I was at a party the other night when a Facebook friend asked me about my children. "Oh, they're with their baby sitter," I answered. "My kids don't do well in big crowds." Facebook friend looked surprised. "Really?" she said. "That's not what it seems like from the pictures you post." Apparently, my Facebook photos make my kids look like highly social, audacious, fascinating, tiny people. In reality, they're just 4- and 1-year-old boys, complete with irrational tantrums, ever-changing food aversions and severe anxiety around strangers.
I've been thinking about that conversation a lot recently because I struggle with social-media envy. It seems like, no matter how great my life is, there's somebody out there in the virtual world who's doing it better. There's the friend's kid who's a musical prodigy; the couple that just came back from a month-long vacation in Turkey; the college acquaintance who has his own, highly successful photography business; the blogger who keeps finding incredible mid-century modern furniture at yard sales; and the high school classmate's husband who surprises her with flowers just because. On any given day, all of these things could be happening on Facebook while I'm sitting at home, reading Goodnight Moon for the seventeenth time and reminding myself to take the chicken out of the freezer for tomorrow's dinner.
The thing is, I have a Facebook profile, too, and I never post about Goodnight Moon or frozen chicken. I make sure that my contributions to social media cast me in an interesting and adventurous light. At the very least, if I'm going to post about something mundane, I strive to be witty or funny about it. (And I strive hard. It's not unusual for me to spend many minutes crafting and editing a couple of sentences for a Facebook post about a trip to the park or a particularly hectic morning.)
I recently got a new phone, and while I was transferring photos from the old device to the new one, I noticed that so many of the pictures I had on there were outtakes — shots not suitable for my social media platforms because they revealed what I deemed to be flaws. In one, you can see a messy corner of my house. In another, my child looks grumpy. In a third, my hair just didn't look voluminous enough. So I didn't post those pictures. Yet, what I considered too flawed for Facebook didn't really bother me in real life. I don't recall putting my phone down to immediately clean my house or running to the bathroom mirror to fix my hair. My kid has a grump session at least once a day, and I don't think there's anything wrong with him except that he's 4. On Facebook, however, I want to portray a different image.
But it's not just about staged photographs. For the past several days, I've been scouring Pinterest for the perfect Thanksgiving recipes, decor and table setting. While I do have visions of friends and relatives gathered around a beautiful table and a succulent meal, I also want everything to be perfect because I want my virtual friends to think I am a fabulous hostess — and, if I'm being honest, feel a bit envious — when I post about Thanksgiving on social media. So, I'm not only staging photos, I am creating entire life experiences based on an expectation of "likes" and comments on Facebook. Because I am addicted to "likes" and comments on Facebook — they make me feel relevant and unique.
I don't necessarily think that it's a bad thing for social media to awaken the Martha Stewart in me. Nor do I think there's anything wrong with me posting the most flattering pictures of my life. But it's not authentic. It's not really me. And all those posts and pictures that cause me to feel envious of world travelers and child prodigies and über-romantic husbands aren't really authentic either. They too are staged and edited. Some of those experiences might have been created precisely for their social-media impact.
So I need to stop falling for it. We all do. Everyone's house gets messy sometimes. All couples fight. Even prodigious children have tantrums. Nobody is witty and funny all the time. I need to remember that my own phone is filled with outtakes. I need to start imagining the frozen chicken that's probably sitting on the counter of that famous blogger's kitchen. And I need to realize that we're all just trying really hard to always seem remarkable when in reality, we just do or say a few interesting things every once in a while.
Social media is like a big theatrical production, and just because we aren't all professional actors doesn't mean we don't know how to play pretend.