By NATALIA GARCIA
It is a Tuesday night and I am at the library browsing through Facebook between assignments when I come across a picture of a friend from high school holding a 3-liter bottle of Maison Perrier-Jouët at PHD, one of New York City’s most exclusive nightclubs. “$25,000,” the caption reads. He is also a college student in New York City, and yet here I am at the library, feeling like I’m drowning in schoolwork, while he is out enjoying the city’s vibrant nightlife and drinking exorbitantly priced champagne on a Tuesday night. Half of me wants to roll my eyes at his flagrant braggadocio, but the other half wishes that I too could occasionally escape the library to enjoy the city.
Fear of missing out, or FOMO, is a well-documented phenomenon. It is the sense of anxiety and restrained envy that overcomes you when you realize your friends are going out without you, or when everyone else seems to be having more fun than you. And, as I learned that Tuesday night, it can easily be triggered by social media. A 2013 study conducted by researchers at TU Darmsdadt and Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin found that envy is rampant on Facebook. It points out that social media networks provide an “unprecedented scale of information sharing” and an “easy and transparent means to compare and ‘benchmark’ [ourselves] against [our] peers.”
But how much of what we perceive through social media is accurate? While abundant, research on the authenticity of social media profiles is starkly divided. A 2010 Association for Psychological Science study found that Facebook profiles communicate users’ real personalities more often than their idealized personalities. Its researchers argue that it is difficult to present an idealized version of oneself on the social media network because “friends provide accountability and subtle feedback on one’s profile” and Facebook profiles “include information about one’s reputation that is difficult to control (e.g., wall posts).”
Yet a study recently published in New Media and Society uncovered an interesting paradox: social media users want their profiles to seem authentic, but they also admit to hiding or altering the information they share in order to conform to the standards they see on their News Feeds. Another 2014 study, this one published by the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, found that people were more likely to make their relationship visible on social media on days when they felt insecure about their relationship.
“For the most part, people are going to exaggerate how things are going,” says Robert Fine, founder of The Social Media Monthly. Social media gives users control over how they present themselves, making it easy for them to leave out the not-so-pleasant details that might make all the difference. Indeed, I later learned that my friend never drank his $25,000 champagne, because it was never his to begin with. But the misleading caption was ironically also a sincere reflection of his boastful personality.
If anything, the mixed research suggests that while it is difficult to present an entirely idealized version of ourselves on Facebook, it is easy to leave out unflattering information or exaggerate. The result of this “ever increasing wave of self-presentation” on social media is what researchers at TU Darmsdadt and Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin study refer to as the “self-promotion – envy spiral,” meaning that users are spurred to self-promote as a reaction to their friends’ efforts.
Daniela Alvarez, a student at St. John’s College in Annapolis, agrees. She cites her belief that “Facebook instills a lot of social and economic pressure” as one of the reasons she quit the social media network for a year. “If you think about it, everything on Facebook is on there to receive some sort of validation,” she says, noting that sometimes she wanted to take pictures just to put them up on Facebook, “instead of just enjoying the moment.”
Yet her break from the website was only partial: she admits she occasionally reactivated her account to check birthdays or look for pictures, and she finally returned to Facebook for good when she was back home for a weekend and wanted to know who else was there, a desire that Facebook easily fulfilled through its “check-in” feature. That is precisely why it is so hard for Millenials to quit the social media network: for us, Facebook is the modern-day calendar, email, photo album, invitation, yearbook—everything, all-in-one; and no dishonest or conceited post on our News Feed seems like reason enough to abandon the network’s countless other uses.