We love Facebook. But what was once described as “better than sex” might really be a tool for validating our narcissistic tendencies—a hotbed of bitter envy and resentment.
Facebook leads to social media misery. The internet behemoth’s harmful effects have been discussed in articles like this deep read from The Atlantic, and in multiple studies such as “They Are Happier and Having Better Lives than I Am” and “Envy on Facebook: A Hidden Threat to User Satisfaction?” But it even comes down to common sense: the site allows users to pass off highly edited highlight reels as typical, daily life.
Facebook doesn’t always create misery, though. At times it gives us a high (which is probably why we come back for more). As another study documents, users find a small self-esteem boost in viewing their own profiles. That is, viewing our own profiles can be self-affirming, spiraling—one can only assume—into a narcissistic arms race. But as bad as Facebook is, Instagram is worse.
Research shows the most damaging part of browsing is photo envy. Instagram is built off photo-viewing. It does photo-viewing so well that Facebook paid a billion dollars to have it. You see, the unique quality of images is that they are able to convey status and emotions in a way that status updates just cannot. Whereas on Facebook, you’re looking at photos, links, Farmville updates, etc.; Instagram is pure, undistilled showboating. Energy, excitement, beauty, wealth, all can be captured in single photograph in a powerful way, and you’re looking at all of this while sitting on the John—what’s not to envy about a perfect beach sunset or sushi platter then? But that photographer spent God-knows how long creating that perfect shot with filter. And who knows how long you’ll take trying to top it.
Jessica Winter at Slate spoke with Humboldt University professor Hanna Krasnova on how problematic this can be:
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 says, “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.”
Last, but not least, Instagram reaches a new level of voyeurism. On Facebook or Twitter, we’ve managed to strike a tenuous acceptance of a certain level of cyber-stalking. Specifically, we focus on common interests; things that are less “creepy.” Instagram is limited to the superficial aspects of one’s life, mostly what we can see in pictures, so you end up learning less about people than their things. And in that focus on the superficial, Instagram blurs the line between internet friend and sleazy George McFly peeping at girls with binoculars up in a tree.
Instagram, then, serves a peculiar function. It’s the filter through which we can make our lives seem awesome to others—a small boost—but it’s also where we experience most directly the materials we don’t have. We may love it as much as Facebook, but as we keep coming back to it, it’s only going to make us sicker.
“Selfie-Loathing: Instagram is even more depressing than Facebook. Here’s why,” by Jessica Winter, Slate