is it time to stop the twitter sycophantic-a and get real?

In Sunday Life this week I get more authentic online


A theme that crops up consistently in this weekly flirt with life betterment is something I call “too much-itis”. Or “battered (by) life syndrome”, a condition charcterised by a sense that too many commitments and distractions are dragging us down. The American Academy of Pediatrics have just diagnosed the latest symptom: Facebook Depression, caused by reading friends’ updates and feeling your life sucks in comparison to the fabulous “wine weekend away with the boyf” and “ZOMG! Most blissful afternoon on the harbour with besties” everyone else is breezily engaged in.

I used to call this malaise Friday Night Alone Watching The Bill-ophobia. Previously, a mere suspicion everyone was out having more fun than you fuelled the panic. But since everyone now has Facebook and Twitter on their phones, there’s no doubt. We all know exactly – in real time – how much fun everyone else is having. Which has upped the heart-sink.

I now call it Friday Night Alone Reading Status Updates-ophobia.

Me, I’ve become totally overwhelmed by other people’s status updates. An article in this magazine on the subject a few months ago, prompting a wave of  “me too!” feedback. My journalist friend C has since taken a Twitter hiatus. “I can’t deal with the spin. It feels so grubby.” My single friend G has turned off Facebook; “Too many ex-boyfriends with baby photos!”.

Quitting social media altogether is one solution. I’ve previously tested e-toxing (living offline) and creating e-boundaries (like using the Freedom app which blocks social media for eight hours at a time) in this column. They’re great. But extreme. I personally get a lot from Twitter in particular – it’s the most efficient way for me to read the news each day.

So this week I experimented with some more balanced – and balancing – approaches.

A new Stanford University study has found much of the misery caused by social media stems from the rampant positivity of updates. It causes us to overestimate how fabulous our peers’ lives are, but underestimate their sadness and loneliness, which makes us feel sadder and lonelier. Which would suggest sharing our shitty experiences might be an antidote that we can all contribute to, generously. Stephen Fry does this. In January he tweeted “I’m so so unhappy”. It immediately made me – and hundreds of thousands of his other followers – feel less alone in my own unhappiness.  During the week I tried such a course. I tweeted about my overeating, how unproductive my week had been and about the dark sadness that overwhelms me at times. It lost me three followers.

But it felt giving and less grubby.

Another downer about e-bragging and “interniceness” (as the New York Observer termed it) is the sycophanticism. Positive vibes are great. Better than then Gawker-style snark that characterized the web a few years ago. But the reality of newer outlets like Twitter is that it’s now easier to unfollow a snark or stooge. Bad vibes lose you followers. Conversely, reposting other people’s tweets and blogs – with fawning ZOMG! comments – attracts followers to your own feed or blog.

Further, following other people’s status updates causes homophily, a term that means “birds of a feather flock together “ and is being used by academics to describe the way social media is causing everyone to read the same articles, develop the same opinions and speak the same (sycophantic) way.  Thus dissenting opinions are shut down and outlook is narrowed. It reminds me of being at school and suddenly it’s no longer cool to wear socks with your Roman sandals. Suffer the loser who fronts up in knee-highs.

It used to make me depressed in Year 5. Now, catatonically so.

One antidote that occurred to me this week is to mix up the online voices I’m subject to. So I joined the Australian Skeptics’ and conservative US shock jock Glenn Beck’s Twitter feeds, and disconnected from voices who regurgitate others’ missives with follower-gathering zeal. While I was at it, I broadened my reading with the “unsugggester” widget on literary site LibraryThing, which “takes ‘people who like this also like that’ and turns it on its head”. I love it! You type in, say, The Da Vinci Code and it suggests a broadening option, in this case, Traditional Fair-Isle Knitting.

I ended the week feeling lest conformist, like I’d stepped away from the sad “comparathon” emerging online, and owned my views and outlook again. Although, I unfollowed Beck within 45 minutes. I have limits you know.

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