Tuesday, March 19, 2013

What's the Line Between Lying and Whining on Social Media?

Sarah Emily Tuttle-Singer has a great post at Kveller on why we need to quit telling lies on Facebook. She illustrates what she means by showing the difference between the Facebook version of her Saturday morning (shining hair and smile, peaceful walk with the kids, dancing to Red Hot Chili Peppers) and the real-life one (chocolate cake for breakfast, an embarrassing moment where her daughter noticed her tampon, envying friends on Facebook but pressing "like" on their statuses).

She argues that "by only sharing the cute and cuddly moments, I ignore the importance of the raw and the real hours that are spent in the trenches making mistakes and learning from them."

Damn. That's true, isn't it?

One of the beautiful things about social media is that it enlivens our communities, expanding them beyond the borders of our families, geographical constraints, or even physical meetings. If it takes a village to raise a child (or write a dissertation, or bake the best chocolate cake, or get ahead in a competitive field, or anything, really) then we have broadened the borders of our villages through technology, and it should be easier than ever.

Chocolate Cake Hostess Homage
Let's crowdsource this problem, shall we?
We have a wealth of knowledge, support, and experience literally at our fingertips. No one with internet access should ever have to feel alone. It should be easier than it has ever been at any point in human history to find our tribes and build connections within them.

But this lying thing. That's going to hinder that.

If we feel the pressure to constantly give a shining, perfect version of our lives, then we aren't really letting anyone in. We can't share all that knowledge, support, and experience because the sanitized (and, dare I say, Photoshopped) version of ourselves can't let on that we've had it.

When it comes to the cultural narratives we construct, we do a more global disservice as well. By showing parenthood to be all dance parties and long walks, we make parents who aren't experiencing it that way (read: everyone) feel like they're doing it wrong. That makes them less likely to share their own real experiences and further sends the message that we have to edit ourselves into perfection before we can present ourselves to the world. It's a never-ending cycle.

So, let's all stop lying on Facebook. Problem solved, right?

Well . . . not so fast.

See, there's an opposite problem on Facebook that I think deserves equal attention. I'm sure that you all have this person in your feed, and I'm sure that many of us have been guilty of being this person from time to time. The Facebook Debbie Downer. The person who's projected social media reality is so negative that just seeing a post is enough to bring your whole day down. I'm not talking about someone who is having a genuinely bad day/week/month or in the middle of a crisis. I'm talking about the person who only posts their negative experiences and posts them all, no matter how mundane. If this person's favorite newspaper article was too coffee-stained to read, that's post-worthy. If this person stepped in gum on the way to work, it's getting tweeted. If this person's kid has a runny nose, you're getting pictures, perhaps with various Instagram filters so that you get the full gravity of the situation.

This person is certainly not editing their life down to its grandest moments, but isn't it still lying on Facebook?

All of our lives are complicated mixes of the good and the bad. At some moments, the good outweighs the bad. At others, we're on the wrong end of karmic balance. If social media is a projection of ourselves, then it will necessarily reflect that balance.

Since it is only a projection of ourselves, though, it won't reflect that balance fully. We always make choices about what we share with the world (whether it's in person or on the comptuer), but social media allows us to make those choices more carefully. If my hair's a mess, I can't choose who sees it while I'm out in public, but I can choose whether I post a picture of it on Facebook. I can't choose whether my kid wipes her runny nose down the front of my shirt in the middle of dinner in front of my co-workers, but I can choose whether I tell you about it on Twitter.

We all have to find our own personal way to balance that out. We're going to look more or less polished, more or less negative, more or less positive. The projections we create in our online worlds will never be complete versions of ourselves, but we can make sure that they are proportional.

I'm thinking of this today because yesterday was not a good day. It was one of those days in parenting when I felt like throwing in the towel. "You win," I wanted to scream to the universe. "Come get me tomorrow!"

What I put on social media was this:
Facebook: Today was one of those days. I've got a sick kid whose illness manifested in ways disgusting (think Linda Blair and pea soup) and insane (think Linda Blair climbing down the stairs backward). I am exhausted, gross, and mentally checked out. I think it's time to watch some zombies. 
Twitter: Words of encouragement for someone who has had one of those UTTERLY EXHAUSTING days of parenting? I'm asking "for a friend."
In both posts, I was trying to be light-hearted. I was trying to balance out the absolutely negative, grumpy, exhausted, angry thing I actually felt with the generally upbeat projection I usually have.

What I didn't put in those posts, though, was the full truth. I didn't say that my daughter had woke me up at three in the morning with projectile vomit, some of which landed in my mouth, and then I went to work, still in pain from the oral surgery I had three days before but unable to take pain meds if I wanted to teach, and then I came home early so I could sit with my daughter while my husband went to work, and that she then proceeded to stay awake for three straight hours when she should have been napping, and that she spent those three hours alternating between running around the room throwing things, hitting me in the jaw (which was still sore from the surgery), kicking me in the ribs, and screaming, and that I was literally crying by the time she finally fell asleep.

Did my online networks need to know that? Was I lying on Facebook? Surely some mom out there somewhere would sympathize, but just writing it out (even now, a day later) makes me feel tired all over again. I like the ability to filter out pieces of my life because sometimes they aren't pieces that I want to dwell on either.

Where do we draw those lines? Can you tell the truth on social media without telling the whole truth? Are you lying on Facebook?


  1. There was a time when people were discreet about what they shared with the world and their friends. They didn't feel obliged to share their flaws and complaints or present an "honest" picture of a life comprised of both good and bad experiences. It was understood that the public face and the private one were different. You didn't need to be told that the neighbor who was a new mother wasn't getting much sleep. It was understood that this was the way of life for all. We don't need to be told everyone has to defecate and urinate to know that they do. Is it really necessary to know unpleasant details to know they exist?

    The idea that we have to tell everyone everything in the name of "honesty" (since not telling everything is somehow a lie of omission) is a curious one. It betrays an underlying notion that we can be perfect or have perfect lives. Before, when we acted with social grace and discretion, we assumed we all led equally imperfect lives. Now, we assume we lead unequal perfect lives and therefore some sort of confession that betrays the imperfections is "necessary".

    I see Facebook as a big cocktail party in which you know the participants to varying levels. You deal with the group in accord with your familiarity with the least of them. You do not need to prove anything to anybody, whether it be good or bad.

  2. I agree with you. Especially in there being a shift between the private and public personas and that Facebook is like a cocktail party with different levels of familiarity.

    One thing that I think complicates this, though, is that before we "didn't feel obliged to share [our] flaws and complaints" to be honest, but we also weren't putting up the facade that we actually WERE sharing everything. It might not have been necessary to say that the new mother wasn't getting much sleep before, but now that the new mother has the opportunity to take snapshots of how much fun she's having all day long and project a mythical reality that portrays her days as easy and carefree, then it's no longer just an assumed reality we're up against, but an artificial one. I think that that's the lie the original article was talking about, not so much a lie of omission. It's not that we have to tell every moment of our lives to be honest, it's that when we give the impression that we are sharing every moment of our lives and we only share good ones, we create a different version of reality so that those "unpleasant details," as you call them, really can vanish, creating a sanitized picture of reality that can leave people feeling really alone in their actual world.

  3. You can be - and should be - honest on Facebook. We do not have to post every day or multiple times a day. Posting positive things when they happen but not bragging is fine; there is a difference. I post things I am happy about like blossoms on my tomato plant or the photo of the lime blossom that smells divine. Not everyone on my feed gives a crap about gardening or the scent of a flower but that is their problem.
    I sometimes post I am cheering on my son's robotics team but share that they didn't win anything, but they put forth an effort. Then the next post when they did win does not come off braggy. I also use such posts to commend the kids & the volunteer coach (some of them are my FB friends so they see this). One person in another state was inspired to have her kid join his local team and is so happy about it now.
    I rarely post super downer posts on FB but on my blog I share real mom moments and some things I struggle with because my blog readership likes me for my brutal honesty which is NOT whining, it is sharing raw feelings sometimes.
    People can figure out that during absences of FB status updates we are either too busy to even look at FB or may be sick or dealing with a problem. Not everyone wants to hear every problem we have. Actually twitter is good for that and I do share on twitter about minor gripes, like I'm awake way too early thanks to the neighbor's dog barking, thanks. If anyone doesn't like it, they can unfollow me. I just don't want that much clutter on my FB page or on my blog either. I don't run a twitter feed in my blog sidebar either.

  4. We all struggle and have challenges. On a blog we can discuss them but how many times must we revisit the same thing even though the struggles recur over and over. No one wants to hear it all the time, and the same goes for FB. I think people still do realize we all lead equally imperfect lives and we all have struggles, but it brightens our day to skim the FB page to see something yummy a friend cooked or to see snow photos when I'm hot in my new Texas home or vice-versa.

  5. I really like the way that you're breaking down how you have some different guidelines depending on the delivery method and your audience.

    My own methods are pretty similar. My Facebook posts tend to be positive, though I will share negative experiences when they come up (usually with a joking tone). My blog posts are often pretty serious, but they don't generally get into my personal life too deeply. Twitter's quick, short delivery makes it a good place for a quick gripe, and since there are so many tweets, I don't feel like I'm dragging people down because it's easy to ignore what you don't want to read.

    I definitely agree that there's a big difference between whining and sharing real, honest moments of life's difficulties.