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Saturday, May 18, 2024

Is Social Media Making Us … Better People?

I was nosing around Facebook not long ago, doing the opposite of minding my own business, when I came to a stranger’s post, visible via an out-of-touch university friend. It began with the word “Warning.” My disinhibited scrolling self reacts to such admonitions like teens in a movie react to “DANGER” signs on a rusty chain-link fence. I flung down my bike, turned my baseball cap backward, and into the abandoned mine I went.

“Warning,” the stranger had written. “This post could be a trigger for the trying to conceive/miscarriage community.” I belong to neither community, and as I clicked to read the whole story I felt an uneasy pulse of social-media sympathy—part goodness, part gossip.

But at the bottom of the mine shaft, it turned out, was a surprise party with cake and balloons. My stranger was having a baby, after much difficulty. I rearranged my condolences face into my congratulations face, although both were really the same scroller’s face, simultaneously avid and blank. I had been wrong-footed, and at a party no one had invited me to.


I’ve been keeping an eye on online warnings for a while. I even check the little red flags that Netflix puts at the entrance to every show. (“Rude behavior” is my favorite.) The stranger’s pregnancy announcement was the first time I had seen a warning against someone else’s happy ending. On social media, we inevitably barge into other people’s days. We set off fireworks at funerals and ask funeral-goers to like our fireworks. But the stranger’s post was fully alert to how we live today in each other’s pockets and, by extension, in each other’s faces. It struck me as supremely, unusually tactful.

I’m reminded of an old story Betty White tells about her late friend Grant Tinker, who visited her one afternoon in 1981, after he heard that her husband had died. Tinker had just come from a meeting in which he learned that he was to be the new chairman and CEO of NBC. White recalls how he didn’t mention this impressive, life-altering change once during the visit. “I’ve never forgotten it,” White says. “That’s a classy friend.”

In person, we still know how to be classy friends. But class is tricky on social media. No one can be expected to read the room when the room is planet-sized. So, as a proxy for in-person classiness, we have warnings and disclaimers. We lean heavily on conceding sentences: “Of course …” Transient complaints come appended with acknowledgements of one’s general prosperity. A friend confessed to me, “Sometimes it feels like I’m caveating myself out of existence.”

Even algorithms are beginning to recognize the importance of tact. My online supermarket recently asked me, a 40-something orphan, if I’d like to stop receiving emails about Mother’s Day deals. Earlier this year, Twitter rolled out a feature that encourages people to rethink a potentially harmful or insulting reply before they send it. These “prompts,” as the company calls them, rely on a machine to parse the text, so they include the option for feedback: “Did we get this wrong?”

“Did I get this wrong?” could be an automated banner at the bottom of everything we post. For all the charges of egotism that get leveled at the so-called selfie generation, the dominant Freudian element in the digital age is arguably the superego—that disciplining force in each of us that modulates our behavior in accordance with social norms. Our superego is desperate to get things right. The Twitter prompts are an outsourcing of the superego, the little warning voice in our heads externalized as a piece of code.

In France, the tax laws have a special provision for people who enjoy lavish lifestyles but don’t contribute their fair share to the state. These people may pay extra for possessions considered ostentatoire—the purebred racehorse (around $5,450), the private plane ($82 per horsepower), and so on.


In the online world, ostentation is a protean thing. Contemporary status symbols aren’t just the Ferrari surging to a halt at traffic lights or the designer watch glinting in a fashionable hotel bar. They are inward moments projected outward—a comfortable home office, parent-child cuteness, leisure activities. And there’s often a tax to pay on broadcasting the good times. People inquire on Twitter about vaccination rules for foreign travel and are charged with selfishness for thinking of a holiday at a time like this. On my neighborhood’s buy-and-sell Facebook page, an unsuspecting poster is guilt-tripped for offering 50 percent off his old designer jeans, because who spends that much on secondhand denim? And if you happen to get away with an irresistible bit of pleasure-sharing—a nice view, an easy morning of sunshine—one of the best outcomes is a loyal pal’s “Enjoy!” It's the “Got got your back, but don’t get greedy” of congratulations.

Is it ostentatious to be happy? To be pregnant? To have living parents? To sit down to a nice meal? The past year may have made me more sensitive to these questions, because the pandemic brought with it an opportunistic infection of tactlessness. Ellen DeGeneres notoriously compared her mansion quarantine to “being in jail.” British celebrities admitted in bashful tones that they were very lucky during lockdown, you see, because they have a garden. People flaunted their sparkling new antibodies with vaccine selfies, while their friends were still trying to book an appointment. (This, at least, hits the sweet spot between vanity and public service announcement.)

Some will say that we should stop sharing life’s milestones and comforts with online strangers. Others will say that people have the right to mark these events and display their privileges however they want. The debate whirls around and around, a danse macabre growing bleaker and bonier with each turn. It’s more interesting to think about the type of culture we’ll continue to build out of social media’s bizarre architecture. With every warning or disclaimer that we attach to our happy bulletins, we’re imagining the responses of others. These caveated posts walk a tantalizing line between vanity and empathy, and it may be that the empathy ultimately wins out.

I have argued before that tact is a vital attribute of life in a networked world, a gateway virtue. Will it lead us to a more sophisticated ethics? Each round of the cycle in which social media catches us—the urge to share, the stings of guilt, and the clumsy disclaimers—surely makes us feel more keenly the problem of personal joy in an unequal world. Will having to swallow, day after day, the bad taste coded into this cycle prompt us to fight harder for more good times for all? There will always be proud parents living in intimate digital community with the unhappily childless, and there’ll always be orphans on Mother’s Day, but that still leaves plenty of more solvable inequities. To the camel’s back of wealth gaps and uneven life outcomes we might add the straw of online embarrassment. What is Utopia but a place where you can brag in peace by day and sleep easier at night?

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