[WARNING: light philosophical content ahead]
I’m a newcomer to the world of Facebook, having joined only in June of last year. I resisted for as long as I could, until I gave in to the pull of being kept abreast of what people are up to, posting pictures of my kids for family and friends scattered around the world, and possibly also some less noble motivations. For the most part, it’s been a pleasurable experience: I came to realize that there is a lot of meaningful philosophical interaction going on on Facebook (whereas mathematicians, for example, seem to prefer to hang out at G+), and got in touch with many philosophers who I had little to no contact with. But as any newcomer to anything, I had to learn the rules of the game, in particular what to post and what not to post. (Which is not to say that I’ve achieved mastery level at this point; far from it, as discussed below the fold.)
It is clear that there are different posting styles on Facebook: the minimalists never post much, but you know they are there, keeping track of what others are up to, through their ‘likes’ and occasional comments; at the other extreme, the over-sharers who feel the world needs to be informed of excruciating details on their daily workouts, meals, thoughts and whatever else comes their way (nothing intrinsically wrong with that!). Then there are the meme-fans, with noticeable variation in content quality (mostly bad, but some rather insightful). And in between, many more options, as a tool like Facebook is basically what you make of it. (And you can always mute the verbose friend in your news feed.)
However, there have been a couple of recent studies painting a less rosy picture of the impact of Facebook use on people’s overall wellbeing. For example, this study claims to have established that “passive following exacerbates envy feelings, which decrease life satisfaction”. It actually makes sense, given that for the most part people post their happy moments on Facebook, which may create the impression of unconditional success. This other study claims to establish that there is a causal relation between using Facebook and decreased subjective wellbeing (among young adults at least, which was the demographics of their participants).
Even if these results should be taken with a grain of salt, I must admit that they got me thinking about my own posting behavior and the impact it may have on those exposed to my posts. (I am well aware of my overbearing tendencies.) Like many others, I like to share relevant bits of good news in my life, such as a paper accepted for publication, upcoming trips and lectures, and for better or worse, I’m also of the opinion that it’s ok to share links to one’s blog posts (I know this is controversial). But I would hate to think that this partial picture of my life might create feelings of envy, in particular among the members of the profession who have it more difficult than me (with a TT job, and a few cushy research grants on my back).
One might think that adjusting the privacy settings of a given post should take care of that, but restricting your post to ‘Friends’ won’t do. Everybody knows that being ‘Facebook friends’ doesn’t mean being friends (it’s something in between a friend and a false friend), so there is no way of excluding the possibility that among your many ‘Facebook friends’, there are people for whom yet another status update about one’s splattering successes will not go down very well.
One may wonder in which way the ethics of bragging on Facebook (or any other social network) is different from the ethics of bragging face-to-face; now, it seems to me that there are pretty obvious differences. To start with, the sheer magnitude of it: if you have, say, 400 friends and followers, a braggy comment is likely to hit the sensitivity of at least some of them. Second, face-to-face interactions allow for online calibration, so if you are minimally sensitive you may be able to pick up the signals that you’ve said something inadequate; not so on Facebook. Finally, face-to-face interactions, even if still partial (you can still choose what to say and what not to say), will offer a less partial picture of a person than random status updates, and thus potentially leave less margin for envy and related feelings.
So do we have a moral obligation to take this into account when deciding what to post and what not to post? I submit that we do. Does this mean one can never post about happy events in one’s life? No, it does not, but I have a few suggestions, if anyone is interested:
- Don’t post only on happy events; post also about personal ‘failures’. For example, a research grant you applied for but did not get; in the more personal department, some glaring example of your less-than-perfect parenting skills. This should make for a more accurate picture of what your life is really like, with ups and downs just like everyone else's.
- Make lists. Facebook has a ‘Lists’ function, so you can list your friends into different categories and post specific updates in a more targeted way. In particular, I have a ‘personal’ list, which is where I post most of the pictures of my kids and other private events, holiday pictures etc. The idea here is that people on this list know me better and thus are less likely to get a partial, overly rosy idea of my life.
(This is also because Facebook is for me above all a professional tool to be in touch with the philosophical community, but I don’t assume that all these colleagues who hardly know me would be interested in a constant stream of kids content -- even if my kids are particularly beautiful, if I may say so myself.)
(Needless to say, similar considerations apply to a person’s overall internet persona, including blogging!)
Anyway, this is all rather light in terms of philosophical content, but I’d be interested in hearing thoughts others might have on the 'ethics of bragging', in particular but not exclusively related to social media. This question is somewhat related to a recent discussion on whether (young) folk should or should not use Twitter, but here I am interested in the impact on the receivers of the messages, not the senders.