The Masters of Comparison

Giles Lambert

“I have 78 likes on that pic. How many do you have?”

High school has just let out in a small town and a flood of teenagers suddenly surrounds me at the local Starbucks.

“I haven’t been using filters lately. Just natural light.” says a girl on speaker phone. The girl holding the phone responds, “I still use filters…but just because I want all my photos to look the same…ya know?”.

At this point, I glance over my shoulder. The girl on the phone is accompanied by another girl, who is on her phone. The two girls who are physically present are not talking to each other. The girl on the phone and the girl on speaker phone continue:

“I have like 3 Snapchats you haven’t even looked at yet!”, says the virtual girl.

It then occurs to me that I haven’t even used snapchat since my husband made me install it on my phone. I panic. I feel old. And I’m “only” 28. I’m the tech savvy one in my family. I built my mom’s website for her business. I did the same for my adorable 70-something pottery instructor. These acts of kindness made me feel so, well, smart! Suddenly, that tech intelligence disappears in the face of these 14-year-old tech goddesses.

Worse still, these girls are my clients. Well, not these girls exactly, but teens. I’ve built a business that assists kids with college and career guidance. I need to be relevant or I’ll never win with these guys!

In an earlier meeting with a student, I’d felt like a proud millennial when she remarked, “You’re so good with computers! And you type so fast!”. Now, I realize what’s really going on here: I’m good with computers, yes. Like a typist was good with typewriters. But these kids are the experts in technology of the newest kind and of the social kind.

Another thing these teens are rockstars at? Comparisons. They can better determine a good product from a bad product; they know the shoes that were made by child slaves and the shoes that were made from organic cotton by adult slaves; they know the best way to get around Italy on a $50 budget and they know the shady Airbnb joint from the top-notch one — all because they can expertly navigate reviews and copious amounts of data in seconds.

They are also experts at gathering vast amounts of information about their peers and about celebrities. What was so obviously clear after just seconds of eavesdropping on the conversation at Starbucks was these girls were analyzing, comparing and critiquing photos, public image, perception, likability and so on, like a bunch of art critics at the Louvre.

The problem? They’re obsessed.

These girls were not just exhibiting critical thinking skills; these girls, and millions of other teens, are constantly comparing themselves with the people they can so easily scrutinize online.

Within the span of a few years, comparison has become a past time, a conversation piece, an addiction.

I recall when Facebook first became available to high school students, my friends would go through profiles of their friends as if they were breaking the rules. I remember thinking, how incredibly boring….I’d rather be watching Gilmore Girls. That wasn’t the beginning of the comparison age, but I’d say it launched us into a comparison frenzy.

The fascinating and disturbing thing is that the tools that promote and facilitate comparison, while expertly used by teens today, were created by teens who are now adults, sitting at Starbucks, wondering what the hell is going on.