Have you ever checked one of your social media posts to see how many likes it got? Have you ever rechecked it to see how many more likes it got? Have you ever looked through the list of people to see who specifically liked it? Have you ever looked down that list, and made a mental note of who didn’t like it?
I’m guilty of every one of those, and I’m really hoping I’m not alone. I’m curious why we so badly desire digital likes. And then, why do we go to such great lengths to filter our real lives in pursuit of the perfect digital life?
When Digital Likes Comes Easier than Real Ones
In middle school, I vividly remember being consumed with the clothes I was wearing, and what kids thought of me. Am I cool enough? Are my pants the right length? (Now I’m lazy and just roll them up if they’re too long. Being an adult is so cool.) The funny part is that our adolescent insecurities never fully go away. We still care what people think of us, and we still want to be liked. There are times I make a joke, and then I replay the stupid joke in my head for the rest of the day and wonder how it came across. Did they like it? Did I sound like a complete idiot? What does that person think of me now?
It’s no wonder that when it comes to our digital lives, we bow our heads, bury our attention in a phone, and salivate like Pavlov’s dog. Obviously part of it is that we enjoy the approval of others, because the approval of others validates who we are. When people pay us complements, or pursue a friendship with us, it gives our self-esteem something to stand on. Not only do we think we’re good, or funny, or worth something, but now there are other people who think the same thing.
When it comes to digital likes, the approval we’re receiving from other people actually has a quantifiable number. “Wow, 47 people liked what I said! I’m 47 people cool today! My last comment I was only 13 people cool!” That doesn’t happen in our daily lives. In fact, I bet many of us can go a whole day, week, or month, without receiving an encouraging, self-esteem building word in real life. It’s no wonder we turn to social media for that positive feedback.
Because we can receive nearly immediate praise from people online, which is a feeling we don’t often experience in real-life, it makes sense that we start to shape our digital-life into a perfect caricature of what our life really looks like.
Making Life Look Perfect
I remember making fun of social media when it first came out. There was a lot of pictures of food, because our phones started to have cameras, and we didn’t know what to take pictures of. I remember when our status updates were little more than AIM away messages. “Going to the bathroom, and then having a snack. BRB.”
Since those early days, we’ve been conditioned well. With each post we make, we watch those likes pile up (or not), and we adjust accordingly. We start to look for those perfect moments that we think will play best to our audience. The best pictures and the big vacations. Looking good is more important than looking real, because sometimes what’s real doesn’t look very good.
So we filter our lives. We Instagram filter, and then we really filter. We post the things we’re proud of, and we hide the things we’re ashamed of. We craft our social media life to reflect what we want our lives to be, and not necessarily what they are. That’s not completely unhealthy. I really shouldn’t post online every time I lose my temper with the kids, or when I have unfair expectations of my wife. But how does our constant focus on making our digital lives look perfect impact our real life?
When Our Perfect Expectations Inevitably Fall Short
We desire the approval of others, we condition ourselves to think perfection will attain that approval, and daily we scroll through our friends doing the same. There’s a very real danger of taking what we see on our social media feed, and then comparing our real life to the well-manicured lives of our friends.
On New Year’s Eve, my Facebook feed was full of friends doing something fun. People going places, special parties, and tons of pictures that screamed cool. Here I was, watching the ball drop at 9 o’clock, in my pajamas, just the wife, myself, and the kids. Compared to what I saw other people doing, my natural reaction was to discount what we did that night. Our nice, quiet night as a family was no longer good enough. My real life didn’t measure up.
Then I made a post on Facebook that was a shout-out to all the other parents who stayed home with their kids and had a mellow celebration. I didn’t want to discount all the people who did something special and had fun, but there was something nice about being real. It was a moment to speak up and acknowledge what life looks like sometimes. It’s not always exciting, or perfect, and there’s no shame in that.
Life doesn’t always look like our carefully created Facebook feeds. Sometimes life is simple, boring, or even difficult, and that’s OK. That doesn’t mean we can’t share our favorite parts of life with people, but “sharing” our life shouldn’t be the source of our fulfillment in life. It’s great to know that I’m appreciated by those around me, but I don’t want to derive my personal value based on a digital persona and the likes I receive. I want my real life to impact others in real life. I want my life to shine a light into people’s lives in a way that a Facebook update, Tweet, or blog post could never do.
And of course, please Like this.