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Why is the grass always greener on social media?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Image by Kitty Terwolbeck. Used without alteration. Click on image for license and information.

Are you on social media? I’m willing to bet you’re on at least one channel (and it’s probably Facebook). In December 2013, 73% of adults online were using a social networking site of some sort. You’re a part of that number. And as our world grows increasingly connected, and the need and ability to share information from remote places about events that typically don’t make mainstream media also grows, that percentage has probably increased.

Social media attracts digital social scientists because it presents a microcosm in which we can observe human behavior—and to a certain degree, it provides parameters where we can wrestle with universality and cultural distinctions. While much has been written about social media as a masking tool whereby people behave more aggressively due to anonymity and/or the distance allowed by online communication, there is a growing body of research that hints strongly that not much has changed. The rules of online behavior are still being defined and shaped, so we’re bringing the familiar with us into this space, which includes our norms for behavior.

Social networks are great facilitators of connectivity and communication. People find pals from kindergarten, immigrants remain in touch with family members and friends left behind, and grandparents use it to check in on grandchildren from a distance. But it’s an immersive experience. You have to participate—and even if you’re more of a lurker, you’re still participating by viewing and absorbing the content that’s shared. Social media is a stage, after all, and people do gather around to watch, but that means you’re constantly producing content or viewing that content. In the former instance you’re seeking validation, while in the latter you’re in a position to award validation, and in both cases you’re participating in a community that you’re cultivating. (Come on: you’ve posted a photo to Instagram and checked back immediately to see if anyone has liked it, haven’t you?)

Research suggests extensive use of Twitter, just as with Facebook, can be detrimental to romantic relationships. Despite it’s character limitation, Twitter has evolved to allow information to be shared that emulates the experience on Facebook. The integration of third-party apps means that users can share photos and locations and create a richer social experience than is typically allowed by a simple text update. A large difference between the channels, however, is that Twitter more readily allows contact between individuals who don’t know each other through @replies, retweets, and hashtags. Users are thrust into communities that are organized around specific conversations or thoughts, which enhances a sense of connection. This connectivity feels organic because of how people find and interact with each other, and that feeling adds a veil of perceived authenticity that can be misguiding. We’re more apt to return to things that resonate with us. If these communities are organized around things we agree with or relate to in some way, we’re likely to return to that space and to those users. With time, online relationships can emerge that seem ideal—the grass is always greener, as the saying goes.

But relationships themselves are social. They require contact between the participants and audience feedback. The interplay between our personal and impersonal relationships provides a measure for us to gauge the quality of our connections. We look to see how our interactions are received and interpreted and reflect that input in how we choose to invest in our relationships. In offline circumstances, we introduce our significant other to friends, family members, and colleagues at different stages in the relationship, and the feedback we get (whether that’s verbal or not) impacts our own assessment of our relationship. The same is true online, except that everything we post creates a record that can be scrutinized at any time by members of our community.

We know this and we work to present the best possible image of ourselves and our lives online. We share photos where we believe we look content, happy, and beautiful, and we share content that reflects our “true” selves. We read the responses to this content eagerly to see how we’re received. And while we’re doing this, we’re also examining those we surround ourselves with, and that’s also true of our partners as well. It doesn’t have to be obsessive—maybe you’ve noticed that your spouse accepted a new friend request and asked, “Who’s that?” or clicked through to read a comment on a photograph of the person you’re dating. Whatever our role in this play, we’re constantly engaged in the assessments of self that are afforded by these interactions. This becomes detrimental when it consumes us: constantly tweeting, messaging, checking in, or sharing photos and other information are points of contention when it takes you away from offline interaction with your partner, particularly when your partner sees no part of themselves in the life and identity you are crafting online. Similarly, constantly checking-in and questioning your partner’s behavior online sows discord because it suggests a lack of trust and infringes on the space that they are creating. And questioning old connections is very much questioning the identity they’ve created.

This is not different from the ways in which we behave offline. We complain if our partner’s work schedule keeps him or her away from us, or if a hobby or a pursuit of passion infringes on the time available to spend together. And we complain if our partner isn’t supportive in these cases. We want a say in the people our partner associates with because this is a reflection on us—will they like us, will they want to do things with us, will they share our ideas about childcare? Ultimately, can they belong to the community where we want to live? The community that we are constructing? Relationships that exist solely online can skew the perception of community fitness because they’re tailored specifically to us, but it’s hard to look away from something that seems so right.

Increasingly, we’re seeing that online interactions reflect offline tendencies. Recent discussions on emoji (see here and here) builds upon work investigating the ways in which we try to express ourselves online. Despite our proclaimed savviness in this space, it seems we’re still finding our footing. The comparative exercises we engage in are very much a part of the ways in which we construct our worlds and probably will not disappear as we navigate our online circles.


Referenced:
Clayton, Russell. “The Third Wheel: The Impact of Twitter User on Relationship Infidelity and Divorce.” Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking. July 2014, 17(7): 425-430. doi:10.1089/cyber.2013.0570.


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Communicating Meaning Online: A Digital Expression of Theory of Mind
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The Psychology of Sexting
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Digital Hydra: The rise of the couple profile on Facebook

Krystal D'Costa About the Author: Krystal D'Costa is an anthropologist working in digital media in New York City. You can follow AiP on Facebook. Follow on Twitter @krystaldcosta.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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