Editorial: Mirror, mirror

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If the evil queen from “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” had had a Facebook, she may not have needed that mirror, mirror on the wall after all.

Instead, she might have scrolled through her newsfeed to find Instagrammed photos of Cinderella’s sparkling new slippers, location updates from Hansel and Gretel and statuses about Hercules’s most recent bench press PR.

Or at least a selfie of a perfectly coiffed Sleeping Beauty captioned “I woke up like this.”

In short, Facebook could have saved her the effort of whipping up a poisoned apple and an elaborate disguise because, as the site constantly shows us, everyone else will inevitably and already seem to be the fairest of us all.

Social media, a staple of millennial culture, have been widely criticized for their apparent encouragement of ostentatious self-promotion and narcissism. Still, actively using social media is an excellent way to stay informed about current events, albeit in a fashion that’s filtered by those we digitally connect with. Moreover, social media are often integral in mobilizing and spreading real social movements, such as the Arab Spring uprisings or Occupy Wall Street efforts of 2011. In both cases, participants initially rallied around the events’ respective Twitter hashtags.

Of course, social media also serve an interpersonal purpose. They allow us to stay close and connected to one another despite distance or time and enable us to join online communities that feature like-minded individuals. They foster a sense of belongingness, of acceptance.

That level of acceptance is often both quantifiable and conspicuous. Social media tend to be littered with the most delightful of snippets from our lives, and we usually have the ability to “like” or “favorite” others’ digital contributions. New relationships. Engagements. Marriages. Promotions, exotic vacations and pictures of ourselves that are Photoshopped to perfection. Sure, there’s the occasional status featuring an angsty song lyric or something along the lines of “got no sleep last night, SMH,” but for the most part, we’re steamrollered by optimized, idealistic images of others’ lives. How can everyone else possibly be living a fairy tale when we’re stuck in the struggles of reality?

“Like” for a “truth is.” They’re not.

According to Psychology Today, Dilney Goncaleves of the IE Business School in Madrid conducted a study that argues that much of how we judge our success in life is by comparing ourselves to others. “The problem is that Facebook gives us a limited view of our friends’ lives,” Goncaleves writes, “and that view tends to be unrealistically positive.” It’s hard to feel happy about our successes when they’re constantly trumped by the seemingly bolder, grander successes of others — who, by the way, have amassed 173 likes on their public posts about said exploits. The more likes you get, the more affirmation you have, and the steeper your resulting confidence boost. It can be a vicious cycle that simply sets us up to feel inadequate.

If we let it, that is.

We can’t quite expect everyone to post all the grim or challenging details of their lives online. Indeed, social media would doubtfully be as popular if they fostered a more negative vibe. Perhaps the greatest concern about social media should be that they’re making us jealous, not narcissistic. They’re just acting as vehicles of public narcissism. As Goncaleves argues, the larger our social media networks, the more likely we are to spend our days immersing ourselves in envy.

Leading to that problem, perhaps, is our apparent inability to distinguish a slice from a whole.

Theoretically, we know the most about both the victories and defeats of those we’re closest to. So when we see posts about the happy moments of their lives on social media, we’re not exactly prone to believe that those provide a full picture of those people. On the Web, we’re able to frame ourselves however we want to, even if that slightly skews what’s real. By that same logic, we shouldn’t assume that the perfect images of others we don’t know quite as well are all-encompassing. And usually, the happiest, bubbliest facets of a person aren’t even the most important things about them.

It’s OK if we can’t see the most thorough image of a person, as long as we don’t compare ourselves to the fragmented version that’s generally presented to us. And if you count yourself among one of many who grow frustrated by those who post frequently, show off, don’t use proper English, type only in acronyms, or send you game invitations by the hundred, remember that you have the ability to remove such people from your online circles. Our control over our digital images is matched by our control over those with whom we associate.

It’s on us to rid ourselves of what puts us at risk of living unhappily ever after.

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