How Much Of Your Feed Is Fabricated? The ‘Happiness Competition’ Of Social Media

Victoria Stokes wonders why we're concerned with appearing to have a 'better life' online.

Have you ever met someone in real life and been surprised that they don’t look like they do on Instagram? I have, and as a result it’s extended into how I present myself online. I err on the side of caution when it comes to sharing selfies, being careful not to over filter or edit and I’m constantly worrying that the person I really am versus the identity I’m assuming online is too much of a disparity.

It’s become a familiar thread amongst our generation, something author Donna Freitas found out when she interviewed numerous students across 13 college campuses and compiled their responses in her book The Happiness Effect. The recurrent theme among those interviewed was that there’s certainly a pressure to portray a different (read: better) version of yourself online and it’s often simply as a means of keeping up with everyone else.

“Because of social media, young adults are receiving the message that appearing happy is actually more important than being happy,” Donna explains.

College students I spoke with talked of social media as a ‘happiness competition’ and, of course, of being a popularity contest as well. As much as they feel compelled by social media, and compelled to use it, they also resent this pressure. To paraphrase one of the young women I interviewed: going on social media is always like the worst version of me versus the best version of everyone else.

Tara (27) understands that pressure. “Online I’m funny, articulate and self assured, but in real life I couldn’t be more different. I’m the kind of person who’s shy in big social situations and I tend to shrink into my self when I’m in big groups,” she explains. “You’d never know this if you looked at my Instagram profie, where I’m smiling and sipping gin and tonics with lots of friends.”

Maria (23) also gets it. “My feed is full of pics of vegan meals out and super healthy home-cooked treats I’ve made myself, and I feel quite smug about sharing them,” she admits. “What people don’t see or hear about is the McDonalds I regularly drunk-order on my way home from the pub or the Domino’s I eat on the sly.”

Yet another woman, Aoife (30) says her social media persona is more ‘together’ than who she is in real life. “If anyone were to judge me solely on the person I present myself as on social media they’d think that all I do is attend glam parties and socialise. What they don’t know is that I’m wracked with nerves every single time and I usually have two drinks, snap a picture for Instagram and leave. No one knows that I’m usually home by 9.30 in my PJs deciding what to watch on Netflix.”

It’s true. Most of us are reluctant to share the Friday nights when we’re in bed with our hair scraped back and a face mask on, or open up about the blazing row we just had with our boyfriend. Instead we use social media as our own personal highlight reel, amplifying only the best bits. It’s the one place we can pretend that we’ve got it all together, so much so that science says we actually get a temporary self esteem boost from viewing our own Facebook profiles (in contrast we feel worse about ourselves after checking out what everyone else is up to).

Online we have the freedom to pause and think about how we want to be perceived so it’s easy to dress our lives up as something they’re not. We’ve become masters at stage management, carefully creating the image that we’re living the perfect life. And it’s so easy to do: we can present our bodies with a good angle, we can showcase our personalities by way of a witty caption, convincingly building up a pleasing picture of the person we wish to be, and reassuringly spurred on by followers, likes and positive comments.

But, a fleeting rush of inflated self esteem aside, there’s a massive problem with this kind of behaviour. What do we do when we feel like the reality can’t live up to the illusion, worrying about the fact that we might not come across nearly as wonderful and beautiful in real life? at the real behind-the-screen you simply isn’t ‘good enough’?

We’re in danger of doing things just to keep up appearances, of booking trips away based on how good they’ll look on the ‘gram, of forcing ourselves to go out on a Friday night because everyone else is, of trying to fit into the cookie-cutter ideal of what it means to be happy, and then potentially not enjoying those experiences as much as we could have. After all, how many of us have spent a gig peering into our phone’s video screen or snapped hundreds of posed photos on holidays for our Instagram feed when we could be appreciating the view?

Our lives are messy, they don’t fit into a perfectly filtered and curated grid and you’re far too multi-faceted to fit into the one-dimensional brand you’ve created of yourself online. The irony is that we’re so worried about appearing blissfully happy and successful on the internet, and fearful of letting the perfect veneer slip, when in reality it’s our kinks and quirks that help to make us unique.

Maybe the responsibility lies with us; first, to have the cop on to know that not everything you see on social media is real life. That for every good day, there’s a bad day, and for every triumph, there’s a failure that’s never given air time. And second, to realise that perhaps we need to amplify the bad as much as we do the good to create a more authentic picture of the well-rounded, flawed people we are.

There’s a quote in Donna’s book that really resonates with me and I think it’s a good one to refer to if you’re unsure about the authenticity of how you’re presenting yourself online. It reads:

We are becoming masters of filtering away the bad and the sad and the negative. But in our attempts to polish away those imperfections and ‘put on a happy face’… we try to forget the darker and more tender sides of our humanity, we also risk losing the best parts of who we are.

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