Hi, my name is Brett, and I joined Facebook in 2007…

Facebook is great, right? It’s the one social media outlet that (almost) everybody uses. According to Facebook statistics, as of September 2016, there are 1.18 billion daily active world-wide Facebook users on average. We use it for life updates, photos, videos, event organizing, groups, Chewbacca mom, mannequin challenges, etc. We even rely on Facebook to get caught up on current events with local, national, and international happenings. People can share their most shallow or profound thoughts and opinions for open and (ideally) healthy discussion, usually to be countered with other thoughts and opinions, maybe conflicting ones, and then potentially countered with argument, offensive statements, and sometimes personal attacks.

I’d say Facebook encourages these thoughts and opinions — just look at the top of your news feed: “What’s on your mind?” The site is full of conflicting opinions, especially now, at the end of a presidential election season. So, what do you think? Facebook is great, right?

For the record, I think it’s great — here’s my short list why: The simple internet based way to keep up with friends is very attractive to me, a millennial introvert. I recently found and joined a Facebook group for my high school graduating class — which coincidentally had their 10-year reunion just a couple months before I found the FB group — great timing on my part, I didn’t want to go anyway. I also went to a Halloween party a few weeks ago that was coordinated through a FB event page. Everything about Facebook Events makes planning a get-together simple: quickly inviting friends by name and tracking RSVPs, centralized conversations around party logistics, and all the necessary info in one place. It’s nothing new to us; we’ve all been invited to a thing via FB event, but the event page is informative and I don’t know about you but I do know that I look over the simplicity of it frequently. Not to mention photo and video sharing is great— everyone wants likes and emoji’s and comments and affirmations. The Facebook: where your self-worth and your hourly notification count become one (sarcasm optional).

Digging a little deeper, Facebook is ideally a beautiful place to express your thoughts with your friends without fear of judgement. When you find an article about some social injustice that reaches into your core, you potentially feel a personal connection to the cause. Now that you have a potentially deep and personal connection, you decide to raise awareness and share the article on Facebook. Ideally, this is when your friends see the cause you've promoted and respond with an equal amount of connection and support — this is obviously not what happens, but let’s say it does (for now). All of a sudden you’ve shared something meaningful that your friends support and agree with. Let’s say they join in and raise awareness with you. Sharing, liking, commenting — agreement, support, emotional connection. It’s great because you’ve done it; you have raised awareness and you’ve opened people’s eyes to a point where this injustice could receive the attention it deserves by someone or some group to achieve a meaningful and positive solution. But something else happens. Something that could potentially become more important to you than the injustice itself.

Of course, I’m referring to approval. Self-help author Peter Michaelson directly addresses approval in the beginning of a blog post:

Using brain imaging, researchers have discovered that pleasure is activated in the brain when people get positive feedback concerning their reputation or character.

When we receive approval on our posts in the form of reactions, likes, and affirming comments, it feels good because we imagine that our friends aren’t just reacting to our post’s message, they’re also reacting to how right we are. If this approval can provide pleasure then we will seek that approval as frequently as we can. We begin sharing more content on Facebook. More status updates, more Instagrams, more Vines (RIP), more Facebook live broadcasts. We do all of it for the pleasure that we get from gains in internet based, social media reputation. Sometimes we might be sharing to the point of unhealthy Facebook use; maybe posting lies about ourselves for some likes and comments. And I think I can say, without studying psychology in any way, that relying on approval to provide pleasure is very unhealthy. I’m reminded of a heart-wrenching short video titled “What’s on your mind?”

“What’s on your mind?” by Shaun Higton

Side note: In 2015, The Happiness Research Institute did a study on how social media affects the quality of our lives; they called it The Facebook Experiment. Ultimately, they discovered that people who quit using Facebook ended up being less stressed, less sad, less worried, less depressed, less lonely, more enthusiastic, more decisive, happier, enjoyed life more, and had a higher level of life satisfaction.

Okay. So.

We are frequently posting to Facebook, sometimes dishonestly and potentially to an unhealthy point, so that we can receive positive feedback about our character and reputation to ultimately feel pleasure. But wait. Here’s the thing. We’re still talking about the ideal Facebook experience. You’ll only feel that pleasure from every post if your friends respond positively to all of your content. In reality, we have Facebook friends that we genuinely want to stay connected with (family, friends, or your high school graduating class) but inevitably have some disagreements with. Pleasure is still connected to approval but realistically some of your posts will not get approval. Think about the strong connection to the social injustice from earlier that was loved by everyone; now think about everyone having negative and conflicting thoughts about the injustice. When your friends respond negatively, you’re not receiving that approval; (and let’s face it) you shared it in hope you’d receive positive feedback. You’ll be let down, and maybe upset or hurt, when the response is negative or conflicting—a complete lack of that approval or pleasure.

When you share something that other people do not agree with, it is likely that you will turn your disappointment in the absence of that expected approval and pleasure into feelings of personal offense and anger. Or, you might experience that offense from the other side, reading a post by one of your Facebook friends with opinions that directly contradict yours. When a friend shares their support for a political issue that you disagree with and it feels like a direct defiance to your personal values, what do you do? Argue about why your opinion is more important than theirs in the comments section? Attack that friend because you thought more of their intelligence before now, but this somehow changes everything? I mean, it is a lot easier to argue with someone and insult someone when you don’t have to experience empathy with someone looking back at you — the keyboard and screen remove the risk of seeing the emotion on someone’s face when you say something hurtful.

It has become normal to almost involuntarily voice your opinions and thoughts, offensive or not, to the entire internet with an expectation that people will care.

Maybe you purposefully share a controversial, uncomfortable, or offensive article knowing it will receive negative feedback. The response might be overwhelmingly negative, or you may not get a response at all. There are plenty of causes that aren’t feel-good, but are definitely still good to discuss and be aware of. I would think the lack of attention, or overwhelming negative attention, you receive on the post will still give you a sense of pleasure. If your goal is controversy, then the negative feedback you receive or don’t receive might still make you feel like your reputation is in good standing, by letting you know you’ve stood up for what’s right in spite of the discomfort or offense.

I am all for discussion. I absolutely love having conversations, feel-good and uncomfortable, with my friends and family about our thoughts, opinions, and beliefs. There’s something special about a tight-knit group of friends that you can speak openly and honestly with (in person), without fear of anyone judging you too harshly. There’s less room for ambiguity, because it’s easy to ask for clarification. It’s good. It’s community. And it’s definitely healthy. I believe it is not healthy when we treat our Facebook timeline or a Facebook comments section the same way we treat our tight-knit group of friends. It’s all text. There’s far less emotion, because text robs you of the author’s inflection or facial expression, especially when it’s someone you haven’t seen in a while or never met in the first place. Without inflection, the reader can be left in ambiguity land. An off the cuff status update you barely thought about twice can be massively important and offensive to someone else.

Are we weak? Are we too sensitive? Do we hold too tightly to distrust and defensiveness? Are we stuck in a perpetual state of seeking and responding to things that offend us? Maybe. Probably? I don’t know. But I do think that we give too much attention to our online reputation, approval, and the pleasure we get from both of those, or their absence. And don’t get me wrong, I’m not against sharing things on the internet; I’m obviously sharing my opinions online right now.

I am against three main things: ambiguity, reacting emotionally, and posting for approval. I suggest:

  1. Ambiguity: Strive for clarity. Ambiguity is a dangerous thing. Text doesn’t afford the same intonation and nuance of the spoken word. Be mindful of what you type and how you phrase it. Reread your words from a different perspective before hitting ‘post’. And please, use the Oxford comma.
  2. Reacting Emotionally: Slow down. Give the benefit of the doubt. Don’t assume someone is purposefully trying to offend you. Have faith in your friends and be aware of your capacity for misunderstanding. And don’t forget that it is acceptable to be offended and not voluntarily share it with the world.
  3. Posting for Approval: There are plenty of self-help books and articles out there to help you let go of the need for approval. I don’t know how much I can speak to this but I can suggest that you’ll never feel enough approval from a person or people if you’re looking for it. Focus on faith, hobbies, and time spent with family and friends. Find pleasure in what you love, not in what others think of you.

I wouldn’t say that these are my three easy rules to a perfectly pleasurable life, but I think they could help with how we pursue it. Your life on social media isn’t reality. At best, it’s a carefully cultivated highlights reel, and, at worst, it’s the lie you tell the rest of the world to gather up approval of that fictional you. Don’t lose sight of yourself, the real you; not this character that exists only on Facebook. Don’t ignore the complex humanity behind every other profile picture with an opinion you don’t like. There’s good in everyone, but it’s hardest to see when you only acknowledge the bad. And lastly, don’t rely on meaningless internet attention for your self-worth: that currency will buy you nothing that lasts.