More than fifty years before the term “social media influencer” was coined, Rene Girard identified the social role played by those whose attractiveness and authenticity inspired others to want to be like them. The advertising industry has always known of our mimetic desires. Marketers appeal to our envy by pointing out the ways in which their products will make us the “envy of our peers.” Just as Shakespeare makes mimetic desire explicit in The Two Gentlemen of Verona when he chooses the name Proteus, the Greek god of transformation, for a character who personifies his envious desire to “become” his friend Valentine, so today’s social media influencers create and interpret trends by inspiring desire—often envious desire. In the case of envy, social media works in three closely related ways: by increasing social proximity, by eliminating encapsulation, and by rejecting concealment.358 A growing body of social science research indicates that envy is so deeply woven into our use of social media that we may not even be aware that we are in the process of eliminating many of the social norms and structures that had been built to mitigate our envy. Although, in the past, we tended to envy those closest to us geographically or socially, proximity kept envy in check because we could envy only those we “knew” or were in contact with. Social media has changed all of that by reducing the barriers to social proximity. Prior to the expansion of social media, including Facebook and lnstagram, we could not envy those we did not “see” or have exposure to. And, although we may have secretly envied celebrities or those we read about in newspapers or magazines, envy remains an issue of propinquity. As Aristotle’s Rhetoric suggests, the objects of envy have always been characterized by nearness in time, place, age, and reputation:
Kin can even be jealous of their kin. . . . Also our fellow competitors . . . we do not compete with men who lived a hundred centuries ago, or those not yet born, or the dead, or those who dwell near the Pillars of Hercules, or those whom, in our opinion or that of others, we take to be far below us or far above us. So, too, we compete with those who follow the same ends as ourselves, we compete with our rivals in sport or in love, and generally with those who are after the same things; and it is therefore those whom we are bound to envy beyond all others. Hence the saying: “Potter against potter.”359
Aristotle knew that we envy “those whose possession of, or success in a thing is a reproach to us.” He understood that the objects of envy are most often “our neighbors and equals; for it is clear that it is our own fault we have missed the good thing in question; this annoys us and excites envy in us.” We envy those who have what we ought to have or who have what we once had:
Hence old men envy younger men, and those who have spent much, tend to envy those who have spent little on the same thing. And men who have not got a thing, or not got it yet, envy those who have gotten it quickly. We can see what things and what persons give pleasure to envious people and in what states of mind they feel it; the states of mind in which they feel pain are those under which they will feel pleasure in the contrary things. If therefore, we ourselves with whom the decision rests are put into an envious state of mind, and those for whom our pity, or the award of something desirable is claimed are such as have been described, it is obvious that they will win no pity from us.360
Social media has greatly expanded the number of those we call our “friends,” giving us access to every aspect of what seems to be their perfect lives. Social media has created an illusion of intimacy with those who are distant from us geographically or in terms of social class. While in the past, we might have envied classmates, or friends from work, or neighbors who seemed to enjoy advantages we may have coveted, we are now constantly bombarded with the ever-growing number of elaborate vacations, beautiful new houses, and fulfilling jobs of our Facebook “friends.” Their triumphs are posted on our news feeds—taunting the envious—demanding to be “liked.”
A recent study from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) reveals that “as many as 41 percent of survey takers in the UAE admitted to feeling envious when they see the seemingly happier lives of their friends on social media.” While the individuals surveyed in the UAE study cannot be viewed as representative, the data suggest that envy on social media is a crosscultural phenomenon. The desire for “likes” plays a central role in this, with a majority of people feeling upset when their friends get more likes than they do. The study, which surveyed 16,750 people worldwide, found that individuals “often experience negative emotions after spending time on social media due to a variety of reasons, and these overpower the positive effects of social media.” Dr. Jamilah Motala, clinical psychologist at Light House Arabia in Dubai, explained that the tendency of feeling jealous due to the number of likes is similar to the insecurity and lack of self-esteem in a person: “Jealousy and envy may be underpinned by core beliefs such as my value depends on what others think of me or I am not good enough.”361
These concerns are especially true regarding Instagram, a free social networking service built around sharing photos and videos, where the posting of likes has been paramount in placement of posts. Instagram launched in October 2010 but was purchased by Facebook in April 2012. Like Facebook and Twitter, Instagram allows people to follow users and creates a feed on the homepage, allowing people to like the photos or video posts of others. The importance of likes on Instagram cannot be overstated, as the more likes a post gets on social media, the faster it rises to the top of people’s timelines and the longer it stays there. According to social media strategist Farrukh Naeem, “more likes indicate content that is more popular, however there is also genuine content not being noticed and mediocre content rising up because of users and accounts who have learned how to game the algorithm.”362 From the earliest days of Instagram, celebrities and social media influencers have found ways to game their Instagram feed to indicate a greater popularity than actually exists. Some of that may end soon: in July 2019, Instagram’s CEO, Adam Mosseri, announced that the platform was removing the public likes count for certain users as “a test of the feature.” After testing the “hiding the like” count in Australia, Brazil, Canada, Ireland, Italy, Japan, and New Zealand, Mosseri claimed that the decision was made to make the “likes” private in order to take the pressure off users and create a positive environment on the platform where people feel comfortable expressing themselves.363 While it is laudable for Instagram to minimize envy through status competitions by removing the public likes count on the platform tally, it will do little to mitigate the relentless pursuit of status on social media. Even though the likes will be hidden from the envious eyes of the public, the tally of likes will still be provided to the individual who is posting the content. In some ways, it is like the current practice of not keeping score for the youngest Little League ball players. Any parent knows that the little players keep score on their own, and they know who won the game, even though no one has posted the score or spoken of the score aloud. Everyone knows the score.
Because Facebook owns Instagram, it will likely follow suit. In September 2019, Facebook experimented with removing the likes counts on posts; and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey has hinted at wanting to remove “public likes” from tweets for over a year now. At the WIRED25 Summit in 2018, Dorsey told of his unhappiness with what he called “the big like button with a heart on it.”364 However, the blowback was immediate, and Twitter’s vice president of communications, Brandon Borrman, reassured users by tweeting that they had “considered” removing the button, but “there are no plans” to do so anytime soon.365 It seems that some people have become dependent on the validation that the “like” button provides for them.
A research article on “Examining the Influence of Frequency of Status Updates and Likes on Judgments of Observers,” published in Media Psychology, explored how the number of status updates and “markers of approval” or likes affected observers’ impressions of a profile owner’s personality and character. The aim of the study was to examine whether the presentation of content on profiles affects inference making of the profile owner’s character. Using an experimental design within a population of college students, the findings indicate that “fewer status updates and ‘likes’ on a profile led to judgments of the profile owner as more depressed and socially unskilled” than those who post status updates more frequently. These impressions biased later judgments of the owner’s attractiveness.366
A growing body of research indicates that social media may be making people unhappy. In fact, studies have suggested that many people report “being happier” after they take a break from social media. A study on the happiness of 1,095 people conducted in Denmark in 2015 by the Happiness Research Institute found that staying away from Facebook can significantly increase people’s levels of contentment. Almost 95 percent of the users visited Facebook every day prior to the study, and 78 percent of them used it for more than thirty minutes a day. The study required half of the participants to stay off the network altogether; the others used Facebook as usual. After a week, those who did not use Facebook reported significant jumps in happiness while those who continued to use Facebook were 55 percent more likely to say they felt stressed, and 39 percent were more likely to feel less happy compared with those who did not use the social media site.367
It looks as if envy may be to blame for much of this unhappiness. A growing body of research suggests that Facebook in particular may have adverse effects on mental health. In a large number of studies, Facebook use has been associated with increases in envy, loneliness, stress, social comparison, and depression as well as decreases in life satisfaction and social capital.368 A scholarly study that explored the relationship between envy and social media was conducted by researchers from Technische Universitat Darmstadt in Germany and the University of British Columbia. Surveying 1,193 college-age Facebook users recruited from a mailing list at a German university,
researchers assessed how envy played out on social networks by asking participants to describe their emotions about Facebook and to describe which emotions they thought their friends experienced when looking at Facebook statuses (as a way to trick people into revealing their more guarded feelings). They found that people readily described feeling envy while reading social network statuses, especially statuses about travel and leisure. More than 37 percent of respondents noted that they were unlikely to find out about the kind of information that caused them envy (news of an awesome party, perhaps) in an offline encounter, suggesting that services like Facebook are generating envy that we would not otherwise feel.369
In June 2019, the Happiness Research Institute conducted a follow-up study to their 2015 research on the relationship between social media and happiness. The 2019 study took a more nuanced approach to looking at the relationship between social media usage and unhappiness for young people by surveying 1,160 Nordic young people ages fourteen to twenty-nine and analyzing data collected from 77,600 Nordic teenagers ages fifteen or sixteen. Those surveyed were from five Nordic countries: Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden. Participants were recruited from Facebook and were asked a series of questions about their current mood—whether they felt happy, lonely, connected, interested, anxious, proud, ashamed, or bored. Respondents were also asked about what they had been doing on Facebook immediately prior to answering the survey. The goal of that part of the experiment was to uncover any significant relationships between specific digital activities on Facebook and momentary happiness. Although there were no direct questions about feelings of envy or jealousy, questions about what the researchers called “social comparison” were included and provide some helpful indicators of the kinds of feelings that suggest envy.
The Happiness Research Institute researchers acknowledge that it is impossible to judge the effects of social media without at the same time addressing the context in which social media is used. In addition, the researchers suggest that it is difficult to talk about the “effects of social media because causality cannot be assumed—we cannot claim that social media causes envious feelings or causes young people to be unhappy without considering that young people who are already unhappy or envious are likely to make more use of social media.” Since most research in this area is based on survey data that looks at an individual’s behavior at a single point in time, we cannot confidently state that social media causes changes in the individual’s happiness or self-esteem without longitudinal data. Still, it is helpful to review the happiness study as it suggests areas for future research on the relationship between envy and social media.
Findings reveal that young people in the five Nordic countries are well above the European average in terms of social media use. According to Eurostat figures from 2011 to 2018, Nordic young people make up three of the top five European countries with the highest social media use among young people. In Denmark, in particular, one in four fifteen-year-old girls reports spending at least four hours a day on social networking sites and other forms of digital communication. But, surprisingly, the findings from the study indicate that there is no significant relationship between time spent on Facebook and an overall positive affect—or negative affect. Rather, the statistically significant links between the amount of time users spend on Facebook and their current mood has more to do with whether the user of Facebook is an “active” or a “passive” user. Active users engage in direct communication with others. Passive users consume content without directly communicating with others. Findings indicate that passive users are much more likely to have an increased negative affect, and active users are much more likely to have an increased positive affect. Communicating directly with others has a positive effect even for those with few close ties. Conversely, more time spent simply scrolling through the news feeds of friends on Facebook is related to significantly lower levels of happiness. As the authors point out, “Looking at friends’ pages is the strongest predictor of changes in young people’s mood. This particular activity is associated with decreased feelings of interest and pride, as well as increased feelings of loneliness and shame.”370 The authors of the Happiness Research Institute survey concluded in 2019 that its findings seem to support what has previously been referred to as the “highlight reel effect” because people tend to share more positive experiences than negative experiences on line. As a result, “the more time young people spend on Facebook passively observing the lives of others, the more likely they are to make upward negative social comparisons.”371 These negative social comparisons can result in feelings of envy. Young people without close social relationships are particularly vulnerable on Facebook. Among those respondents who reported having fewer than two close relationships, the researchers found a link between increased social media use and feelings of loneliness and anxiety. The more time these more isolated young people spent on Facebook, the more likely they were to feel lonely or anxious.
Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, written by sociologist Erving Goffman in 1959, might have predicted the anxiety that social media users seem to be experiencing. Goffman argued that our public lives represent the “front stage” where we all play a role to impress others by presenting our very best “self.” The Danish researchers might have called the “front stage” the “highlight reel.” The message is that impressions matter to those of us on the “front stage.” But, in 1959, there was plenty of backstage room for us to be ourselves. For Goffman, backstage is where we do not have to “play roles.” Rather, in the backstage world, we can step out of the character we have created for the front stage.372 But, as Katherine Omerod wrote in Why Social Media Is Ruining Your Life:
The all-seeing, all-knowing, 24/7 world of social media has ramped up the sheer volume of public information that we’re all sharing and the culture of Periscope, Instagram, and Snapchat, which encourage a near live-streamed existence have significantly upped our “on stage” time Today our “front stage” idealized personas are becoming more and more how we define ourselves. As our ability to maintain this supercharged, “photo-shopped” good impression layer is fast evolving, we have less and less time with the off duty “backstage” side of ourselves.373
358. Alexandra Samuel, “What to Do When Social Media Inspires Envy,” JSTOR Daily, February 6, 2018, https://daily.jstor.org/ what-to-do-when-social-media-inspires-envy/
359. Aristotle, Rhetoric ·(N.p.: Create Space Independent Publishing, 2013), 96-97.
361. Jumana Khamis, “Number of ’ Likes’ on Social Media Cause of Envy,” Gulf New, February 10, 2017, https://gulfnews.com/going-out/society/number-of-likes-on-social-media-cause-ofenvy-1.1976152
363. Sophia Ankel and Jenni Ryall, “Earlier This Year lnstagram Started Removing ‘Likes’ Counts from Posts, but They Also Started Removing Likes Altogether as the Result of a Global Bug,” Business Insider, August 14, 2019, https://www.businessinsider.com/ instagram-test-could-be-scrapping-likesaltogether-experiment platform-2019-08
364. Paige Leskin, “Twitter CEO Hinted at Removing Like Button Next Year and Users Freaked Out about It,” Business Insider, October 29, 2018, https://www.businessinsider.com/twitter-ceo-hintedremoving-like-button-users-freaked-out-2018-10
365. Brandon Borrman (@bborrman), “Short story on ‘like.’ We’ve been open that we’re considering it. Jack even mentioned it in front of the US Congress. There’s no timeline. It’s not happening ‘soon.’” Twitter, October 29, 2019, 7:25 a.m., https://twitter.com/ bbmm1an/status/105691 5020422860800.
366. Robert S. Tokunaga and Justice D. Quick, “Impressions on Social Networking Sites: Examining the influence of Frequency of Status Updates and Likes on Judgments of Observers,’’ Media Psychology 21, no. 2 (2018): 157, https://www.rnndfonline.com/doi/full/10.l080/1 5213269.2017.1282874
367. Shaumicy Ferro, “Avoiding Facebook Might Make You Happier, Study Finds,” Mental Floss, November 12, 2015, https://ww. mentalfloss.com/article/71 133/avoiding-facebook-might-makeyou-happier-study-finds
368. H. Appel, A. L. Gerlach, and J. Crusius, “The Interplay between Facebook use, Social Comparison, Envy and Depression,” Current Opinion in Psychology 9 (2016): 44-49.
369. Shaunacy Ferro, “Posting a Status Update? It’s Probably out of Envy, Study Says,” Mental Floss, December 10, 2015, https://www. mentalfloss.com/article/72275/posting-status-update-its-probablyout-envy-study-says
370. Michael Birkjaer and Micah Kiats, #SortingOutSocialMedia: Does Social Media Really Pose a Threat to Young-People’s Well-Being? (Copenhagen: Happiness Research Institute, 2019), 24, http:// norden. diva-portal.org/smash/get/diva2: 1328300/FULLTEXT0 1 .pdf
372. Erving Goffman, Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (New York: Anchor Books, 1959).
373. Katherine Omerod, Why Social Media Is Ruining Your Life (London: Cossell, 20 18), 38.