Almost a year ago, a friend and I were gossiping about an acquaintance. “The way she posts pictures of her kids annoys me,” she said with an eye roll. “What do you mean?” I was ready to agree with her but a little worried that with a daughter of my own—and a highly active Snapchat account—I might be guilty of something similar. “She just does it in a way that makes it seem like her life is perfect,” she explained. “Oh, gotcha.”
On one hand, I knew exactly what she meant, and envisioned pictures of clean, smiling children in trendy clothes picking wildflowers or strawberries or something. On the other hand, I couldn’t pinpoint what it was that we disliked about that. It’s not like she was Photoshopping her kids into photos with Ariana Grande and claiming the singer was their godmother. By the sounds of it, this woman’s profile was a lot like the rest of social media—a highlight reel, in which our most appealing photos and sharpest, funniest thoughts dominate.
What did we want from this woman? Fewer pictures? Less-flattering ones? Ones in which her kids are messy and we can see the bags under her eyes? Would that actually make us feel better? If yes, why?
The depression connection
I began to wonder, is there really anything wrong with the fact that people use social media as a highlight reel? At least, in some corners of the Internet, we’ve decided that the answer is yes, and not without reason. Five years ago, the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology published a paper that gave scientific backing to a phenomenon I think most social media users already understood: the social media highlight-reel effect. The paper covered two studies, the collective results of which suggested “people feel depressed after spending a great deal of time on Facebook because they feel badly when comparing themselves to others.” The authors proposed that the fact that people tend to share “only positive and/or self-enhancing news” on social media may explain the connection. “If we're comparing ourselves to our friends’ ‘highlight reels,’” explained one of the paper’s authors, “this may lead us to think their lives are better than they actually are and conversely, make us feel worse about our own lives.”
In the years since we’ve seen countless efforts to disrupt the social media highlight reel. Former Instagram personality Essena O’Neill nearly broke the Internet when she edited her Instagram captions to reveal the bleak reality of what went on behind the scenes of her flawless photos. Countless other celebrities and influencers have garnered praise for “getting real” on social media by posting #nomakeupselfies, calling out magazines for excessive Photoshop usage, sharing unflattering outtakes from their photoshoots, opening up about bodily insecurities, or coming clean about the amount of effort that goes into a single gorgeous Instagram post. Like many people, I appreciate these departures from the norm; I find them refreshing, comforting and, in a way, more appealing than their more polished counterparts.
Still, aside from using Photoshop or Facetune to actively mislead people about your life or appearance, I think that there is a strong case to be made that using social media as a kind of public highlight reel is not only okay but even appropriate. Further, I think that if we succeeded in making social media “realistic,” we wouldn’t be happier for it.
Essena O’Neill was correct when she said that “social media is not real life.” It never will be. Of course, in a broad sense, even the least candid of photos is real, however contrived. But even the most thorough of Instagram profiles are just a snippet of someone’s reality. Countless moments, good and bad, are inevitably missing from it because it is not possible to share one’s life from all angles at all times. Just as with any other form of recordkeeping—from diary entries to the daily news—selection is inevitable. Given this, one could argue that social media makes a better scrapbook for the human experience then it does a mirror. In which case, it makes sense that so much of the mundane, the ugly, the sad parts of life are omitted from it. Just as a wedding album contains only the best, funniest, most joy-inducing photos, so too does Instagram.
Of course, no one is really calling for a more thorough accounting of life on social media, only a more authentic one. But I’m not convinced there is anything inauthentic about sharing only the pictures and thoughts we are most proud of on social media.
Is being selective about how we present ourselves online any different than the countless other ways we dress, speak, and behave differently in public—at work or the farmer’s market—then we might in the privacy and security of our homes? Given that social media is about as public as it gets, putting our best face forward makes more sense there than almost anywhere else. Authenticity doesn’t obligate us to post unflattering photos any more than it obligates us to wear unflattering clothes or get unflattering haircuts. Nor does it require us to post about our shortcomings, insecurities, or anything else.
In fact, particularly when it comes to suffering, it makes a lot of sense that we don’t share those moments as readily because the dark parts of our lives are often the most difficult to share. As a deeply self-conscious introvert, there are countless insecurities, fears, regrets, and so on, that I am comfortable sharing with only my husband, therapist, and maybe a close family member or friend. That I choose not to showcase or discuss them on social media—the outermost and therefore largest ring of my social life—doesn’t make me inauthentic; it just means that I share different kinds of things with different people.
The real issue
This isn’t to say that social media doesn’t have problems. I think it’s clear that many of us are far too preoccupied with tracking other people’s highlight reels or perfecting our own. What’s less clear is whether or not the highlight reel itself is the problem.
As others have pointed out, the “highlight-reel effect” is rooted not so much in the fact that social media is a highlight reel, but in the failure to recognize it as such. I now have two daughters under two-and-a-half years old. I’ve never posted any photos of them mid-tantrum or covered in poop because I respect their privacy and don’t want them to hate me when they are older. But it would be silly for anyone to conclude from this that my children don’t poop or throw tantrums. The same reasoning might easily apply to anyone’s social media presence. If someone’s portrayal of life on Instagram seems a little too wonderful, it would be among the safest assumptions thinkable that much of the mundane and upsetting is being left out.
Of course, if happiness is the goal, finding a more accurate mode of comparing ourselves to others may be irrelevant. The studies referenced at the beginning of this article didn’t just find a link between envy-inducing, “upward” social comparisons and depression, but any social comparison—upward, downward, and non-directional. In other words, the cautionary advice that “comparison is the thief of joy” may be truer than we realized. And, to the extent that we can draw comfort or satisfaction from the knowledge that even our prettiest friend has cellulite or struggles with self-doubt, I think it is a comfort worth sacrificing—one that happiness does not require.
Truth be told, I struggle with envy all the time, both on and off-line. Still, I believe that however difficult, it’s possible for me to learn to truly love my peers—to find pain in their suffering and joy in their success. So maybe instead of resenting the social media highlight reel, my time would be better spent cultivating a happiness that is not threatened by it.