I’ve written previously about self-presentation on social media sites.  Thus I was interested in a recent ABC News article describing a study linking Facebook use to depression.  Heavier Facebook users were found to be more likely to report being unhappy.  They were also more likely to think others are happier and have better lives than they do.  Why might there be a connection?  The article suggests that it’s because the photos posted by other Facebook users are much more likely to be smiling and cheerful rather than frowning and glum.  Thus, frequent Facebook visitors are presented with an endless parade of grinning faces, and conclude that everyone else is having a better time than they are.

I don’t have access to the original article, and thus don’t have many details about the methodology employed, but I wonder whether the above explanation is warranted.  Isn’t it equally plausible that depression causes rather than is caused by excessive Facebook use?  Couldn’t it be that people who start off by suspecting that everyone else has a better life than they do are drawn to Facebook as a way to confirm those suspicions?

Whether Facebook use is cause or effect, the study does suggest that there are plenty of unhappy souls staring at computer screens, looking at pictures of smiling people.  Maybe we need to give such viewers a lift by posting more pictures of ourselves frowning or scowling.  Why, though, are so many of us posting smiling pictures of ourselves?  It isn’t because we’re actually smiling all the time.  There’s quite a bit of impression-management that takes place on the typical Facebook wall, so that what is seen by others is a carefully calculated fiction.    In his book The Church of Facebook, Jesse Rice describes what is happening as follows: “Fear is very much part of the climate of Facebook.  When we are afraid of what people think of us, we work hard to craft just the right image composed of just the right pictures, personal information, and status updates.  We position and reposition the spotlights on our Facebook portraits to reflect our most interesting side.  The emphasis is on being clever, not on being genuine.”  (as quoted in Christian Reflection: Virtual Lives, p. 38) We want to make a favorable impression, and are hiding our real selves behind well-burnished personae.  Others don’t know us, and we don’t know ourselves.

Are online self-presentations inevitably inflated and fraudulent?  Couldn’t we instead strive to be authentic?  A recent post by Cathleen Falsani on the God’s Politics blog describes authentic relationships occurring via social media.  She had used Facebook only for entertainment and casual social interaction until a day in April, 2008, when she read a status update reporting the death of Mark, a friend.  She and dozens of others who knew Mark shared stories and pictures about him.  A thread was started, one that still continues.  Falsani writes:

“If you had told me a few years ago that I would find community — real, authentic, deeply connected, deeply faithful community — online, I would have scoffed. I’m not, by nature, a joiner.  And yet, here we are, almost four years of daily interaction later, with a communion of 20 souls around the world. Since we formed this unlikely community online, we’ve walked with each other through sickness and pregnancies, the death of parents and siblings, job losses and career changes, one-and-a-half presidential elections, recession and war, adoptions, divorces and even a marriage between two friends who met through the thread.”

The bonds she developed as a result of daily online communication were so strong that, a few years in, she and her family moved from Chicago to Laguna Beach, California so they could regularly interact in person with several other members of the group.  Facebook need not be an avenue for concealment and dissimulation; Falsani found genuine fellowship there, and her experience suggests that the rest of us can do the same.