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Op Eds

Virtual Unrealities

By J. Gram Slattery

Meet my virtual self; we’ll call him Facebook Gram. He’s an intellectual, a womanizer, a daring mountaineer and seriously talented sailor who spends his free time writing for National Journal and expat papers in South America. He drinks fine liqueurs—kir, genepí, amaretto, and the like. He goes on plush vacations, receives unreasonably generous grants from Harvard, and has an infinite amount of money and no responsibilities.

Now meet actual Gram, who is none of these things. Rather, he’s an average social studies student who writes contentious—and oft-maligned—articles in his free time. He’s a clumsy rock climber, and though he was a talented sailor back in the day, his college regatta record is not good. He mainly drinks Coke Zero—(he doesn’t have a fake)—and his three-month stint at NJ consisted of waking up at 5:45 a.m. every day and aggregating news from dozens of local papers in the American Midwest.

When the unglamorous reality of his life spills into the virtual fantasy, he’s quick to expunge it—usually though the “untagging” tool. When an abnormally interesting episode in his life occurs, he’s quick to document it.

This was the reality of my social media use—a façade of coolness concealing the hidden truth. I found myself in a tacit, extremely dishonest competition to prove my life more exotic than that of my peers. That’s why I abandoned my Facebook persona. I haven’t deleted my profile; I still use it for communication and other utilitarian purposes. But I haven’t posted a picture or a status for years, and I don’t even know what my “wall” looks like anymore.

Whether we consciously intend it or not, Facebook—and most related forms of social media—is the venue of this contest. We don’t share the moments that most profoundly affect us, but rather the moments that are most novel or visually stunning.

Our accounts become a tool of self-promotion—one in which we sanitize and glamorize our day-to-day lives, then package it for consumption by gawking peers.

Eventually, it gets to a point where if we don’t post photos about our adventures or nights out on the town, we fear being perceived as boring. And though we claim to enjoy following our friends’ exploits online, it’s generally a masochistic exercise.

A recent study by Carnegie Mellon’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute found a robust correlation between loneliness and depression and looking at a friend’s online pictures. Researchers at the University of Utah published a paper earlier this year titled, “ ‘They Are Happier and Having Better Lives Than I Am.”

According to an earlier study by two German universities, following a friend on Facebook instills feelings of jealousy and resentment, an effect amplified when examining vacation photos.

“The wealth of information on Facebook is astounding,” reads the abstract. “While these affordances allow users to keep up-to-date, they also produce a basis for social comparison and envy on an unprecedented scale.”

Interestingly, while the passive consumption of Facebook material depresses us, actively posting content was found to make us happy. But, as we spend far more time gawking than we do producing content, social media is, for most, a net downer.

The main alternative to this Facebook-as-competition system is to document all the banalities of our everyday lives, which isn’t as depressing—it’s as active as we can be online—but it is annoying. If I’m not interested in a friend’s daily schedule or minor, insignificant ailments in real life, mediating these bits of information through the Internet will change nothing.

In the end, Facebook is a lousy venue to document all the vicissitudes of our daily lives. It’s also a deficient venue to paint an accurate picture of our personalities, or share the subtleties of our emotions—especially the ones that most need to be shared. This is the realm of genuine interaction; it’s a complex realm—infinitely so—one that can’t be replaced or accurately represented virtually.

This isn’t to say that Facebook has no use. On the contrary, it’s great for organizing groups, for sharing articles and amusing YouTube videos. I even concede that there’s nothing wrong with posting a non-Instagrammed photo once in a while. But we needn’t waste our time slavishly maintaining an elaborate, ultracompetitive cyber-identity; our reality is complex—and competitive—enough.

J. Gram Slattery ’15, a Crimson editorial writer, is a social studies concentrator in Kirkland House.

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