Authentic Status Updates?

Authentic Status Updates?

During a recent stretch of 21 consecutive days of work, I chose to post almost daily updates on Facebook noting what day of the “workathon” I was on and what was new. My reasoning, I justified, was to get a little moral support during what I correctly figured was going to be a grueling stretch and to feel a little less alone in the process. In return for the support, I tried to make each post somewhat entertaining to varying degrees, either with jokes, or even links to funny videos, including a personal favorite—Madeline Kahn singing the classic “I’m Tired” from the Mel Brooks film Blazing Saddles. I thought she could express what I was feeling so much better than I ever could.

But during this stretch, a dear friend pointed out to me an article from the website Wait But Why describing “7 Ways to Be Insufferable on Facebook.” She wanted me to see how it related to a mutual acquaintance—someone who managed to figure out how to do all seven ways of being insufferable on Facebook in almost every post—and it made me stop and think about not only my own posts but why we all choose to post on social media.

We’ve all read articles or heard stories (see, for example, Time Magazine) about how Facebook and Twitter attract narcissists or that it is the narcissistic types who post most often, seeking that life-sustaining attention. However, in the “7 Ways” article, it begins with the math student’s old favorite—the Venn diagram—to see how much overlap there is between the set of “Statuses that serve the author” (Region A) and “Statuses that do something positive for the reader” (Region C) Interestingly enough, the two sets do indeed intersect in an area known as Region B, and according to the article, posts falling into Regions B and C are usually NOT annoying.

How do we define insufferable vs. not annoying?

Well, the article suggests that the non-annoying posts usually have at least one of these two characteristics (if not both): they are either interesting or informative and/or funny and entertaining—“You know why these are unannoying? Because things in those two categories do something for me, the reader. They make my day a little better,” the author (whose name is not mentioned) said. As for the insufferable posts, they fall into one or more of these categories: (1) image-crafting, (2) narcissism, (3) attention-craving, (4) jealousy-inducing, and (5) loneliness. All of these are designed to either pump up the image of the person posting or to spread his or her sadness around to many, most of whom did not ask to share that pain and may not have wanted to share in the pain.

Another meme that showed up recently on Facebook reads in part:
Welcome to Facebook. Where the people who walk past you on the street add you as a friend…Your enemies visit your profile most yet your friends and family block you…And even though you write what you are really thinking someone always takes it the wrong way and people always think your status is about them.

So who is it that is actually reading our insufferable or not-annoying posts? And why are we writing to them? Or are we writing for ourselves? This is really the important question to ask when we are using social media. It is the existential concept of authenticity. Mick Cooper (2003) describes existential inauthencity as the response to the “reality of our human condition” where we, rather than welcoming the accompanying feelings, “we try to quell them; and we do so by turning a blind eye to the reality of our existence, pretending to ourselves that things are other than they really are” (p. 23). These are the image-crafting posts, the bragging posts—where we try to make people see something in us that may not actually be the reality of our world. This is akin to the Photoshopped image of our portrait—the flaws are all removed, the lighting is adjusted to the most flattering, and the focus is soft, gentle, and warm.

Existential authenticity, according to Cooper (2003) is more about adopting an attitude of courage in the face of real existence. Cooper cites Ernest Becker who described it as “a willingness to ‘stand naked in the storm of life’” (p. 25). This is hard to convey on social media—to be authentic without sounding maudlin, needy, or pathetic. But the other part of authenticity is that when you do allow yourself to face the reality of existence, to be vulnerable, is that you are taking a relational stance. You allow space for the other, and consequently for compassion and empathy. This is what can then be conveyed via social media—an authentic statement of who you are or where you are at—with full self-awareness—but also with awareness and concern for the other, the reader. That concern for the other, the reader, may simply manifest as an attempt to engage in dialogue via one’s post—to open a space for two-way communication, rather than use social media as a unilateral platform. Or it may be a way for the authentic self to engage in other kinds of give and take—e.g., I will give you something fascinating to read or something entertaining to watch, and perhaps in exchange, I hope our friendship, our connection, will grow.

While social media seems to provide that unilateral platform for many to pontificate on the details of their teeth-brushing and gym activities, assuming that everything they do is fascinating, social media can also be a powerful tool for authentic connection—if, and only if, we keep in mind the other—the reader, the friends (both the real and Facebook kind, who could indeed one day become real). Just because we are social media doesn’t mean we can’t still aim for authentic, I-Thou connections with others. It just requires a little more work and a little more self-awareness.

Time for a status update???

Cooper, M. (2003). Existential Therapies. London, UK: Sage.

— Sarah Kass

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