Keeping Up With the Joneses
July 12th, 2012

For a woman who spends a not-insignificant amount of time online, I sometimes worry that the internet is bad for me.

I e-mail.  I use Facebook.  I write two blogs and post to each one multiple times per week.  I read news online.  I shop online.  I watch videos online.  And as I think now about all the time I spend in front of a screen, it kind of makes me want to go be a park ranger.  …  I kid, sort of.

I’ve done a fair amount of pondering about the merits and perils of online social media on this blog.*  And I don’t mean to beat a dead horse, but… I really think we don’t yet fully understand the effect that our online lives are having on our offline lives.  I fear that we’re backing ourselves into psychosocial corners that we don’t know how to get out of.  My solution to this problem is twofold.  1)  I have become more proactive about scheduling face time to maintain the relationships I most value and to guard against whatever negative impact may be born by the presence of online social media in my life.  And 2) I read.  I read the opinions of people who study this stuff – people who know more about it than I do and can provide me some perspective on the issue (scientifically substantiated, where possible).

It was with that strategy in mind that  I picked up the May issue of The Atlantic at the gym on Tuesday night and read it’s cover article entitled “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?”

The article was long and investigated several interesting aspects of who uses Facebook, our motivations in doing so, and how some types of Facebooking (scanning without interacting) are correlated to increased loneliness, whereas other types (using it to interact and facilitate in-person contact) are correlated to decreased loneliness.  But there was one component of the article that really spoke to me: the matter of the projected identity.

If you only know someone on Facebook you only know a carefully crafted persona.  You see the Hawaiian vacation pictures, the darling children, the pithy e-cards, the girls nights out, and so on.  Even if a person laments a bad day or vents about a frustrating situation, it is still something they are choosing for you to see.  But by and large, most of what we see on Facebook is positive.  (If it were a giant online gripe-fest I doubt it would have grown to 845 million users.)  It is a way for us to share the things we want to share.  This, in turn, means that it is also a way for us to hide those things that we don’t want to share.

So all of a sudden keeping up with the Joneses just got a lot harder.  Pre-Facebook the Joneses had to maintain a particular image in all corners of their lives – during chance encounters at the grocery store, after a long afternoons of yard work, at work, at play, at church, and so on.  Now the Joneses you’re worried about keeping up with are not just the Joneses around your neighborhood, but also the Joneses from high school, college, and your old job – all the Joneses you’ve ever met.  And you won’t ever bump into them at the gas station with no makeup on.  You’ll only see what they want you to see.  And what most people want you to see is a pretty picture.

So why have 845 million of us joined Facebook?  The Atlantic article offered these thoughts on the matter:

Our omnipresent new technologies lure us toward increasingly superficial connections at exactly the same moment that they make avoiding the mess of human interaction easy. The beauty of Facebook, the source of its power, is that it enables us to be social while sparing us the embarrassing reality of society—the accidental revelations we make at parties, the awkward pauses, the farting and the spilled drinks and the general gaucherie of face-to-face contact. Instead, we have the lovely smoothness of a seemingly social machine. Everything’s so simple: status updates, pictures, your wall.

But the price of this smooth sociability is a constant compulsion to assert one’s own happiness, one’s own fulfillment. Not only must we contend with the social bounty of others; we must foster the appearance of our own social bounty. Being happy all the time, pretending to be happy, actually attempting to be happy—it’s exhausting.

Constantly comparing ourselves to others’ idyllic portraits is usually a losing battle.  (We know what our own underbellies look like.)  Those people who use Facebook merely to scan and not to interact apparently often walk away feeling disconnected and bad about themselves, which doesn’t surprise me at all.  It’s like looking at your friends and seeing 200+ prom queens.  (We don’t necessarily know what their underbellies look like.)  The Atlantic puts it this way, “It’s a lonely business, wandering the labyrinths of our friends’ and pseudo-friends’ projected identities, trying to figure out what part of ourselves we ought to project, who will listen, and what they will hear.”  Not only do we have to contend with the happy visions of our friends’ lives, but we must also decide what aspects of our own lives to put forth.  Will I post the a picture of the basket of unfolded laundry?  Probably not.  My kids at Disney World?  Much more likely.

But if you are a person who doesn’t have darling kids who say darling things; or if you haven’t been on a vacation in years; or if you didn’t have a fantastic evening of margaritas with your best buddies last night; you might feel lonely anyway.  Then trying to figure out what to put into your own projected identity may just make you feel even worse.

The answer to all of this?  I don’t have a silver bullet.  But I do have a little comment.  Actually, I have lots of little comments.  The research suggests that people whose wall posts are “liked” experience less loneliness than those whose are not.  People whose wall posts are commented on experience less loneliness than those whose are merely “liked.”  So what can I do?  I can comment.  I can reach out into the digital abyss and actually connect.

“It looks like her swimming lessons have really paid off!”

“I’ve been thinking of you lately.”

“Have a great trip!”

“Congrats on your new baby.  He’s just perfect and I can’t wait to meet him.”

Little comments that might, if I’m lucky, add up to something for someone else.


*Prior posts about technology and social media include: Do Not Disturb, Darwin and the Airplane, An Army of Gadgets, Robotic Relationships, Apple TV: Friend or Foe?Mass Mailing, and Facebook Friend: An Oxymoron?.

4 Responses to “Keeping Up With the Joneses”

  1. John Says:


    When Matt was born, Dorothy fretted that he would not get the nutrients he needed. The pediatrician said: “Just him eat what he wants to eat. His body will tell him what it needs.” I think social media are the same. Do what you want to do. Don’t do what you don’t want to do. Your mind–and/or heart–will tell you how much is enough.

  2. Aidan Donnelley Rowley Says:

    Love this. And I think about this – our immersion in this odd ether – often. What is happening to our minds and our bodies and our selves as we continually plunge into this space? I plan to totally unplug for the whole month of August. I am now culling a list of reasons why… there are so many. It will be hard for me to do this – to step away from the screen, but I also know it will be very good for me.

    Thanks for this thoughtful post. And for your very thoughtful comment on my words today.


  3. e Says:

    It is interesting to see the difference of the generations. I still prefer a telephone call 99% of the time, but my 25 year old son repeatedly says he prefers texting over the telephone. While texting and emails have advantages of reaching people when telephone calls simply don’t work, there is nothing like the inflection of the voice and the immediate back and forth of conversation that cannot be interpreted or accomplished in written words.

  4. Rebecca Hanover Says:

    Gale, I adore this post. I have been telling friends and family recently that I think I have to cut myself off (or at least back) from reading my newsfeed on facebook. Though it doesn’t make me feel lonely, it makes me anxious some of the time – but subconsciously. I think I’m enjoying it while I eat a snack or waiting for a friend. But I’m actually sizing up what all the people I know in the world are doing. And there’s no way that doesn’t, on some level, make me feel bad. Besides, it’s a time suck. I find myself procrastinating on FB, with the excuse that I “need to know” what everyone’s doing. How ridiculous is that?! Thanks for shedding light on this topic! xx