Lately I’ve been mulling over the phenomenon of the facebook “best self.” You know, the one that seems to be depressing everyone, in which they compare their own lives to the smiling beach shots, gourmet food photos, and happy children that are ubiquitous in our friends’ profiles on our social network of choice. In our own lives we deal with bad hair days, dinner disasters, and traffic jams, but then we check facebook for a moment of escape and discover that everyone else’s life seems pretty perfect. Except for that nutty relative who has an ongoing stream of complaints about her awful job/awful landlord/awful grocery store parking experience. But we could have guessed that already.
So what does it mean for our mental health and sense of self to be voyeurs of the carefully-constructed, meticulously edited online snapshots of our friends’ lives? I’m not quite sure. I know that many people already struggling with depression or just borderline dissatisfaction feel further isolated and pained when their computer screen tells them that everyone else is ebulliently happy. I know that when you’re wishing for a perfect job or spouse or baby it can’t help to see the images of others who seem to have exactly that. But while people continue to critique the phoniness of facebook and its highly edited content, I’m not sure that showing our best selves is such a terrible thing.
I recently had a conversation with LeVar Burton (I really did!) in which he described the way in which humans are “manifesting machines.” What we see is what we ultimately create for ourselves. I think that there’s real truth in this - we certainly grow up displaying many of the behaviors and qualities that our parents intentionally or unintentionally model for us. We grow up likely to emulate our friends and to take on the same values of our social groups. When I see a friend or acquaintance on facebook grinning at a campaign event, describing chocolate pudding at midnight, or getting a daringly short haircut, I’m inspired to bring those positive things into my own life (well, some I just momentarily consider!). I know that I wouldn’t have joined an Obama phone bank, or might have felt guilty about some sugary late-night snack, if it hadn’t been for peers on facebook making those things seem fun and inviting.
I have to wonder about the alternative to showing the “best self.” Do I want to hear old high school friends bemoaning tax bills? Or the non-humorous details of someone’s morning commute? Not really. Most of the moments in our daily lives are relatively uneventful and, in my opinion, not facebook-worthy. I really want to read about your commute only if the person in the next car was doing something hilarious/disgusting/obscene and you have a witty remark about it. I’d much rather see a picture of your smiling toddler than a shot of you taking calming breaths in the background while your kid throws a fit. There are so many places I can go to find depressing news, that I appreciate that facebook shows me a mostly rosy picture of the world and the people I know. I also appreciate that it’s a place where people can vent when they really need to or cry for help in a difficult moment, but if that were all it was, I’d rather go back to my college residential halls website to read dorm reviews.
I hate to fly and will never master the art of enjoying adventure travel, so I truly enjoy experiencing frequent vicarious vacations. I hate bars (I’m old - “why is it so loud?!”) so I’d much rather “like” photos of your tequila shot spree than have to be there in person. I like discovering the things about people that might not come up in a brief meeting . . . I never would have been on the winning team at Top Chef IX if Kenrick hadn’t posted photos of his stellar gourmet cooking and accepted the invite to become team captain. Sometimes, probably too often, we’re too busy to stop and tell others about our passions or our latest personal achievements or our super special moments with LeVar Burton (ha!), and maybe trying to show our best self to people all day long is asking a lot.
So my unsolicited advice is . . . brag. Gloat. Parade. I have an endless appetite for anything positive you can pick out about your day. When I’m calling it a night at 10pm on Saturday, I’m checking to make sure that you’re out having wild fun (and then I’m smug about not having to worry about finding a cab home). When I’m spending my 10th consecutive vacation in the car to a local, unglamorous destination (state fair in two weeks, anyone?), I’m eagerly verifying that someone is in Bali (fear not, I’ll console myself with a corn dog). I suppose that my main complaint about facebook is that we voyeurs don’t “like” things more. If I’m enjoying what you’re sharing I shouldn’t ever hesitate to let you know, if only because I’m so satisfied when I post something that ends up being particularly “like”-worthy. And if that makes us feel better about our lives, maybe it gets us just a little closer to being the “best selves” we imagine we could be.
I feel like LeVar Burton would agree.