It’s hard to explain to friends that while I’m on social media, I’m not on social media. I have a reasonably up-to-date profile (the same way you might be listed in YellowPages), but I make a point to limit scrolling through newsfeeds. I’ve even gone cold turkey on Facebook stalking, previously one of my favorite pastimes.
It’s made me happier, healthier, and I’m more connected with my friends than ever before. This is backed by study after study that links social media use with heightened anxiety, depression, and loneliness.
But while it seems like everyone knows that social media makes you anxious, most don’t realize that the newsfeed is fundamentally engineered that way. In other words, it’s not the increased exposure to your friends’ lives that’s driving anxiety, it’s the way Facebook presents it to you.
How the Newsfeed works:
The biggest misconception about Facebook/Instagram is that the feed represents what’s happening in your network. By nature, posts are more likely to come from people who are successful in their work/relationships, and more vocal about it. Already, we’re getting a small subset of what’s actually happening on a day to day basis.
On top of this, Facebook curates what it thinks would be the most interesting to you based on who you know, what you’ve commented on/liked, and even what you’ve spent time looking at.
It’s built by hundreds of the smartest user experience specialists and data scientists who are constantly working to get you to look at your newsfeed for just one second more. More time spent = more data = more ads = more $$$.
That means tweaking algorithms to show you slightly more engaging content; you looked at Mark’s post for 4.2 seconds and Sheryl’s for just 2.7, so we’ll show you more from Mark.
The problem is that these algorithms aren’t smart enough to know why you engaged with Mark’s post longer — it just knows that you did.
There are lots of articles that go in depth on precisely how Facebook determines what to show you, but the most “engaging” (and misery-inducing) posts usually fall into 3 buckets:
- Extreme Viewpoints That Make You Angry: Your Anti-Vax aunt who wants to build the wall? Facebook knows you’ve been staring at her posts (you might have even commented on a few!) and now she’s at the top of your newsfeed.
- Stuff Your Friends Did Without You (aka FOMO): Couldn’t make that fun group trip? Facebook won’t let you forget it. Nine of your best friends are commenting enthusiastically on that group photo, so it’s going to sit on your feed for the next couple of weeks to remind you of what you missed.
- Wonderful Things Happening To Other People: This can take many different forms; your hot acquaintance posting a gym selfie, your classmate’s promotion, or your cousin’s 3rd marathon. It’s not one specific post makes you feel inadequate — you’re genuinely happy for everyone’s achievements — but Facebook makes it seem like everyone else is crushing it nonstop, 24/7. It doesn’t matter how secure you are; it’s hard to feel like you measure up when everyone else seems to be doing better than you in every way imaginable.
This Frankenstein feed triggers just about every part of your subconscious brain to feel miserable. You’re measuring yourself against impossible ideals of success, focusing on what others have, and wallowing in anger.
It’s pushing all the right buttons to keep you “engaged” — scrolling longer, consuming more, and feeling worse.
What It All Means
All this is not to say that you need to go dark and delete your social media to be happy. I still think social media is pretty cool, despite everything. A couple years ago, I posted that I was in Hong Kong, and a classmate I hadn’t seen in 5+ years messaged me. I had dinner with her that night. Without Facebook, this wouldn’t have been possible.
But it is important to understand that your newsfeed is just a highlights reel, expertly crafted by very smart people at billion dollar businesses. It’s designed to keep your attention, not to reflect reality and certainly not to make you feel good. That same friend in Hong Kong commented over drinks that my travelling photos were so “baller” and that she wished she could quit her boring job to do the same.
I started laughing because I knew from LinkedIn that she was working a lucrative job at an investment bank. I was travelling the world, but it was because I had just shut down my start-up and needed to save money on rent.
She couldn’t have known that last bit until she caught up with me in person — I didn’t post it to Facebook.
Christine Miao is a UX and product designer based in NYC. She used to work at McKinsey, but quit to do a start-up (her Mom still thinks she made a huge mistake). She now designs and builds things via Clowder Labs, attempts to write, and is most recently working on Emerson Journal; a daily journaling app designed to help you write everyday, fight FOMO, and feel better.