Technology vs. Humanity

It all started with humblebragging

I used to be an avid user of social media, and I truly believed that social media brought people together. When I was first introduced to social media back in high school, it was a pleasant surprise to find most of my childhood friends there, and it was really great to feel connected again (though most of us only lived several blocks apart). Back then social media was still a relatively informative place, since everybody was a student of some sort and had almost nothing to worry about except for the homework and exams (so these were also what we posted all the time…). Things only started to go awry a couple years ago, when people grew further in real life but inexplicably closer on the Internet.

Before I jump into what people do nowadays on social media I should probably establish some contexts. I’m a listener to a local radio show here in Boston where I learned some very interesting ideas about social behavior from a Harvard Business School economist (Mr. Harvard from now on) who (amusingly) explained why people do the things they do on social media. The first idea is called “humblebrag”. I almost laughed my ass off while listening to this guy illustrating the ideas behind humblebrags that day, and of course I realized how ubiquitous they are and perhaps how often I pull them off myself. In a nutshell, a humblebrag occurs when somebody tries to “slip” a brag into a complaint or something of that nature. Examples include but not limited to “I really hate that I can never gain weight no matter how much I eat” (which, to be honest, is actually one of those that I pull off all the time…). Actually before people explicitly point it out I don’t think I ever considered “humblebragging” any different from just bragging outright. Also for this reason, I’m rather surprised to learn from this study that people actually conceive “humblebragging” as worse than just bragging, because those who humblebrag look less genuine. Of course the rationale behind this inference makes perfect sense and I’m of course not challenging this study which I know almost nothing about; I just still don’t think people should differentiate humblebragging and bragging that much when we see somebody doing it — it’s just bragging, and nobody genuinely wants to see others bragging non-stop about how awesome they are.

Then when I looked back at what people (including myself) have recently been posting on social media, I just couldn’t stand them any more… most of them.

A bunch of people in some sort of exciting group activity. Boys and girls in bars and posting pictures showing how good-looking their dates (or should I say hook-ups) are. Buddies hanging out in some amazing National Park. Every exaggerated smiley/laughing face in all photos was tagged, and everybody (usually those who are actually in those pictures) was “liking” each others’ posts, forming formidable and utterly unnecessary complete graphs (it’s actually amazing that Facebook handles all that correctly given the shitty memcache architecture that they build everything on top of). Especially for those who posed in front of (otherwise) spectacular landscapes, the awesome-looking and -feeling people in those pictures, but never the landscapes, are usually what all the “like”s are going towards. It is extremely rare to find public posts about people really having a bad time or genuine complaints about something (other than posts from news agencies, of course, where almost nothing good ever comes out). Yeah, it’s all very uplifting — too uplifting to be true, and occasionally makes me sick whenever I attempt to reckon the intentions behind it. What make me feel even worse after I learned this notion of humblebragging are what people put into those photo description boxes. Yes you guessed ‘em, humblebrags! It is true that when you are already uncomfortable with people bragging all over the place, a touch of humblebrag does make this building “animosity” MUCH, MUCH stronger.

I talked about it to some of my friends and apparently they all agree. Thinking really carefully about what should go on social media could potentially mean really bad news for Facebook, because as people begin to settle down in their own small circles as time goes by, sharing all life details publicly makes less and less sense, unless the whole point is just to brag. Well, even for those who are full-time braggers right now, I’m pretty confident that more important things other than bragging will eventually take over. Many of my friends actually quitted social media already, probably due to the annoying experience of seeing people bragging around in all kinds of innovative ways. I would rather send precious photos from a field trip with close friends to these people only via email or Google Drive rather than posting them on social media to let others know what a good time we had. It’s really none of social media’s business, and I really could not understand how social media got this business in the first place. Okay I actually have had the explanation all along: people love bragging and social media provide such a convenient platform.

I’m not going to fuel any theories that suggest bragging is how people get away with their less satisfying life — notions like this can start a meaningless war, and I’m not familiar with any sound research in that area. It does make sense logically, but let’s not turn speculation into finger-pointing — sour grapes more likely.

And then Mr. Harvard showed up again, and then it made me really furious.

This time he actually talked about the effect of sharing. Sharing, according to his another state-of-the-art-so-I’m-not-gonna-challenge study, is much better than not sharing anything at all. Looks like a huge slap-in-the-face for those who quit social media, huh?

More precisely, the findings of the study should be summarized this way: it’s generally perceived that people who share details about their lives are more trustworthy and genuine than those who don’t. Once again there was a compelling and hilarious example: a bunch of friends were playing a game where everybody was presented a question, and anyone who had a positive response to that question was forced to drink, no cheating. The question asked was “did you ever had a crush on a family member?”, and suddenly somebody stood up and said he/she didn’t want to play this game anymore, and left. How would that end up differently for somebody who just chose to drink and then explained everything? The survey found that although in both cases people consider incest terrible (I’m laughing right now, I can’t believe I just typed this), the first kind of person (not playing the game any more) is considered much more terrible, because the lack of information sparks people’s imagination of an exploding collection of wild and unspeakable things that are much more outrageous than, say, having a very brief crush on a remote cousin. Well the research appears to be very sound — at least I do this kind of inferences all the time…

The argument easily gets generalized into the something like “not being active on Facebook makes us abhorred people”, and it appears that (again, according to this state-of-the-art study) employers do subconsciously take this into account when hiring people. I really suspected Facebook’s sponsorship of the study until Mr. Harvard confessed that he himself is not on Facebook. Fair enough, we are all “abhorred” people to some degree, and we have to find ways to live with that.

By the end of the day I think I discovered the one reigning piece in all these fancy studies: we deeply care about how people think of us. Actually we deeply care about what superficial inferences people make about us. We brag so we can make others think we are awesome; it actually doesn’t, so don’t brag. We hide so that people don’t have bad things to think of us, which isn’t true, so don’t do it either. I think what I really learn from these studies are actually that we should think more critically when we make those lousy inferences about others, and probably in the mean time not try too hard to manipulate others’ perceptions of us. Really, we are taking social media all too seriously. Employers looking for Facebook pages of an interviewee, really, seriously? Yeah you couldn’t hire Mr. Harvard in this way, and that says something…

Does it matter how others think of us? It surely does. Should we judge somebody based on what they post on Facebook? Probably not. Can we try to make others jealous by publicly posting or sharing or tagging or liking how awesome we are on social media? Don’t do it, just don’t, please.