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Status Update Anxiety and Facebook Timeline

Keeping up with the Joneses just got harder, with Facebook finally flipping the switch on its new Timeline Apps that make it easier to share every fleeting moment of your fabulous life with each and every one of your friends. The gossip and invidious comparison that goes on between Facebook friends each day is about to intensify, thanks to 60 new Facebook Timeline apps that give 800 million people around the world an easier way to share their Facebook status with others. Want to signal to others that you’re an indie music fan? Share all the songs from undiscovered hipster bands you’re listening to on Spotify. Want to signal that you’re a foodie? Share all the amazing dishes you’ve been scarfing down from celebrity chefs on Foodspotting. This “frictionless sharing” (Zuck’s term, not mine) enables you to share everything without actually having to open up your Facebook account — once you’ve installed the app, you’ve just given Facebook permission to share everything to your Timeline.

So will these new Facebook Timeline Apps increase the status anxiety we already feel in our daily lives?

Botton-status-anxietySwiss philosopher Alain de Botton’s wonderful little book Status Anxiety traced the narrative arc of status obsession in Western society over the past several hundred years, focusing on why we feel compelled to seek the approval of others. In any democratic, egalitarian society, de Botton concludes, people will attempt to climb the social ladder; as such, they will be particularly sensitive to the perceptions of others as they move rung-by-rung to the top. In de Botton’s taxonomy, there are five factors that contribute to an acute sense of status anxiety, not the least of which is snobbery. In response, individuals within Western society have struggled to deal with status anxiety through a number of means, including art, philosophy, religion and (my favorite) bohemianism.

To be clear – the acute sense of status update anxiety brought about by Facebook is nothing new. Instead of checking out our neighbors’ cars and houses and summer homes, we are now able to check out their music preferences, their food preferences, even the types of charitable causes that they are contributing too. It is now easier than ever to turn even the most mundane activities – like the sounds we hear around us every day – and turn them into sources of status. Not only that, using a Facebook Timeline App like Pinterest, it is now possible to take all the things that you aspire to — and hold these up, too, as a source of potential status. It is impossible to walk away from Pinterest without feeling a nagging sense that you just haven’t maximized your life to the fullest degree.

Facebook intensifies the feeling of status anxiety because we see so many wonderful things happening to our friends. This is one of the lessons that Alain de Botton teases out in Status Anxiety — we all feel “a secret dismay at the success of our friends.” Here’s a thought experiment: Imagine a celebrity – a Kardashian, a Hilton, a Trump – dining out at a five-star restaurant, cavorting with impossibly beautiful friends, and sharing bon mots about their latest travel experiences (“St. Barts? How much more wonderful than St. Tropez!”). Now, imagine your closest friends on Facebook having these same experiences. Did you just feel a tinge of status anxiety? As psychologists point out, the amount of anxiety you feel is directly proportional to how close you feel to your friend in the social pecking order.

With so many people sharing updates on Facebook via Timeline Apps, we may soon learn to tune out all this information. All these potential sources of status anxiety could become a type of ambient music you hear playing in the social networking background, without really recognizing the source. Ultimately, Facebook Timeline Apps give you the tools to craft your personal brand, and it is unquestionable that some people will be more aggressive about this than others. Zuckerberg didn’t get to 500 million friends without making a few enemies, and the average Facebook user won’t get to 500 friends without making a few enemies (frenemies?) as well.

It’s tempting to think that we live in an entirely new era brought about by the genius of the social networking kings of Silicon Valley. In fact, as de Botton and others make clear, Western society has always faced a constant struggle with status anxiety. To de Botton’s five sources of status anxiety – lovelessness, expectation, meritocracy, snobbery and dependence – we can add a sixth: Facebook. The good news is that our respite will be the same, too, whether it is art, philosophy or religion. In fact, look for a new wave of online social bohemianism as young and old alike struggle to keep their minds off Facebook status anxiety.

image: Panicked Young Woman With Four Laptops / Shutterstock


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