While reading The Happiness Effect by Donna Freitas I couldn’t stop thinking about the Black Mirror episode “Nosedive.” It opens with a nervous, pink-lipsticked woman practicing her best fake laugh in the mirror and is set in a too-close-to-this-reality reality where social rankings are visible, hovering over people’s heads. These rankings are constantly fluctuating based on even the most trivial real-world interactions, which have become as stylized, vacuous, and fraught with anxiety as many of the online interactions described by the students Freitas interviews.
Freitas defines “the happiness effect” as the often overwhelming pressure that today’s college students feel to present themselves as happy (and thereby socially acceptable) on social media. Rather than using Facebook, for instance, which is tied to one’s real name and identity, to express their authentic selves, the “professionalization” of such platforms compels students to post only their “highlight reels.” Fraternities and sororities monitor members’ posts and have rigid guidelines to protect their public image, or “brand.” Students expect to be (and often are) surveilled by parents, university staff, future employers, and each other. Many report feeling anxious over “likes,” comparisons, popularity, being “left out,” and the feeling that everyone and everything is fake and that their “public” identity is a brand they must maintain to ensure current social viability and future employment. At the same time, students blow off some pretty dark steam on “anonymous” platforms like Yik Yak, a geolocated service that provides hyper-local and often controversial access to students’ less socially acceptable thoughts and behaviors.
Freitas, who doesn’t own a smartphone and describes herself as not much of “a social media person,” who feels “stressed” by “the publicness of it all,” seems to be writing for an audience of similarly estranged adults. She hits all the hot topics of the day—selfies, sexting, bullying, love-hate relationships with smartphones—and offers her own list of eight “virtues” to encourage in this “generation of social media pioneers” (such virtues include “vulnerability: honoring our thinner skins” and “authenticity: prizing our real selves over the virtual ones”). She achieves her stated goal of giving parents, students, and the educators who serve them a starting place for much-needed conversations on identity in the social media age, and she advocates for universities to begin offering students more skills for critical analysis of the social media landscape and their roles within it.
It’s a start, but I often felt in reading that she was missing opportunities to further push the conversation about the implications of this constant surveillance, about what it means for university students in particular—our most privileged and “likely to succeed,” at least by society’s norm-stick—to value conformity and employability over self-expression and authenticity. Whose interests does social media as Freitas describes it serve? Freitas devotes much attention to the actions that individuals can take to form healthier relationships with social media, but little to the external structures that dictate its form and function. For me, there was always an elephant in the room, and that elephant’s name was “capitalism.”
Freitas also devotes a chapter to exploring and deconstructing—to some extent—the idea that selfies in particular and social media in general are perceived as more of “a girl thing,” stating that among her respondents, “selfies were called arrogant, self-absorbed, disgusting, degrading, ridiculous, vapid, useless, shameless, vain, and hedonistic.” It is not without irony that most of these terms are equally applied to women who draw attention to themselves in almost any other public or performative sphere—writing, art, entertainment. Age-old stereotypes are widely evidenced, with students reporting that men tend to share interests, hobbies, and activities, while women are more likely to share their appearances and feelings and be communicative.
I wish that Freitas had made more of an attempt to establish whether these perceptions were borne out by evidence. While the pressure for young women “to offer up their images not only for viewing but for evaluation” is reportedly more intense, young men, too, can be judged harshly: “The worst thing a guy can do on social media is act like women while they are on it.” While Freitas certainly calls attention to gender stereotyping, a deconstruction of what it means for men to “act like women” and why this is considered pejorative could have been more illuminating.
Readers familiar with modern-day social media may find The Happiness Effect less than revelatory. Things move so fast in the online world that this book will likely be dated not long after it hits the shelves. Though The Happiness Effect is a compassionate and well-meaning introduction to the perils and pleasures of social media, with its “what the kids are up to” perspective and its focus on a rather limited slice of the youth population, I fear it fans the very flames of scrutiny and conformity that it ostensibly seeks to douse.