Why Facebook Does Not Reflect Reality

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I went through a divorce during the Social Media Age.  It can be rough having your life thrown out of balance, but then glance on Facebook and feel like you are the only unhappy person in a sea of perfect lives.  I decided not to discuss the impending separation and kept all those intense negative emotions to myself, a therapist and two close friends.  It was a real shock to people when my Facebook status went from married to single.  I received a lot of comments like “WHAT?!?!” or “How could this happen?”

We generally believe that social media is a true representation of that person’s life.  Even after the divorce and knowing that I selectively post content, I still fall into this trap when viewing other people’s pages.  A few years ago a good friend of mine had a baby boy, and her wall overflowed with happy pictures of her new life.  I envied how easily she took to new motherhood, since my own transition had been rough.  My envy lasted only until I caught up with her a month later and learned that she had severe post-partum depression.

The key lesson here: social media does not honestly reflect anyone’s real life. 

While a select few do “tell all” on Facebook – from family arguments to political opinions to workplace drama – most people don’t.   Just like any other face we present to the world, Facebook represents only a glimpse of that person’s life.  This seems obvious in theory, but it’s more difficult to realize your own bias in practice.  We tend to take things at face value.  So if you view someone’s posts and you see a trend, you apply that trend to their entire life.  You assume you know them better than you do.

We are not getting a front row seat into anyone’s life.  We may know more about their day-to-day lives, but their emotions, their struggles, and even their inner personality can often remain hidden.

This does not mean I am against social media.  Quite the opposite: I love to use it as a medium to keep in touch with family, friends, and even acquaintances.  I love watching my peers raise families as I raise my own.  It’s great when my mother-in-law can instantly view pictures of her grandbabies.  I love sharing hobby-based posts with my like-minded friends.  For me, it’s an effective way to communicate information in an Internet-heavy world.  Social media has its advantages, and like it or not, it’s here to stay.

What this does mean, though, is we have to break the expectation that what we see on social media reflects an entire human being’s experience.  Facebook is yet another image of ourselves we present to the world.  It is not a diary so much as a bulletin board of the images and words someone wants to share with you.  A happy status update does not necessarily mean your friend is living the best life ever.  A wall full of funny cat pictures doesn’t mean that person doesn’t care about more serious issues.  We are all human and experiencing human emotions, and that’s not necessarily going to come through on the Internet.

So by all means, enjoy social media.  Share a photo, comment on a status, and laugh at the memes.  Just don’t be jealous at someone with the “perfect life.”  Don’t assume that a person is boasting just because they post a lot of pretty pictures.  Don’t think you know somebody until you can have a real conversation.  It takes more than a passing glance at a webpage to truly understand the people you like.

Photo by Leo Hidalgo