Wednesday, June 13, 2012

What Does Facebook Have Against Self-Esteem? (Don't "Dislike" This!)

"November spawned a monster," Morrissey once sang. So has Facebook. Not just one -- an army of them. And not just the thousands of little ones that Lady Gaga calls her "followers." Big-ass monsters with great potential to screw up our psyches.

Some of them actually hate Facebook. They wear not having a profile there like a badge of honor. Others open a Facebook account, but they never use it, as if that makes them cool by default. Using Facebook, they seem to imply, renders you hopelessly uncool -- as if members of this particular social network aren't subject to enough neuroses as it is.

I'd be lying if I said that in the four years since I opened my Facebook account there haven't been myriad benefits to being part of what has become the world's greatest social network ever. It's reunited me with relatives and long-lost classmates from my distant past. It's enabled me to keep in touch with people I've met in the various cities I've visited over the years and the ones I've called home, people who might otherwise fall by the wayside. It's given me the means to stay connected to that cool guy, or girl, I just met yesterday -- or last night.

So what if I don't communicate with most of them on a regular basis -- or ever? It's nice to know that they're there. I've even noticed a sharp decline this year in the number of total strangers -- or people I don't remember -- who try to "friend" me.

There are non-human benefits, too. It's a great place to share my work, my words, my ideas, my burning questions, the occasional minutiae of my everyday life. I've never been one for joining groups and clubs, but if I were, I probably would no longer have much use for them. Who needs expat groups to give you a social life abroad when you've got a community with hundreds of members waiting every time you turn on your computer? And you don't have to shower, shave and get dressed to connect with them.

Oh, but there are downsides, too. The confessional, revelatory nature of Facebook is not exactly conducive to new relationships, which were already tricky ventures pre-Facebook. Break ups were hard enough, too, but now we have the added anxiety of wondering when an ex is going to "de-friend" us. And don't get me started on all of those unwanted invitations!

Even when Facebook actions are not directed at you personally, the cumulative effect still could prevent you from getting out of bed. I once read an article about how Facebook makes some people depressed and potentially suicidal. I wouldn't have believed it had a friend not confirmed its findings shortly afterwards. He told me that he had to close his Facebook account because he was tired of reading about everyone's perfect lives.

I told him not to believe everything he reads. Chances are that his "friends" are just as miserable as he is. But you know how "friends" are in real life: Nobody loves you when you're down and out. Who wants to read about your sickness and ill health, your broken heart, your cash-flow woes, in your status update? A happy Facebook poster is a popular Facebook poster.

He agreed, but the damage had been done. Facebook had screwed with his mind, somehow making his life seem like less of one than everybody else's. If only he had more exciting things to share. If only more people had pressed "like" every time he updated his status. (Not that most people are paying such close attention: I've actually seen "10 people like this" following status updates involving death, health problems, unemployment and bad romance.)

But now I'm beginning to think that Facebook wants us to feel like crap. This morning I received an "Enable Dislike Button on Facebook" invitation. Apparently, they're trying to make Facebook like YouTube, so that when somebody posts a status update involving their workout schedule, their perfect body/face/job and/or their exotic holidays, we can show our lack of appreciation by clicking on "dislike."

Who would this benefit exactly? Those who accept the invitation to enable the "dislike" button in their profiles, or those who exercise the option to use it?

What true-blue "friend" would even "dislike" one of your posts unless the sentiment was anonymous, as it is on YouTube? But it's not just about the opinions of the people who want to advertise their mean streaks. What about the ones it would effect most: those with the "dislike" option underneath their status updates? Posting on Facebook already has all of the built-in anxiety it needs: What if everyone thinks you're an idiot? What if nobody thinks you're funny, or interesting, or attractive? What if nobody "likes" you -- I mean, your post?

Why would anybody want to add the "dislike" option to what is already a process with so much potential to ruin our day? Maybe it's time for Facebook to borrow another feature from YouTube: the option to turn off comments completely. It might take some of the fun out of Facebook (making it more like LinkedIn, which is slightly useless), but the self-esteem it saves could be your own.
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