The Young and the Feckless: Publification and Our Comparison Compulsion

J. Maureen Henderson
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I feel as if my more navel gazing commentaries should come with some sort of disclaimer stating that they're not meant to be extrapolated upon, taken as universally representative of the readership's experience, etc. To that end...

I confess that I've watched the recent brouhaha over Facebook's privacy changes with some measure of baffled amusement, especially when those complaints come from my peers. Gen Yers aren't exactly known for our reticence and while I understand that there's a qualitative difference between voluntarily revealing details of your personal life and Facebook letting third parties poke around in your browsing history, the somewhat arbitrary distinctions between "good" transparency and "bad" gives me a chuckle.

Photo by Brandon Milner

It's no secret that many of us in this cohort have grown up alongside the technology (cell phones, the internet, social networking) that now permeates every facet of our lives. Even if we aren't direct users, we can't escape the ways in which it reshapes social interactions and assumptions (i.e., that everyone is findable/traceable) and erodes the line between the (formerly clearly delineated) public and private spheres.

Hand-wringing over the consequences of the growing publicification (it's my party and I'll coin words if I want to) of our private lives is well-documented, but tends to focus on the future regrets we'll have over plastering permanent evidence of a misspent youth all over the internet and the ways in which this information could come back to haunt us in future contexts (and I'm not particularly convinced that this is the case and that a new baseline in which "indiscretions" are the norm won't emerge instead). Frankly, I'm more concerned with the here and now and the way in which we've let the connectivity of technology and the impetus to share combine into a force that compels us to compare ourselves to and judge ourselves against peers to a degree that wasn't possible even 10 or 15 years ago. Back in those bygone days (and earlier) you could legitimately fall out of touch with people. You'd graduate. They'd move. Maybe you'd hear an update from a mutual friend or when you ran into your old HS prom date's mother in line at Walgreens, but these folks were more or less out of your life. Now, there is no break, no drift. Thanks to Facebook, Twitter, blogging, you can now compare yourself life milestone by milestone. And this accessibility makes it so easy to get stuck in the rut of youthful competition and anxiety. But now, instead of who's getting As, or playing first string varsity basketball or ruling the halls with popular posse in tow, it's who's finishing a PhD, getting married, backpacking through Thailand. It's all there for us to fret over, with pictures.

And it's not simply enough to have accumulated money and status. That's so very gauche in an 80s kinda way, isn't it? The people we most envy are the ones who are doing, achieving, living up to their potential and carving out a space for themselves. Publicification allows us to see how our peers are finding their way in the world and to compare our own journey. And even if you don't want accomplishment X, well, it's still sometimes difficult not to envy someone else for having conquered it, isn't it?

It's not as if previous generations didn't face the same anxiety about contributing meaningfully to society and making the very most of out their lots; they absolutely did. However, the ability to compare themselves to a global cross-section of fellow young adults at the click of a button wasn't there. You had your parents, your immediate in-person peers and far-flung folks on the tv or in the papers. You had to seek out this information. Now, you have to actively seek to avoid it.

It can be avoided, of course. No one is holding a gun to your head and forcing you to click through pictures of your boyfriend's cousin's climb to Everest's base camp. And nothing says you have to wade into the masturbatory cesspool of self-aggrandizing and clique-ish hype that typifies a medium such as Twitter. But that requires no small measure of self control and a pretty robust and well-developed sense of identity. And of all of things (tongue-in-cheek and otherwise) Gen Y is known for, impulse control and disinterest in validation rarely make the list, alas.

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11 Comments Have Been Posted

The trouble with FB

Thanks for this thoughtful analysis on FB! You managed to nail a few of my anxieties over this medium...among them to be cyber stalking behaviours and the bombardment of too much info (some of which can harm as well as bring joy on occasion).
I gave up FB cold turkey one day suddenly. The idea of going back on there just irked me as my issue with it had been building up over time. I also seem to be embracing more of my inner introvert but the result is increased inner peace :)
It's been almost a year and a half (!) since I signed on to FB. My account is still there, a cyber shrine for maybe 100 or so "friends" (and whoever else is around them--creepy?) to see and I know that a couple photos on occasion are still tagged in my absence--I try to behave myself in public mostly.
I'm not sure I will ever want to go back. Friends tell me I should take the account down but then, doesn't that scary site already legally own my photos and info (according to my friends) so it wouldn't matter anyways??



THIS. Yes. All of it. Agreed, fully.

If one more person asks me to sign up for FB or Twitter (without knowing me and therefore not knowing how actively I have avoided/rejected them after either previously being on them or eschewing the privacy clusterfuck black hole from the jump), Ima scream. It's especially irritating—and frankly, I'm embarrassed for them—when these pleas come from adults who are twenty-plus years my senior and seem to have just gotten the memo that Twitter is cool. (I wrote my Master's thesis on this stuff two years ago, which is why I say that folks don't know much about me when they try to talk me into FB. They oughta know better, and thankfully, my good friends do.) Does it not compute that by opting out, I state that I want to be left alone? (Occasionally engaging in my own subversive online stalking of former classmates via my partner's FB account aside...) But I've learned the hard way: It isn't healthy for me to engage in that kind of retrospective behavior (if that's a term for it), and frankly, I'm one of those weirdos who regularly reminisces in this same way as this post: wondering how much different life would be if I'd grown up pre-connectivity, when we could all just move away, fade into the past, and morph into newness elsewhere.

Seriously, if I wanna reconnect (and have enough humility to assume that not every person I've ever known might want to reconnect with me), I'll handle it.

i think about this a ton.

This post expresses so much of my discomfort with Facebook et al. *Personal anecdote alert* A few months ago I got a job as an (unpaid in exchange for a room) assistant director of an artist residency space, and whether or not to uproot my life to take it or not was one of the most taxing choices I ever had to make.... yet deep down I knew that one big tip-off that taking it was a bad idea was that I kept thinking about how professionally accomplished it would make me look to announce it on FB. How silly and backwards is that? I'd phrased the entire post in my head and everything, and I hated that, which just complicated the decision. So I told a dear 78-year-old amazing artist friend in LA about my dilemma, and she instantly yelled, "STOP GOING LOOKING FOR OTHER PEOPLE ALL THE TIME. YOU HAVE YOUR PARTNER AND YOU HAVE YOURSELF, THAT'S ALL YOU NEED." That basically made my mind up, and I'm really glad I didn't take it. I still rehearse those words when I catch myself comparing my situation to what my peers are "doing with their lives"...

I hear ya.

@Jaymee, I totally know what you mean! Does anyone else find themselves doing that annoying thing where, as something is happening (or even prior to it happening), you're composing your FB status update in your head? Because you want your ex's sister's friends to see how cool you're being? (I am totally guilty of this.)

Kelsey Wallace, Web Editor

FB status as a proclaimation of coolness

Omg--I'm guilty of that too...if something cool was going on with me, I would start to compose just the right 'status' in my head to share and impress others. It became almost obsessive and shallow to feel the need to announce my coolness/acceptability as a human to 'my people'. It also got complicated when I was urged to do the Twitter thing and then saw that the characters for each tweet were so limited, thus my capacity for coolness was also-lol. Is it just me or does the entire idea of tweeting sound ridiculous in general?? I enjoyed Conan's mockery in the Twitter Tracker segment on his brief Tonight Show. In the end, I dumped T just like I dumped FB. I don't need more ways to get absorbed into cyberland when I already feel like my tangible, non electronic life needs more attention!
No offense meant to any regular social media users...I just appreciate when others give the darker side some critical thought!


I used to work for Yelp and found myself doing stuff—going places, trying new things—just so I could write about/review them. That's when I knew things had gone too far and I backed out of all of it ('it' being social media). Is it a job or a lifestyle? Who are we trying to impress? And when does it stop mattering?


What's the problem?

I don't see any of this complaint as a flaw with facebook or social networking. Aren't you fully to blame for your own behavior? You seemed about to conclude as much before offering that generation Y has self-esteem issues.

I don't know a single person who would agree that you need a "well-developed sense of identity" to not check twitter. That's hilarious. I don't even know how to respond to that assuming there is a shred of truth to it.

If you spend your time comparing achievements or compulsively monitoring the activities of acquaintances, it's you who has the issues, not the medium that makes it possible. If you're prone to envy rather than admiration, why should anyone validate your feelings of being threatened by a friend's job, wedding, or vacation? What seems most appropriate is a recommendation to seek counseling to address the behavior not facilitating a displacement of blame onto a website.

I suppose, though, that I am not capable of understanding your position. I have never been envious of a friend to such a point that it was emotionally destructive or I wished them an ill fate. And my personal aspirations don't impede me from enjoying in a friend's success irrespective of whether I wish to accomplish the same goal.

Whatever point you were going to make about the "comparison compulsion" and social networking--that it's harder to have a positive self-image because of the ubiquitous nature of information on the internet showing people just like you who have done more with there lives--got bogged down by generalizing usage of the medium based upon unhealthy behavior.

Re: What's the problem?

I don't and didn't claim that it requires a well-developed sense of self-identity not to check Twitter, or that everyone who uses Facebook is hooked on validation or a masochistic need to measure themselves against peers, but rather not playing the comparison game at all requires restraint. If you're self-actualized enough to exercise it at all times and have transcended even fleeting envy, my hearty congrats to you.

My argument is, as your last paragraph states, the sheer ease of accessibility of this information facilitates continual comparison to a degree that wasn't feasible a few short years ago. Social networking in all of its forms is simply the media through which these existing comparative impulses can currently be acted out.

As several posters have confirmed the reality of comparing themselves to peers, accusing them of having "issues" or recommending they seek counseling is not particularly sensitive.

So, in sum, I'm not hating on the players, but the game.

the game

You alleviated some of my confusion. I can honestly say that no matter how informed I feel I am or how conscientious I feel I am being that, for better or worse, I’m still prone to slipping into behaving per a societal norm. From that perspective, your comment about identity and self-esteem makes more sense as it pertains to the effects of socialization and mores. The original juxtaposition next to twitter flummoxed me.

I still don’t find blaming facebook, or the like, a particularly convincing stance because I see the blameworthy actions are client-side not server-side. Yet I understand your summary, and that through integration and increased usage of social networking sites this behavior increases or is more prolonged. But what does accepting this connection mean?

And is comparison innately bad? What if it inspires the correction of destructive behaviors like in the way AA members share and compare their success to embolden their compatriots to maintain sobriety? What if seeing a friend finish their doctorate, and the resulting envy of never finishing your thesis, inspires you to finish yours? Are these not positive examples of the same compulsion, or is there something different about my examples?

I understand better what you’re saying, but it seems now I’m stuck seeing the positive aspects of such comparisons, which leads me back to individual actions. I understand how it can be a negative compulsion and then how these mediums are facilitating its propagation, but is this the fault of the medium (facebook), the desire (comparison compulsion), or the individual?

I think the focus on facebook has thrown me off a little from fully digesting the norm, the game, you're talking about.

There is one qualitative

There is one qualitative difference between self-disclosure and Facebook-directed disclosure- and that is Facebook's baldfaced commercialization of peoples' private information. Speaking for myself and my friends who spoke out against the recent changes, this is what annoyed more than any sense of sacred privacy.

I guess I'm an old fogey

Several times now, I have heard the arguments made that for future generations who have grown up with social media, "public personal lives" aren't going to be taken into consideration when a person is applying for a job, seeking college admission, running for office, etc. The argument seems to be that since everyone is going to have photos showing themselves doing everything from climbing mountains to partying with friends on FB, it will cease to have meaning and people will just get on with business, sticking I guess to what is on the resumé instead of considering what is on the internet. But do we really believe that this will be just as true of young women as it will be of young men? Suddenly the double standard that has existed everywhere for hundreds of years will disappear and how a woman behaves in her own time (and on the internet) will be disregarded when she wants to be taken seriously? I sure hope that turns out to be true, but I have a hard time putting any faith in it.

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