Posted by: Jenn Deering Davis | June 2, 2008

social comparison online

How many times, when you log into Facebook or FriendFeed or Twitter, do you see new photos of a friend’s “amazing” vacation or her glowing review of a “fantastic” new restaurant she found? Sure, it’s great to keep up with what your friends are doing, but when you’re continually presented with these selective portrayals of everyone’s wonderful lives, it can start to wear on you.

Social desirability bias is most certainly part of this. We want to present ourselves to others in a positive way; that’s just part of life. I do this as much as anyone. For example, I post vacation and party photos on Flickr, but I never post anything that shows the regular or negative parts of my life. Who wants to see or read about me sitting on the couch with my laptop or being stressed out about work? Furthermore, why would I want anyone to have to?

But this can lead to a pretty weird public version of our personal lives. Tools like Facebook, Flickr, Twitter and the rest allow us to selectively present a sanitized and upbeat picture of our lives. If you knew me only from my Flickr stream, you’d think I was quite the popular, active world traveler. In reality, I travel occasionally and attend various social events, but I spend most of my time quietly at home with my husband or with a few close friends.

This is fine; there’s nothing wrong with a bit of image management and personal public relations. But always being faced with these near-perfect portrayals of everyone else’s lives can wear on us. We compare our lives to the lives of those around us and we want that comparison to end up in our favor. Leon Festinger talked about this idea of social comparison half a century ago, long before we had the constant status updates and public profiles we do now. We tend to compare ourselves to similar others, and when we don’t measure up that makes us feel bad, even competitive.

We want to reduce this cognitive dissonance; most people hate to feel bad. We reduce dissonance in a number of ways, some healthy, some not. We can choose to reframe the way we think about something (”It’s okay if I’m not traveling the world right now; I’m saving up to buy a new house”), we can discredit the source of our dissonance (”Joe’s an idiot for spending so much money on that new TV”), we can change our behaviors (”If it bothers me to see other people having so much fun camping, then maybe I should go camping more”). But the feeling will come back; we will always compare ourselves to others.

What’s the opposite of schadenfreude? I can’t really think of a word that means feeling bad when something good happens to someone else. It’s more than envy or jealousy; it’s feeling that you’re somehow not living up to this social comparison. You don’t want what the other person has, but you want more for yourself. I don’t know, maybe that is jealousy.

Either way, I wonder what Leon Festinger and his social psychology colleagues in the 1950s would think of applying their ideas to something like Twitter. Bet they never pictured it.

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