Social Media: A Hotbed of Humble Bragging
We brag, we watch, we feel inadequate. So we brag some more.
My parents knew a few humble braggers in their time. They came around in the holidays and subtly pointed out how brilliantly their business/child/house renovation was doing.
I vaguely remember these people loftily holding up their brandy glasses and criticising their bank for being too small to handle all their money. But as a child, I had that uncanny ability to happily run away whenever they came close. No offense was taken (no child was as intelligent/wonderful/emotionally developed as theirs anyway) so it was all good.
Yet I noticed how the adults would gravitate towards them and then quickly shuffle away, muttering something about the bathroom and a desperate need to consume more salmon mousse vol-au-vonts. The couple continued their story, hunting for new people with a fresh ear to bend, and later left the party smiling a smug smile. Now everybody knew how brilliant their lives were. Their job was done.
After much mutual complaining, my parents eventually labelled them “dickheads” and avoided them at all costs. But two short decades later, we live in another reality. What was once seen as a social faux pas has taken on a new lease of life. Overt bragging, in its raw and unpolished form, is still frightfully uncouth. But humble bragging — well, that’s an art that we have all come to master.
The founders of social media, hunched over computers and drinking soylent in their garage, perhaps didn’t know they were unleashing such a persistent and complicated beast into the world. Their original line was that their inventions were a new and cool way to connect people and share stories about our lives.
Zukerberg promised Facebook would “give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected.” A year after starting Instagram, Systrom described the platform as “a storytelling service. It’s the way you go out in the world and tell a story about your life”. Never to be outshone, Snapchat took this rhetoric one step further, their original mission being to “empower people to express themselves, live in the moment, learn about the world, and have fun together.” All sounds lovely, right? Social media was born so we could tell our interesting stories.
But this evolved. Because telling stories to people beyond our immediate social circle brought with it great opportunity. Who needs high school reunions or holiday newsletters? Now we could show people how wonderful our lives are every single day. The caption might read “This place is beautiful #blessed” but what we meant was “Look at this fantabulous photo. I am so artistic and well traveled and really a better person than all of you.”
Instagram focuses on images, the perfect breeding ground for the humble brag brigade. Selfies, the bread and butter of the network, are a source of bragging in their own right. But to downplay this outright display of narcissism, they are now combined with heartfelt captions. Look at this amazing shot of me where my skin and hair is flawless! But oops, I actually wanted to talk about how life is a struggle and being a social media influencer isn’t all it’s cracked up to be…#selfcare #love #mentalhealth.
In a move to take some of the market share from Snapchat, Instastories also became part of the platform in 2016. These 24 hour windows provided a wealth of opportunities for a quick snappy humble brag (that disappears, so it’s all good). Oh look at me with all my friends at this party! I should be studying for my law degree (at Harvard, whoops!) #FML #lifeishard.
Facebook also lumbers on, taking on the stories trend in 2017 in a last ditch attempt to gain some street cred. Once a place for drunken student photos and elaborate conversations on a friend’s wall, news feeds have now evolved into a concoction of wedding photos, UniLad videos, and the odd political rant.
The generational gap in how people use Facebook also affects who humble brags. Young people scroll through to binge watch videos and stalk their ex, old people write long posts with glittery backgrounds, gushing about how well their daughter did in her GCSEs.
And finally there is LinkedIn, the quintessential humble bragging platform. LinkedIn was built as a platform to connect professionals. A 24 hour online networking event, if you will. But of course, with all those important connections, people couldn’t help slipping in a humble brag or two. I’m excited to announce that I have now taken another exceptional step forward in my career! A big thank you to all the people out there who have finally realised that I am magnificent!
On LinkedIn, bragging is rarely covered up; it is in fact encouraged. Without the humble brag, LinkedIn would be a ghost town of online courses, interview tips and a smattering of bad eBook downloads. If you want to get the most out of it, people need to know what you are doing and why you are doing it.
But if you already have a job, and your career is fine and dandy, is the regular humble brag post necessary? Do people need to know you got another promotion? That you LOVE your colleagues, are way more successful than your peers and earn 10x more money?
Not really, no.
The social media humble brag is relatively recent in the grand scheme of things, yet it has become an acceptable norm. This is not only problematic because, hey, it’s quite annoying - but it also takes its toll on out mental health. Gen Zers, who shall henceforth be known as the humble bragging generation, are screwed. Humble bragging is in their DNA. And it doesn’t feel good.
According to a poll for the Prince’s Trust of 2000+ adults between 16–25, not only does comparing your life to others on social media make you feel inadequate, it also creates an overwhelming pressure to succeed. We see others’ achievements and ours pale in comparison. We think we should be doing more. We feel we are falling behind.
However the poll results also suggest humble bragging is cyclical. In spite of the self esteem bashing effects of social media, the poll also found that 41% of participants felt more confident online than they do in person. Watching others makes us feel inadequate, doing it ourselves boosts us up. We’ve got to keep going — we’ve got to get our fix.
Is humble bragging, therefore, intimately tied to a collective existential crisis? Without it, do we doubt our accomplishments? Wondering if I achieve something, and nobody is around to see my humble brag, did I achieve anything at all?
Bragging has always been a pain. But at least in the past we could happily run away from it (or, if you were a grownup, stop inviting dickheads to your parties). Now we are faced with it day in, day out. We do it ourselves. We like it. We applaud it. And I’m not advocating for cutting people down and tramping all over their success. But we desperately need to recapture the joy of celebrating something inwardly.
Because of course you should be proud of your achievements. Pat yourself on the back. Write it in your diary. Have a glass of champagne without the inevitable Instagram story. Tell your closest friend who always believed in you.
But not your high school hockey coach. They (really) don’t care. And they secretly hate you.