives went through a genuinely difficult patch. When the going gets though, it’s not surprising that alerts to someone else’s perfect existence can become nauseating. If your marriage is rocky, friends’ photos that bear witness to an enduring romance are a slap in the face. When your career is in the doldrums, an ex-colleague’s promotion is a kick in the teeth. A public forum cannot select its audience with tact or offer the support a friend can give over a coffee at lunchtime; it’s just, well, too public. And anyway, how should we manage announcements to such a diverse cross-section of friends? Is it inappropriate to share the same news with colleagues as with friends from university digs? While there is provision for selective posting, is it really practical or advisable to filter out friends? I can imagine opening a whole can of worms with that strategy.

I too have been through a temporary retirement from facebook. When I was undergoing cancer treatment, my account lay dormant for almost a year. A stubbly covering of new hair marked my return, and I posted a proud ‘selfie’ to show it. Once my appearance was more GI Jane than boiled egg, I was ready to expose the horror from which I was emerging, feeling triumphant. At that point, it struck me how much easier it is to tell bad news in retrospect. Perhaps that’s why social media and the autobiography are such different animals: by the time a celebrity has dried out, been in rehab or left an abusive relationship, the tale so avidly devoured by fans and followers in their biog bears testament to their strength, rather than their weakness. To announce a downturn in progress may look desperate or be humiliating, and leave readers uncertain of how to respond to an impersonal plea for help. Should we 'like' someone else’s misfortune, is that etiquette? And once we've acknowledged it, do we keep life-online safely in its own bubble and ignore it in person, or follow up with IM, text, phonecall or a hug at the school gates?

There is no doubt in my mind that social media would benefit from the kind of honesty that many of us share in person with our friends. But then again, while self-promotion and navel-gazing are a rather undesirable part of the human condition, online or offline, perhaps the positive spin of social media is a good thing, if it pleases us to see our lives in lights. A little delusion can make life far more palatable after all, and if we shout our own prophecy loudly enough, perhaps we’ll even begin to fulfil it.

If we can convince others, what’s to say we can’t convince ourselves?


  1. Thank you for your honesty and questioning ideas.
    Fact is, If your friend hadn't shared & recommended your site on Facebook, I would never have had the privilege of reading your site.
    Glad to meet you!
    my life hasn't gone the way I dreamt, and i havbe no children.
    How do you explain that you've learned to love watching rugby with your soulmate, instead of sharing photos of the grandchildren?

  2. Thank you Sue for your lovely comments. I'm glad you've enjoyed reading. Having a soulmate sounds like a pretty good achievement in life - not everybody finds one of those.