IT'S a truism that Facebook is the many-headed frenemy, the great underminer.
By Jessica Winter
We know this because science tells us so. The Human-Computer
Interaction Institute at Carnegie Mellon has found that "passive
consumption" of your friends' feeds and your own "broadcasts to wider
audiences" on Facebook correlate with feelings of loneliness and even
Earlier this year, two German universities showed that "passive
following" on Facebook triggers states of envy and resentment in many
users, with vacation photos standing out as a prime trigger.
Yet another study, this one of 425 undergrads in Utah, carried the
self-explanatory title They Are Happier And Having Better Lives Than I
Am: The Impact Of Using Facebook On Perceptions Of Others' Lives.
Even the positive effects of Facebook can be double-edged: Viewing
your profile can boost your self-esteem, but it also lowers your ability
to ace an arithmetic task.
All of these studies are careful to point out that it's not Facebook
per se that inspires states of disconnection, jealousy and poor
mathematical performance - ra-ther, it's specific uses of Facebook. If
you use Facebook primarily to share interesting news articles with
colleagues, exchange messages with new acquaintances, and play Candy
Crush Saga, chances are the green-eyed monster won't ask to friend you.
But if the hours you log on Facebook are largely about creeping
through other people's posts - especially their photos and their
vacation snaps - with an occasional pause to update your own status and
slap on a grudging "like" here or there, then science confirms that you
have entered into a semi-consensual sadomasochistic relationship with
Facebook and need to break the cycle.
A closer look at Facebook studies also supports an untested but
tantalising hypothesis: that, despite all the evidence, Facebook is
actually not the greatest underminer at the social-media cocktail party
(that you probably weren't invited to, but you saw the pictures and it
looked incredible). Facebook is not the frenemy with the most heads.
That title, in fact, goes to Instagram. Here's why.
Instagram distils the most crazy-making aspects of the Facebook experience.
So far, academic studies of Instagram's effects on our emotional
states are scarce. But it's tempting to extrapolate those effects from
the Facebook studies, because out of the many activities Facebook
offers, the three things that correlate most strongly with a
self-loathing screen hangover are basically the three things that
Instagram is currently for: loitering around others' photos, perfunctory
like-ing, and "broadcasting" to a relatively amorphous group.
"I would venture to say that photographs, likes and comments are the
aspects of the Facebook experience that are most important in driving
the self-esteem effects, and that photos are maybe the biggest driver of
those effects," said Ms Catalina Toma of the Department of
Communication Arts at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "You could
say that Instagram purifies this one aspect of Facebook."
Instagram is exclusively image-driven, and images will crack your mirror.
"You get more explicit and implicit cues of people being happy, rich
and successful from a photo than from a status update," said Ms Hanna
Krasnova of Humboldt University Berlin, co-author of the study on
Facebook and envy.
"A photo can very powerfully provoke immediate social comparison, and
that can trigger feelings of inferiority. You don't envy a news story."
Ms Krasnova's research has led her to define what she calls an "envy
spiral" peculiar to social media. "If you see beautiful photos of your
friend on Instagram," she said, "one way to compensate is to
self-present with even better photos, and then your friend sees your
photos and posts even better photos, and so on. Self-promotion triggers
more self-promotion, and the world on social media gets further and
further from reality."
Granted, an envy spiral can unspool just as easily on Facebook or
Twitter. But for a truly gladiatorial battle of the selfies, Instagram
is the only rightful Colosseum.
Instagram messes more with your sense of time.
"You spend so much time creating flattering, idealised images of
yourself, sorting through hundreds of images for that one perfect
picture, but you don't necessarily grasp that everybody else is spending
a lot of time doing the same thing," Ms Toma said.
Then, after spending lots of time carefully curating and filtering
your images, you spend even more time staring at other people's
carefully curated and filtered images that you assume they didn't spend
much time on.
And the more you do that, Ms Toma said, "the more distorted your
perception is that their lives are happier and more meaningful than
Again, this happens all the time on Facebook, but because Instagram is image-based, it creates a purer reality-distortion field.
Instagram ups your chances of violating "the grey line of stalkerism".
"If you don't know someone, and Facebook is telling you that you have
interests in common," said Ms Nicole Ellison of the University of
Michigan School of Information, "you can see their profile as a list of
But that same profile is also a potential list of icemakers. If you
meet a vague acquaintance at a party and strike up a conversation about a
science article he posted to his Facebook wall, that probably seems
normal. If you meet a vague acquaintance at a party and strike up a
conversation about the eco-lodge he chose for his honeymoon in the
Maldives, he will likely back away from you slowly.
"And then," Ms Ellison said, "you've violated the grey line of stalkerism."
Instagram's image-driven format gives you the eco-lodge but not the science article.
And arguably, you've violated the grey line of stalkerism simply by
looking at those photos in the first place, even if you don't reveal
yourself in public as the sad lurker that you are.
Each time you swipe through more images of people's meals and soirees
and renovation projects and holiday sunsets, you are potentially
blurring the boundary between stranger-you-haven't-met and sleazy voyeur
skulking around the cabana with an iPhone.
To be sure, daily acts of stalkerism are all but part of the social
contract at this point. But stalkerism heavily diluted with links to
articles, one-on-one messaging, Dr Oz ads, and second cousins who still
play FarmVille will always seem more palatable than the uncut version.