It’s the reason Cassius killed Caesar and Cain killed Abel. It’s why Regina and Cady’s friendship was destined to fail before we could say “Burn Book,” and probably why half of my favorite bands have broken up over the years too (RIP Destiny's Child, no one can blame you for dissolving in Bey's shadow).
I’m referring to envy, of course. Perhaps one of the most ancient of human vices, it certainly isn't showing signs of relenting any time soon. Put two people in a room and chances are they’ll find something to compare, some area in which to feel suddenly lacking, some attribute of their companion’s that seems undeservedly attained. You know, those sneaking thoughts: How can she afford that Chanel bag? How did she snag that guy? How did he get that job when I'm still on the hunt? Even if you’re self-assured and able to greet that other person in the room as if they pose absolutely no threat to your self-worth (which they probably don’t), the challenge these days is that the room keeps getting bigger and the companions more plentiful.
Thanks to social media, the comparison game can be played anywhere, at any time, with an essentially unlimited pool of competitors. As our Facebook feeds fill with our acquaintances' latest vacation, promotion at work, Pilates class check-in, or really nice family photos—it seems that someone out there always has it better than us. Which is why it isn’t too much of a surprise that recent studies indicate Facebook use is linked to depression, as we spend more and more of our lives "watching everyone else's highlight reel," as the quote goes.
But perhaps not all time wasted on Facebook is created equal. At the heart of the study’s findings is evidence that not all Facebook use is likely to make the user prone to depression, but specifically when the user is mostly voyeuristic, not engaging the companions in the room but simply watching from afar. When we observe without engaging, it seems, that age old vice of envy has a way of creeping in, sidling up next to us from our hideout in the corner, and asking us loaded questions like why we don’t get an entire month of vacation time, why we are stuck in a job we don’t love, why we just can’t lose those last 10 pounds, why we haven't found Mr. Right just yet.
The problem with those questions is that we don’t have all the information. We have the Facebook information, which is hardly any information at all. It’s the CliffsNotes of the highlight reel, edited with a Valencia filter, and enhanced with hyperbolic emojis. Unlike an in-the-flesh conversation with a friend, the vacation photos on Facebook leave out the delayed flight and the sunburn and the obnoxiously loud hotel elevator. The status update about the exciting job promotion doesn’t usually include the fact that it took six years of long hours and menial tasks and that anonymous coworker who always used the last of your coffee creamer.
Real relationships include this kind of information. Friendships that we are engaged in—where there is a two-way channel of communication and a context within which to place the snapshots and status updates— are the relationships that don’t let envy into the room quite so easily. In fact, these relationships help safeguard usagainst depression.
In the context of the studies about Facebook, researchers are calling for an increase in “social media literacy,” but I think that’s just a fancy way of saying that we have to use some common sense. It may sound crazy, but we have to stop being so lazy about how we use Facebook, and all platforms for that matter, that allow us to lurk in the corner and observe without engaging.
We have to stop playing the comparison game. We have to pay attention to who we’ve invited into the room, what they’re bringing to the table, and how it makes us feel. We have to be better door monitors, acknowledging that we’ve let some people sneak in uninvited. We have to acknowledge that for every person in the room, we are engaged in some kind of relationship with them, whether it’s one-way voyeurism or a genuine back-and-forth of mutual interest.
Ultimately, we have to realize that when we use social media we’re engaging with virtual versions of our friends, but we’re still our completely human selves, complete with human brain and human heart, prone to envy just like Cassius and Cain, Regina and Cady. Let’s lurk less. Let’s be smarter. And let’s be happier.