Social Media is Barely Skin Deep

Here’s a troubling fact. According to a study from the Georgia Institute of Tech, half of all selfies taken have one purpose, to show how good the subject looks. They are intended to show the world how attractive we are: our makeup, our clothes, our shoes, our lips, our hair. The category accounts for more selfies than all other categories combined. More than selfies taken with people or pets we love, more than us doing the things we love, more than being in the places we love, more than eating the food we love. It appears that the one thing we love the most is ourselves. The selfies have spoken

In this study, the authors reference a 1956 work from sociologist Erving Goffman– The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Goffman took Shakespeare’s line – “All the World is a Stage and all the men and women merely players” – quite literally. His theory was that we are all playing the part of whom we want to be perceived as. Our lives are divided up into two parts – the front, when we’re “on stage” and playing our part, and the “back” – when we prepare for our role. The roles we play depend on the context we’re in.

 

Goffman’s theory introduces an interesting variable into consideration. The way we play these roles and the importance we place on them will vary with the individual. For some of us, it will be all about the role and less about the actual person who inhabits that role. These people are obsessed about how they are perceived by others. They’re the ones snapping selfies of themselves to show the world just how marvelous they look.

For others, they care little about what the world thinks of them. They are internally centered and are focused on living their lives, rather than acting their way through their lives for the entertainment of – and validation from – others. In between the two extremes is the ubiquitous bell curve of normal distribution. Most of us live somewhere on that curve.

Goffman’s theory was created specifically to provide insight into face-to-face encounters. Technology has again throw a gigantic wrinkle into things – and that wrinkle may explain why we keep taking those narcissistic selfies.

Humans are pretty damned good at judging authenticity in a face-to-face setting. We pick up subtle cues from across a wide swath of interpersonal communication channels: vocal intonations, body language, eye-to-eye contact, micro-expressions. Together, these inputs give us a pretty accurate “bullshit detector.” If someone comes across as an inauthentic “phony” the majority of us will just roll our eyes and simply start avoiding the person. In face-to-face encounters there is a social feedback mechanism that keeps the “actors” amongst us at least somewhat honest in order to remain part of the social network that forms their audience.

But social media platforms provide the idea incubator for inauthentic presentation of our own personas. There are three factors in particular that allow shallow “actors” to flourish – even to the point of going viral.

False Intimacy and Social Distance

In his blog on Psychology Today, counselor Michael Formica talks about two of these factors – social distance and false intimacy. I’ve talked about false intimacy before in another context – the “labelability” of celebrities. Social media removes the transactional costs of retaining a relationship. This has the unfortunate side effect of screwing up the brain’s natural defenses against inauthentic relationships. When we’re physically close to a person, there are no filters for the bad stuff. We get it all. Our brains have evolved to do a cost/benefit analysis of each relationship we have and decide whether it’s worth the effort to maintain it. This works well when we depend on physically proximate relationships for our own well-being.

But social media introduces a whole new context for maintaining social relationships. When the transactional costs are reduced to a scanning of a newsfeed and hitting the “Like” button, the brain says “What the hell, let’s add them to our mental friends list. It’s not costing me anything.” In evolutionary terms, intimacy is the highest status we can give to a relationship and it typically only comes with a thorough understanding of the good and the bad involved in that relationship by being close to the person – both physically and figuratively. With zero relational friction, we’re more apt to afford intimacy, whether or not it’s been earned.

The Illusion of Acceptance

The previous two factors perfectly set the “stage” for false personas to flourish, but it’s the third factor that allows them to go viral. Every actor craves acceptance from his or her audience. Social exclusion is the worst fate imaginable for them. In a face-to-face world, our mental cost/benefit algorithm quickly weeds out false relationships that are not worth the investment of our social resources. But that’s not true online. If it costs us nothing, we may be rolling our eyes – safely removed behind our screen – as we’re also hitting the “Like” button. And shallow people are quite content with shallow forms of acceptance. A Facebook like is more than sufficient to encourage them to continue their act. To make it even more seductive, social acceptance is now measurable – there are hard numbers assigned to popularity.

This is pure cat-nip to the socially needy. Their need to craft a popular – but entirely inauthentic – persona goes into overdrive. Their lives are not lived so much as manufactured to create a veneer just thick enough to capture a quick click of approval. Increasingly, they retreat to an online world that follows the script they’ve written for themselves.

Suddenly it makes sense why we keep taking all those selfies of ourselves. When all the world’s a stage, you need a good head shot.

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