Don’t let Face­book make you sad

The fab­u­lous lives peo­ple live on so­cial me­dia turn out to be fan­tasy when you dig deep into the data, writes Seth Stephens-Davi­d­owitz

Sunday Times - - OPINION & ANALYSIS -

SCHOLARS have an­a­lysed the data and con­firmed what we al­ready knew in our hearts: so­cial me­dia is mak­ing us mis­er­able.

We are all dimly aware that ev­ery­body else can’t pos­si­bly be as suc­cess­ful, rich, at­trac­tive, re­laxed, in­tel­lec­tual and joy­ous as they ap­pear to be on Face­book. Yet we can’t help com­par­ing our in­ner lives with the cu­rated lives of our friends.

Just how dif­fer­ent is the real world from the world on so­cial me­dia? In the real world, weekly US tabloid the Na­tional En­quirer sells nearly three times as many copies as the con­sid­er­ably more up­scale and in­tel­lec­tual monthly jour­nal The At­lantic ev­ery year. On Face­book, The At­lantic is 45 times more pop­u­lar.

Amer­i­cans spend about six times as much of their time clean­ing dishes as they do golf­ing. But there are roughly twice as many tweets re­port­ing golf­ing as there are tweets re­port­ing do­ing the dishes.

The Las Ve­gas bud­get ho­tel Cir­cus Cir­cus and the lux­u­ri­ous ho­tel Bel­la­gio each holds about the same num­ber of peo­ple. But the Bel­la­gio gets about three times as many check-ins on Face­book.

The search for on­line sta­tus takes some pe­cu­liar twists. Face­book works with an out­side com­pany to gather data on the cars peo­ple ac­tu­ally own. Face­book also has data on the cars peo­ple as­so­ci­ate with by post­ing about them or by lik­ing them.

Own­ers of lux­ury cars such as BMWs and Mercedes-Ben­zes are about two and a half times as likely to an­nounce their af­fil­i­a­tion on Face­book as are own­ers of or­di­nary makes and mod­els.

In the US, the de­sire to show off and ex­ag­ger­ate wealth is univer­sal. Face­book users of all races are all two to three times as likely to as­so­ci­ate on Face­book with a lux­ury car they own than with a non-lux­ury car they own.

But dif­fer­ent peo­ple in dif­fer­ent places can have dif­fer­ent no­tions of what is cool and what is em­bar­rass­ing. Take mu­si­cal taste. Ac­cord­ing to 2014 data from Spo­tify In­sights on what peo­ple ac­tu­ally lis­ten to, men and women have sim­i­lar tastes; 29 of the 40 mu­si­cians women lis­tened to most fre­quently were also the artists most fre­quently lis­tened to by men.

On Face­book, though, men seem to un­der­play their in­ter­est in artists con­sid­ered more fem­i­nine. For ex­am­ple, on Spo­tify, Katy Perry was the 10th-most-lis­tened-to artist among men, beat­ing Bob Mar­ley, Kanye West, Ken­drick La­mar and Wiz Khal­ifa. But those artists all have more male likes on Face­book.

The pres­sure to look a cer­tain way on so­cial me­dia can do much more than dis­tort our im­age of the mu­si­cians other peo­ple ac­tu­ally lis­ten to.

Suf­fer­ers of var­i­ous ill­nesses are in­creas­ingly us­ing so­cial me­dia to con­nect with oth­ers and to raise aware­ness about their dis­eases. But if a con­di­tion is con­sid­ered em­bar­rass­ing, peo­ple are less likely to pub­licly as­so­ci­ate them­selves with it.

Ir­ri­ta­ble bowel syn­drome and mi­graines are sim­i­larly preva­lent, each af­fect­ing around 10% of the US pop­u­la­tion. But mi­graine suf­fer­ers have built Face­book aware­ness and sup­port groups two and a half times larger than IBS suf­fer­ers have.

None of this be­hav­iour is all that new, al­though the form it takes is. Friends have al­ways showed off to friends. Peo­ple have al­ways strug­gled to re­mind them­selves that other peo­ple don’t have it as easy as they claim.

Think of the Al­co­holics Anony­mous apho­rism “Don’t com­pare your in­sides to other peo­ple’s out­sides”.

I have ac­tu­ally spent the past five years peek­ing into peo­ple’s in­sides, study­ing ag­gre­gate Google search data. Alone with a screen and anony­mous, peo­ple tend to tell Google things they don’t re­veal to so­cial me­dia; they even tell Google things they don’t tell to any­body else. Google of­fers dig­i­tal truth serum. The words we type there are more hon­est than the pictures we present on Face­book or In­sta­gram.

Some­times the con­trasts in dif­fer­ent data sources are amus­ing. Con­sider how wives speak about their hus­bands.

On so­cial me­dia, the top de­scrip­tions to com­plete the phrase “My hus­band is . . .” are “the best”, “my best friend”, “amaz­ing”, “the great­est” and “so cute”. On Google, one of the top five ways to com­plete that phrase is also “amaz­ing”. The other four are “a jerk” “an­noy­ing”, “gay” and “mean”.

While spend­ing five years star­ing at a com­puter screen learn­ing about some of hu­man be­ings’ strangest and dark­est thoughts may not strike most peo­ple as a good time, I have found the hon­est data sur­pris­ingly com­fort­ing. I have con­sis­tently felt less alone in my in­se­cu­ri­ties and de­sires.

Once you’ve looked at enough ag­gre­gate search data, it’s hard to take the cu­rated selves we see on so­cial me­dia too se­ri­ously. Or, as I like to sum up what Google data has taught me: we’re all a mess.

Now, you may not be a data sci­en­tist. You may not know how to code in R or cal­cu­late a con­fi­dence in­ter­val. But you can still take ad­van­tage of big data and dig­i­tal truth serum to put an end to envy — or at least take some of the bite out of it.

Any time you are feel­ing down about your life af­ter lurk­ing on Face­book, go to Google and start typ­ing stuff into the search box. Google’s au­to­com­plete will tell you the searches other peo­ple are mak­ing. Type in “I al­ways . . .” and you may see the sug­ges­tion, based on other peo­ple’s searches, “. . . feel tired” or “. . . have di­ar­rhea”.

This can of­fer a stark con­trast to so­cial me­dia, where ev­ery­one “al­ways” seems to be on a Caribbean vacation.

As our lives in­creas­ingly move on­line, I pro­pose a new self-help mantra for the 21st cen­tury: don’t com­pare your Google searches with other peo­ple’s Face­book posts. — © 2017 The New York Times

Econ­o­mist Stephens-Davi­d­owitz is the au­thor of “Ev­ery­body Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the In­ter­net Can Tell Us About Who We Re­ally Are”

Own­ers of lux­ury cars are two and a half times as likely to an­nounce their af­fil­i­a­tion on Face­book as are own­ers of or­di­nary makes

Pic­ture: FACE­BOOK/Cassper Ny­ovest

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