Originally published by The Guardian on 25th September 2013
Due to its near omnipresence in our society (24 million UK users each day), and some over-inflated claims about its role in several popular uprisings, Facebook has taken on an almost godlike status in the cultural consciousness. But some have long suspected that Facebook is not a purely benevolent overlord, and recent psychological research has started to pose the question: is Facebook making people more vain?
In a society where the cult of celebrity is arguably more pervasive than any formal religion, Facebook has given everyone the chance to be a mini-celebrity. Projected into every nook and cranny of daily life via mobile phones, tablets and laptops, a Facebook profile acts as a personal PR campaign. Friends become the paparazzi eagerly awaiting the next photo op, and users live in constant fear of being tagged in a not-so-flattering picture.
Users are encouraged to compete with others to see who is more famous by using the irrefutable metric of “friends” and “likes”. By extension, users apply this metric almost subconsciously to rate how important, popular and attractive people are in real life. This competition is seemingly causing adverse health effects, with one study revealing that young women and girls in particular suffer extra body image issues as a result of looking at other people’s Facebook pictures. More than half of those polled in a survey for the Centre for Eating Disorders said looking at photos of themselves on Facebook increased their body consciousness, with 44% saying they wished they had the same body or weight as the person pictured.
A Facebook profile is often a carefully constructed public image: it reflects how you want others to see you, rather than who you actually are. Like some sort of grotesque, endless carousel, people are portrayed as constantly smiling, on nights out, or on holiday. Consumer culture encourages us to favour happy, affluent people, so it is little surprise people feel pressured to present themselves in their best light on their profiles. Pictures are vetted, carefully selected and sometimes even Photoshopped. Weaknesses, insecurities and imperfections are generally left out. The problem is, these are the very things that make us lovable human beings – the Facebook profile is just a vacuous, usually unrepresentative, projection of the user.
Perhaps one of the greatest testaments to the vain nature of Facebook use is that, while the site offers the user an almost unprecedented platform to transmit all sorts of content, most users use this platform to upload pictures of themselves. The question is, why? Expectations create norms and the central expectation on Facebook is self-promotion. Facebook users are expected and encouraged to upload a relentless stream of photos of themselves under the non-offensive ideology of sharing, via the tools of profile pictures and albums.
Vanity in the form of picture-sharing is the unquestioned norm that underscores Facebook. Nowhere does it specify that photos must be of the narcissistic kind, and occasionally you may stumble across pictures of art or some great photography, but the majority of photos uploaded to Facebook are not of this nature. If self-promotion on Facebook is a rough metric for vanity, it has risen steadily: the number of profile pictures uploaded to Facebook per user trebled between 2006 and 2011.
Users aren’t necessarily to blame for this, Facebook is geared this way for a reason: it’s addictive. That small rush of euphoria experienced from getting a large number of likes or comments makes users feel good about themselves. But the sensation is fleeting, reminiscent of the buzz experienced from a session of retail therapy. I think this insatiable appetite for approval that Facebook fosters is one of the reasons it is so successful, but it is ultimately unfulfilling and leads many users to have a love/hate relationship with their Facebook profile.
Doubtless there is an argument to be made that narcissistic types on Facebook are vain in real life anyway, and their profile just offers them a platform for their self-obsession. Equally, I’m not suggesting that all Facebook users are vain. But the central tools of Facebook, such as profile pictures and status updates, go hand in glove with narcissism, and if that is then feeding into poor self-image and depression, it is not something that should be ignored.