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In Search of Duchenne

By Garrett M. Lam

When you look through your friends’ pictures, you might get the feeling that you can see when they’re genuinely happy and when they’re just faking a smile.

You probably can. When people express genuine, or Duchenne, smiles (named after the French neurologist who discovered them), their eyes and cheeks contract in a way that is largely involuntary, brought about only by pleasant feelings. In contrast, the fake, or Pan Am smile (named after those perpetually photo-friendly stewardesses), involves only muscle movement around the mouth.

With over 3,000 pictures being uploaded to Facebook every second, there are undoubtedly more smiles being shared than ever before. But whether these are Pan Ams or Duchennes and whether they’re leading to more smiles are separate issues. My concern is that we haven’t fully considered the inherent embellishment and temptations in social media, and so are letting it dilute our experiences.

Why are these temptations built into the fabric of social media? Maybe it moves too quickly and too slowly. Online profiles ask us to slash, shrink, summarize, and snip a few moments of our lives for people who will be scrolling through them briefly. But at the same time, when creating our profiles, we have a huge block of time in which we can deliberate and tailor how we appear. Since few want to broadcast blemishes and regrets, we cherry-pick our qualities. We publicize flattering pictures and exciting moments. The monotonous and mundane, the quotidian and commonplace, are omitted and unseen. And even if we don’t want to misrepresent ourselves, the knowledge that future employers could view our profiles makes the neglect of controversial or unfavorable material understandable.

While these accelerated and sluggish aspects of social media move at different paces, they follow the same path: We project who we want to be rather than who we are.

Several studies have linked Facebook use to dissatisfaction and depression. These results, while undesirable, are unsurprising. When we view other profiles—themselves neat, clean products of a few cherry-picked vacations—we see the exceptional and mistake it for the ordinary. We know the less desirable aspects of our own lives, and feel boring by comparison—even if our profiles contribute to the same feelings of envy in others.

It’s worth noting that there isn’t some intrinsic problem with deliberating on how to project yourself or emphasizing likeable qualities. When you write a love letter, you linger over every phrase. The problem arises when we mistaken these deliberate profiles as accurate representations of the people behind them.

They’ve been heavily seasoned, so we should take them with a grain of salt.

But perhaps more important that reflecting on how social media shapes our expectations is being careful about how it affects our experiences. Because of social media, ideas can get more attention, more quickly than ever before. Now, I don’t think there is anything wrong with enjoying attention—it feels good when our ideas influence others or our accomplishments are recognized.

But I do think we should always question our motivations, especially when acting for the sake of attention, so we don’t sacrifice genuine development or an enjoyable experience for superficial validation and cheap affirmation. Do people really get more out of a concert by watching it through their four-by-six inch pixilated screen? Does ice cream really taste better after its picture has been uploaded to Instagram?

My guess is no. A recent study found that taking photographs of objects hurts our ability to remember details about them. Now, pictures can be powerful tools for reminding us of experiences, but not when sharing becomes the whole point of an experience, a justification rather than an after-thought.

There is a fine balance between living in the moment and being able to remember the moment. That balance is broken when we have to interrupt the moment in the order to show others that we were in it.

The expedited process of sharing experiences through social media means that we need to level our expectations and reflect on our motivations. If we let the desire to broadcast a Pan Am prevent us from experiencing a Duchenne, and this in turn makes others feel uninteresting by comparison, everyone loses. We may be broadcasting the best of ourselves through social media, but maybe it’s social media that’s getting the best of us.

Garrett M. Lam ’16, a Crimson editorial writer, is a neurobiology concentrator in Lowell House.

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