I’ve realized I’m the least interesting person I know. My social networks tell me so.
Right now, one of my online contacts is cooking; one’s hiking in Nepal; one’s mixing music; one’s boarding a flight to Europe; one explained an idea I had better than I ever could; and one just launched some software I wish I’d built. At least, that’s what their status updates remind me.
Call it Status Update Anxiety.
Happiness is relative, as Alain de Botton so eloquently tells us. We compare ourselves to our peers, and use this as the basis for our self-esteem. In a TED presentation he gave, he makes the point that few people envy the Queen of England — after all, she’s not that like you and I, with her funny accent and strange family rituals — but we all envy the latest tech wunderkind, the classmate who flipped a house, the brother who made some smart investments.
These objects of our disaffection are just like us. Every time Sergey Brin gets up on stage in jeans and a T-shirt, he reminds us that we could have been him if we’d only thought of Pagerank. This is, of course, a gross misstatement — but the mainstream media can’t convey the underlying complexity of achievent. Many inventions seem simple in retrospect, and the one-page writeup in Wired Magazine can’t do justice to the years of hard work. As Sheryl Crow said, it takes a long time to become an overnight success.
Envy is worst in first-world meritocracies. When you’re a pauper in a caste-based community, you seldom question your place in the world. But in a society where you can be anything, the nagging question is: why aren’t you? Social networks make it much, much worse. There’s always someone, somewhere in my online peer group doing something fascinating. If I have 99 friends, and one of us is doing something really interesting at any given time, then 99 percent of the time, I’m dull.
Asymmetrical social network models like Twitter feed this dismay. Our Facebook relationships are mutual, so the people we befriend are our peers. On Twitter, however, we also follow those we aspire to be. And behold! They’re just like us! They drink coffee, miss busses, stub their toes — they’re mortals too! Why can’t we be like them?
Comparing ouselves to others is human. Just as adaptation is the basis for natural selection, so aspirations are the basis for social advancement — and we get our aspirations from those we envy. We like to think we’re civilized, but the reality is that millennia of tribal training have programmed the jungle-surplus wetware on which we operate. There’s a status-obsessed animal lurking beneath our thin veneer of social decency, and now it has to deal with an overload of status updates from peers. It’s no wonder we’re anxious.
As more of our lives are lived online, many social mechanisms will need adjusting. Unchecked, Status Update Anxiety can lead to envy and a sense of missed opportunities. It takes a Zen-like, love-the-one-you’re-with attitude to survive the onslaught of interesting. We can’t all be fascinating all the time, after all.
It’s likely that our online peers only blog, Tweet, and upload the good parts. Like a dysfunctional high school reunion where everyone puts their best foot forward, it’s not a healthy way to form a picture of oneself. The most grounded people I know are the ones who enjoy their lot, recognizing that theirs is the slice of life they’ve chosen, and enjoying it for what it is.
Now if my friends would just stop traveling to so many fun-sounding places.
Image credit: Portrait by Stephen Poff