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Why their status makes you uneasy

All this status updating seems to be playing with our sense of our own status. Ironic? Or post-ironic? Ben Phillips asks you what you think - and he may even listen.

A guest post by Ben Phillips, a skateboarder trapped in the hairdo of a post-ironic digital strategist wandering the Continent, updating his Facebook status with the sole purpose of making you feel insecure.

Social networks exacerbate status anxiety in Western society. They introduce inherent bias in self-reporting as well as a forced ease of comparison with an extended peer group.

Status anxiety: the desire of people in many modern societies to “climb the social ladder” and the anxieties that result from a focus on how one is perceived by others. De Botton claims that chronic anxiety about status is an inevitable side effect of any democratic, ostensibly egalitarian society. Wikipedia

Status Anxiety: Why we play the game

In a 2004 documentary, Alain De Botton explores why, despite massive increases in quality of life over recent years, our comparative happiness has declined, or at best remained stagnant.

“Despite being so much richer than a few generations ago, we’re often more anxious about our own importance and achievements than our grandparents were”.

His exploration is comprehensive, arriving at the illusion of equality: in modern Western (supposedly egalitarian) societies we’re led to believe that we all have the same level of opportunity, and that we’re all equally capable of achieving success. In reality, this notion is farcical. From the family we’re born into, to the schools we attend, to our nurtured drive and intellectual curiosity, it’s clear that opportunity is far from an even playing field.

Despite this, it appears to be human nature to compare oneself to one’s neighbour, evaluating our own performance against his or hers, despite the invalid and ultimately fruitless nature of this comparison. De Botton dives deeply into the historical and psychological context of status anxiety, in a sometimes comical and often depressing look at the human psyche.

De Botton focuses exclusively on the comparison with one’s peers, not how the on-going comparison is enabled. Since 2004 there have been some obviously radical changes in the media landscape, so in extending discussion on status anxiety, we need to consider the messenger, in addition to the message.

Adding fuel to fire: how social media exacerbates status anxiety

“Mark McBride just finalised the transaction on our new house!”
“James Paterson is married to Alice Watson”
“Chris Whitney . . . . new job is now official on xxxxxx industry blog”

Of all of social networks’ varied effects, one of the most profound is the shift in the notion of our ‘peer’ group, extending it from a relatively close personal and professional circle, to nearly everyone we’ve ever met. As an illustrative example, the UK Telegraph reports that the average 22 year old British youth has over 1000 Facebook friends. Whilst the ever-growing statistics are significant, the take-out is more important; we’re more connected to a wider range of people than at any other point in human history.

As a result of this shift in architecture, there is a massive increase in peer visibility: through LinkedIn profiles, Facebook pages, personal websites, professional directories and other social networking platforms, we’re served an instant snapshot of where somewhere is, who they’re married to, where they work, where they live etc etc. We’re more aware of the status of our ‘friends’ than we’ve ever been.

These social environments are the messengers of status anxiety’s message. If Western cultures are “more anxious about our importance or achievements”, is part of the reason the ubiquity of the environments which enable us to publish and share these achievements?

There are a couple of sides to the messenger, the enabler of status anxiety, which potentially magnify its effect. Firstly, the inherent bias introduced by self-reporting in these environments. Secondly, the forced ease of comparison (and the architecture behind this.)

1. Inherent bias
Our digital publication of our lives, in most cases, accentuates the highlights, while often completely omitting the lows. Job redundancies are conspicuously out of proportion to new job announcements and we only see the happy couple on holiday, not the heated argument once they get home. And funnily enough, the babies are always smiling.

A post on Slate.com entitled The Anti-Social Network discusses a range of implications of this inherent bias, from university students who feel dejected and inadequate after scrolling through their stream, to infertile women whose unhappiness is exacerbated by their friends’ pregnancies and baby photos. (originally reported in the Washington Post). While most of us are consciously aware of the reporting bias of social networks, it’s this one-sided image that becomes our point of comparison. Which brings us to the second point . . .

2. Forced ease of comparison
The status of our peers is being pushed onto us with greater frequency and in greater volume than ever before. The ‘feed’ is the central aspect of the IA of most major social networks – and all of the elements of social status, relationships, occupation, social life, friends – are the composites of this feed. This format massively contributes to the stickiness of the sites; we see the latest and greatest from our extended peer group and we’re naturally drawn to it.

Doing this however, eases the peer comparison process which is the precursor to status anxiety. I flick through my phone in the morning and see that “oh so and so got married to a beautiful wife, so and so has a new job at a great firm, so and so is featured in this documentary” etc etc.

Shooting the messenger?

So where does this leave us? We’re shooting the messenger here certainly: status anxiety existed before social networks and, ultimately, it’s the message and how we respond to it that’s the root cause of status anxiety. However, in this case, the messenger fundamentally amplifies the nature of the message. The message generally has a positive skew, and this positive skew is pushed with greater frequency to a greater volume of people than in the pre-social media days.

3 balancing thoughts to finish . . .

1. In the majority of circumstances, the utility of these environments far outweighs any personal uncertainty they give rise to
Us humans are a social bunch; staying in touch with relatives/friends, maintaining a professional network, seeing streams of content from friends or receiving kind photo comments is important to us and equates to a net gain for social networks. We are not forced to participate, we do so because we’re drawn to the company of others in its various forms.

2. Social networks amplify, not create, our existing personal and relationship qualities
If your relationship with a particular person is marked by jealousy and fierce rivalry, then Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter etc will be another arena in which that’s played out. If you deeply cherish and love someone, then conversely these networks will enable those feeling to flourish.

3. In almost all cases, these environments are rose coloured glasses into someone’s life
There are notable biases in how people present themselves, how they act, what they post etc. It’s up to us how much emphasis we place on this, as well as how we create our own.

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Is the messenger to blame? What role does social visibility play in how we publish ourselves? And in how we perceive others?

For more Ben Phillips, have a read of How to make social ideas.

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