Don't start believing your Facebook self

Kelly Yang says our human tendency to portray a better, happier self on social media must be reined in, before we lose all sense of reality

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 06 January, 2015, 1:35pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 06 January, 2015, 1:35pm

We've all done it - exaggerated how #awesome we feel about our #bestdayever. According to the latest study, a fifth of young people say their online profile bears little resemblance to reality. That's a lot of people lying about relationships, promotions and holidays.

Who can blame them when we live in a world in which every good thing that happens to anyone is Facebooked, tweeted, WhatsApped, and YouTubed before it's told to a single person directly? The last time I posted a plain photo - as in, I did not adjust the colour balance and add a filter or two - was in 2009.

It turns out that we're getting so good at fooling others that we're starting to fool even ourselves. Studies show that what we post on Facebook can actually distort our memories of reality to the point where we can no longer recognise our actual experiences. We remember the lies, not the reality.

There's more. Feelings of guilt and distaste enter the mix when this distorted reality happens and, then, we start to feel miserable. In other words, after we lie about how great we feel, we hate ourselves.

But with social media playing an ever more important role in our lives and careers, it's hard to give it up. Recruiters I talk to tell me that when applying for a job, having an online presence is important. A study recently commissioned by CareerBuilder revealed that almost half of the companies surveyed said they looked up job applicants' social media profiles to look for red flags. Indeed, a lot of job applicants these days don't even bother to send me their resumés; they just send me their LinkedIn profile.

It's not surprising, then, that there are currently 864 million daily active users on Facebook alone. Once we're on, we tend to mimic what we see. Last year, Facebook revealed that a positive post yields an additional 1.75 positive posts among friends and a negative post yields 1.29 negative posts. That posts are so contagious has to do with human nature. When we see a post about an old classmate's new house, we can't help but scrutinise every detail, comparing it to our own home. Even if we haven't seen or called the person in years, we still do it.

The fact that people lie about their jobs, holidays and relationships is nothing new. That's what dinner parties are for. The only difference is, at dinner parties, we could exaggerate over a glass of wine and the next day, nobody's really quite sure what we said. But now, with Facebook, it's all there on record - emoticons, hashtags, photos and all. Hence the guilt.

So how should we operate in this brave new world? We should treat Facebook like a dinner party. In real life, if we're tired of hearing a friend brag constantly, we skip his or her dinner party. Similarly, on Facebook, we should click on the arrow in the upper right corner of their post, and select "Unfollow but stay friends".

Facebook's given us an easy, free and always available arena to stay connected. It's up to each of us how we use this arena. Choose wisely, for how we decide will have ramifications for years to come.

Kelly Yang teaches writing at The Kelly Yang Project, an after-school centre for writing and debate in Hong Kong. She is a graduate of UC Berkeley and Harvard Law School. www.kellyyang.edu.hk