A couple of days ago ‘Wait But Why’ published a piece on the Huff Post entitled ‘7 Ways to be Insufferable on Facebook.’ You should go read the piece for yourself, but in précis, the 7 ways were:
1. Bragging (including Humble Brags) – ‘Guess Who Got into Med School!’
2. Posting Cryptic Cliffhangers – ‘That’s IT. I’m DONE.’
3. Posting crap you’re doing – ‘Off to the gym!’
4. The Inexplicably-Public Private Message – ‘I love you so much [insert name of partner]’
5. Out-Of-Nowhere Oscar Acceptance Speeches – ‘I just want to thank EVERYONE for touching my life!’
6. Posting Incredibly Obvious Opinions – ‘I feel so deeply for the Syrian people right now.’
7. Posting Steps Towards Enlightenment – ‘”Peace comes from within. Do not seek it without.” ~Buddha’
These 7 ways are then – yep, this piece goes deep – aligned with 5 core motivations, which were:
1. Image Crafting – The author wants to affect the way people think of her.
2. Narcissism – The author’s thoughts, opinions, and life philosophies matter. The author and the author’s life are interesting in and of themselves.
3. Attention Craving – The author wants attention.
4. Jealousy Inducing – The author wants to make people jealous of him or his life.
5. Loneliness. – The author is feeling lonely and wants Facebook to make it better.
I read the piece and found it pretty funny. So, first point – I get it, it’s an amusing look at a phenomenon we all recognise.
But, beyond that, I also found the piece to be itself insufferable, and pretty nasty in a way too. Why? Partly because it too falls foul of some of its own ways (Posting Incredibly Obvious Opinions) and also crosses over one it missed off – Being An Insufferable Smart-Ass.
In one sense if it had just been the bullet-points above that would have been fine. Quick laugh and move on. But the piece is over 3000 words long. This is not a quick laugh about something we’ve all seen, but an in-depth essay to explain to us how we should be behaving on Facebook. It feels dictatorial – a Proper Admonishment To Those Who Are Not Acting In The Correct Way.
Taken like this it became, I found, a rather unkind piece. There are attempts at empathy in there, but they are couched in a way that leaves readers feeling crap. Take the note on ‘loneliness’ for example:
This is the least heinous of the five — but seeing a lonely person acting lonely on Facebook makes me and everyone else sad. So the person is essentially spreading their sadness, and that’s a shitty thing to do, so it’s on the list.
Circle it and make a note: spreading your sadness is a shitty thing to do.
If you’ve read much here before you’ll know that I’m interested in how social media is affecting the ways in which we interact with one another. And here’s my thought on this piece: I think this is not so much an issue of the people posting, but an issue about our ability to empathise with the people behind those posts.
This problem of empathy is absolutely central to the shifts we are seeing in the ways in which we interact. Given that personal written correspondence was generally between two people who knew each other quite well, who had some investment in the relationship, it is only in the past 10 years that we have all been able – after 1000’s of years of human communication – to share our immediate thoughts with a very wide audience. So when we do feel lonely it’s incredibly tempting to post that information to the perhaps hundreds of people we are connected to online. Why? Because in years gone by we’d have probably done the same with the people we knew in the pub in the village we were in.
Facebook calls each connection a ‘Friendship’ – but the truth is that there are myriad different layers of relationships represented on the site. For me there are some people I know very well, others I’ve met a couple of times at most and many many who have perhaps read a book of mine but whom I’ve never been in the same country as. With these different kinds of relationships there are different levels of relational investment, and these are really quite complex. I’d wager that Stephen Fry could tweet that he had just eaten a piece of toast and he’d get 100’s of favourites and a cascade of retweets. Why? Perhaps because some followers see a potential return on their investing in him and showing him their favour.
Social networks are still in their infancy. Technologically they are sophisticated of course, but in terms of our understanding of how they impact our relationships, and how they function relationally, they are quite immature.
The HuffPost piece ends by noting:
The bigger point here is that the qualities of annoying statuses are normal human qualities — everyone needs to brag to someone here and there, everyone has moments of weakness when they need attention or feel lonely, and everyone has some downright ugly qualities that are gonna come out at one time or another.
And that’s why you have people who love you.
The thing that Daniel and most others haven’t internalized is the fact that if they have 800 Facebook friends, only about 10 or 15 love them. For an especially lovable person, maybe it’s as high as 30. Between 1 and 4 percent. That means that between 96 and 99 percent of your Facebook friends DO NOT LOVE YOU.
This is, in a way, the same point I am making: just because there exists a digital connection on Facebook does not mean that there is any investment in that relationship – let’s not forget that it only took a click to begin it. But it’s the conclusion that worries me because the article places the emphasis solely on the post-er for not being insufferable.
I think we need to be more empathetic than that. We are in the midst of huge sea-changes in how undertake human interaction. This means that writers and readers are both going to get it wrong in misunderstanding the different kinds of relationships that are simultaneously extant. Yes, it’s good to offer some humorous pointers to how to ‘behave better’ but, from the position of strength that the author takes, it would have been better to cut the snarking of writers down and instead remind readers of the importance of being empathetic.
Which is to say, next time you see that post that aches of someone being lonely or craving attention or desperately wanting us to think they have a great life (and haven’t we all done it? Apologies for all the times I’m sure I have!) – don’t rush to hatred or venom, to raising your middle finger at the screen. Think ‘we’ll work it out in a few years’ and ask if you can do something loving to make someone you are invested in feel better.
Then, and perhaps most importantly, reflect on why you are connected to that person anyway. If you don’t care that they are lonely, or don’t want to know about their successes, why are you ‘friends’? Is it because you value the size of your friend-count more than their friendship? Because I’ll bet quite a lot that whoever wrote the original HuffPost piece was checking for how many ‘likes’ it had accrued…