Like This Post! My Self-Worth Depends on It

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This morning I ran into a sad friend. She'd spent the previous evening with a couple of fabulous couples, all strappy sandals and flowery dresses and lively stories about lovely children. Their fabulousness all seemed so effortless, my friend said. None had spent a moment arguing with a sullen high school junior over his essential savagery. None had scrambled to locate the wedges that don't aggravate the bunions. "I felt a foot shorter when I got home," she said.

Who among us hasn't felt inadequate from time to time, brought low by a friend's apparent perfection, minimized by somebody's kids' flawless manners and exemplary eating habits? She knows what she's doing, that little voice nags. And I'm clueless. It's the human condition.

What's not helping the human condition is Facebook. Does anybody like Facebook? I'm on it, I check it multiple times a day, sometimes compulsively. But in some kind of dystopian Pavlovian exercise, I end up feeling worse when I click off it. Facebook takes that unhappy social gathering where everyone else is well-adjusted and tall--and I'm fumbly and insecure, Lilliputian in my flats--and inserts it into my daily life.

I know, I know, it's not real life. The shots of bikini-clad vixens and strapping studs, the huge gatherings of friends--so many friends!--it's all a mirage, a curated version of the good life. No one posts a picture of the cat vomit they're scrubbing off the rug, or the waiting room at the orthodontist's office. Still, my typical reaction to yet another picture of friends I barely know celebrating somewhere I've never been is, "Well, there's another party I wasn't invited to." Irrational, absurd, but inescapable.

There's more to hate about Facebook. The false cheer in all the comments, to start. Next to every photo of someone's kid, you'll find variations of "adorable!" and, "beautiful!" and "Wow!" (And indeed, they usually are. As my sad friend said, "There are no ugly people anymore.") Did you take a tumble and break a wrist? By all means, let everyone know, and invite the good wishes to pour in. Did you receive a promotion? Appear on TV? Get accepted to Bowdoin? Hoorays all around. There's no envy or jealousy in Facebook world. Nor is there a snarky friend commenting about Sally looking so much healthier since she got out of rehab.

And the advertisements. Just now, a pop-up for Lunchables, of all things, appeared between posts from an old friend and one from my brother-in-law. (Who has been Googling processed plastic meats?) A neighbor from years back likes Centrum. Cool! Gabrielle Fitness and Performance, a local exercise studio I've never been to, presses me to sign up for a FREE consultation, And what the hell is T.J. Maxx doing here?

Facebook actually makes me think less of some people I otherwise enjoy. Honestly, I'd rather not be updated about your Soul Cycle class, or ponder your Skittles addiction, or consider your disturbing defense of Donald Trump; the less said the better. The same holds true for the inspirational messages exhorting me to be grateful, to smile, and to live, love, laugh, most of which come with a vaguely menacing command to "pass it on." Of course, I mustn't forget the insipid posts. Facebook just reminded me how common these are; I received the message, "Dear God, heal those with cancer. Amen."

Also troubling is the way Facebook guides its users to pay disproportionate attention to "likes," as if the number of thumbs-up clicks attached to any post is an accurate measure of its value. I, too, have felt like a loser when something I've written or displayed received scant support on Facebook. It's easy to mistake this crude measure of quality with the inherent value of the thing itself. Yet we--I--do, in spite of myself. This concern reached its mortifying logical conclusion a few years ago, when a political article I'd written received 390 "likes." Rather than feel merely satisfied with that result, I actually sent emails to a few friends reminding them to "like" my piece, so I could surpass the 400 mark. As the recovery experts tell us, one must hit rock bottom before climbing out of the hole.

But what's most pernicious is the way Facebook invites and normalizes the public expression of private feelings. On Mother's Day this year, children of countless friends--see, I have some of those!--celebrated their mothers' kindness, self-sacrifice, and overall wonderfulness, publicly, on Facebook. This also happens on birthdays, and between husbands and wives on anniversaries. It's lovely that family members feel affection for one another and aren't ashamed to say so. What feels off is the public declaration of it, as if a private exchange of feelings isn't enough. If I tell my child in a forest that I love her, and nobody (else) hears, does the love exist? Surely, yes. Is love between a mother and child more profound if it's sung from the rooftops? I think not. Still, my children have never posted public, heart-felt tributes to me, and for that I feel a twinge of disappointment. Before public cheerleading became commonplace, sweet little exchanges of affection--honest expressions of love--were enough. Thanks to Facebook, authentic feelings shared privately just seem insufficient.

But I'll stay on Facebook. I look forward to updates from cousins I rarely see, and to photos from now-ancient high school friends. Those pictures of you in front of the Eiffel Tower, or of your child posing nervously outside his new college dorm, or of your dachshund dressed up for Halloween: keep 'em coming. In the end, Facebook keeps us connected. But let's try to keep Lunchables out of it.