When you type in “social media is…” on the Google homepage, the top four searches read, “social media is toxic/not real life/bad for mental health/bad”. With results as dire as those, you might find yourself wondering: why would anyone create social media? Wouldn’t we collectively deactivate our accounts, delete the apps (so we’re not tempted), chuck our phones into the nearest body of water and then live amongst forest creatures?
Well, no. It’s not that simple.
Social media’s pros and cons are flip sides of the same coin: isolation vs. connection. You already know that billions of people populate the planet and you’ll likely die with little to no impact, but social media acutely reminds us of this reality. Could social media be the vehicle that catapults you out of oblivion? Maybe, considering influencers now receive the same perks as standard celebrities. However, not all dreams come to fruition, and the algorithms will expose you to folks in your niche, people similar to yourself, chasing the same dream, but probably with better hair and a smaller nose. Once again, you remember that you’re just another speck on a map. Cue the comparison. Cue the isolation.
But alas! If you’re feeling these feelings, surely your virtual contemporaries are, too. Even if social media doesn’t catapult you from oblivion to stardom, you’ll meet plenty of folks who occupy your same level of irrelevance. Social media is a great way to meet people who share your interests, even though you live hundreds of miles away. I’ve met romantic partners and close friends via Instagram. The world becomes a lot smaller, and we witnessed this firsthand during the quarantine, as we shared banana bread recipes and home workouts.
Many folks call social media a “highlight reel”. People only post their “camera-worthy” moments, when events transpire exactly how (or better than) they’re supposed to, and cheesy smiles affix participants’ faces. According to most who hold this belief, people ought to be more honest. Tell us how you really feel. Tell us that your week sucked. You’re not voluntarily moving, but can no longer afford your rent. Your boyfriend cheated on you with your best friend and your boss gave a newbie the promotion over you. Come on, open the door! Let us in.
You might be tempted to oblige, but the intruders aren’t knocking to help mend your damage. They want to microwave some popcorn and watch the show, but at your expense. This is the reason people love social media.
The word Schadenfreude refers to the satisfaction one feels after someone else’s misfortune. The word literally translates from German, “schaden” meaning damage or harm and “freude” meaning joy. Schadenfreude is not a black-and-white emotion; the roots propagate for different reasons. The first functions as retribution. When somebody wrongs you, they deserve a “taste of their own medicine,” or “slice of humble pie,” right? If those cliches aren’t in your vernacular, you’ll likely call this retribution “karma.”
The second motive doesn’t involve wrongdoing, but envy. You feel justified relishing in a celebrity’s divorce, because that celebrity is a million times richer than you and now shall suffer like us common folk. Celebrity misfortunes knock them off their pedestal, shattering their perceived perfection, and decreasing the chasm between them and ourselves. Because why should they live like kings and queens and us like peasants, right?
Finally, Schadenfreude also derives from our personal disappointments. You feel it after you fail your exam and find out your classmate did, too. When your coworker also didn’t receive a holiday work bonus. What would’ve happened if your peers did receive these blessings? You would’ve felt a twinge of envy, but likely would’ve brushed it off. Envy is a normal emotion, after all.
But what about when the envy is aimed at your friends? What happens when Schadenfreude oozes during your friends’ tribulations?
You’ll feel icky. You’ll want to shower, cleanse yourself of the feeling and absolve your guilt. It’s easier to quell Schadenfreude towards loved ones. Why would you want to wish harm on the people who mean the most to you? You’ll stop the sentiment in your tracks before it destroys you.
On social media, though, Schadenfreude is a normality. You’re witnessing catastrophe through a screen. You’re so far removed that the catastrophe doesn’t even feel real, and neither do the participants.
Once upon a time, you needed to seek out celebrity drama. Today, as long as you follow a few drama accounts, you’ll know the tea even before the celebrities themselves. Even if you avoid such pages, you’ll probably see the posts shared on other people’s stories, posts which become memes and punchlines until the next batch of controversy. Social media becomes less isolating when us commoners clown these celebrities in the comment section. Our Schadenfreude is contagious, and we’ve fostered connection.
Nonetheless, you seldom need to look beyond your friends list for misfortune. By “friends list” I mean your third cousins, that guy you met on Tinder, your parents’ friends, your parents’ friends’ kids, your college lab partners, your high school classmates, your childhood neighbors… and so on. Shared history wouldn’t connect you to these folks today if not for your virtual networks.
I read a quote that says it’s easier for us to support strangers than people we know. We struggle to accept that we started in the same place as people we know, but we’re still in the same place. Perhaps that’s why our Schadenfreude might be the strongest towards our acquaintances. We don’t cherish them like friends nor aggrandize them like celebrities. Therefore, we feel minimal guilt when we relish in their misfortunes, whether they dropped out of grad school or missed their flight to the Bahamas.
Sometimes I wonder what the point of these long-lasting social media connections are. I have seven to fifteen friends whom I communicate with IRL, yet to this day, two thousand and one hundred forty five Facebook friends. I don’t need to see the good nor the bad from these people, because I don’t need to see these people at all.
We blame social media for our mental health’s demise, but the word Schadenfreude reached English texts as early as 1852. Granted, social media exacerbates the sentiment–back then, human interaction was limited to the tangible, whereas now it lies at our fingertips. Your social media experience will ultimately be dictated by your mental state in the real world. If you’re already grappling with unease and worthlessness, those feelings will transfer onto your screen. You’ll think social media is the culprit, when, really, it’s yourself.
People call social media a highlight reel, but so is reality. If you ran into an old classmate at the supermarket and they greeted you with the perfunctory “How are you?” you’re not going to lead with your recent failures. Why should you? Your business is yours, alone, and you don’t owe it to anyone. If you wouldn’t divulge your intimate struggles to a stranger IRL, why would you do the same online? People beg strangers for transparency like they’re entitled to it. If you’re fulfilled with your own life, you wouldn’t care to ask. As the cliche goes, you’d be too busy watering your own grass to notice if someone else’s is greener. The issue isn’t that social media is a highlight reel–it’s that people use it as respite for their own disappointments.
So, if Schadenfreude is the reason we revel in other people’s misfortunes, what about the folks who willingly share theirs? As I mentioned earlier, there are two types of people on social media: the aspiring influencer who seeks platform growth, and more ubiquitously, the commonplace user who couldn’t care less about virality. Both camps grapple with the same question: How much should I open the door? In spite of their differences, the answer remains the same: no more than a crack.
They say if you want to build a platform, you need to show your personality. It’s vague advice, because what is a personality? Your personality is comprised of many parts. Most of them aren’t inherently yours, but aspects you adopted from media, culture, your peers, and other environmental factors. The second line of advice you’ll hear is to “Be vulnerable”. This one’s a bit more clear cut. Vulnerability implies wounds. You’d label a knife gash or twisted ankle as vulnerable. To facilitate healing, you’d apply a bandage, not expose your wounds to the world and risk further damage. Why would mental wounds be different?
Your wounds are your vulnerability, but your vulnerability isn’t your personality. You aren’t your hardships. Exploiting them for clicks won’t elevate your brand like you might expect. Sure, you might gain an audience, but how genuine is their attention? As the quote goes: few people care, the rest are just curious. If your audience cultivates around your pain, what’ll happen when your circumstances ameliorate and you’re no longer relatable? Will your followers jump ship to someone whose pain reeks stronger?
As for the average user, misery loves company. One of my mother’s friends updates her Facebook status every few hours, and they’re about eighty percent complaints. I’m not sure what her intention is–whether Facebook functions like her interactive diary, or because her venting generates interesting comment threads. If misery loves company, perhaps she experiences Schadenfreude when mothers comment that their child, too, is also failing math. Complaining on social media might yield short-term relief, but it’s a passive action with no long-term solution.
I think the time to share hardships is when they’re in the past tense. When you’re presently going through it, you don’t need unnecessary opinions nor folks feasting in your pain. Success stories are the most uplifting, anyway, and provide the healing blueprint we’re ravenous for. Instead of triggering Schadenfreude, these posts prove that our pain is temporary and we, too, can escape the darkness.
I’m also not promoting toxic positivity. You’re allowed to have a bad day. You’re allowed to wallow in your misery, eating Ben & Jerry’s by the pint and watching shitty Netflix specials. Although many folks seem to wonder…
If you have a bad day but don’t inform the entire internet, did you really have a bad day?
Seriously–your bad days are the days that you should especially avoid social media. Your Schadenfreude will be at its peak and you’ll wonder why you couldn’t be anyone other than yourself. Discover healthy coping mechanisms outside of endless scrolling and comparing. Build a support system in the real world. Create a life you can be proud of–without strangers’ online approval.
I don’t post my losses on social media. However, I’m also hesitant to post my wins, because I know how quickly they can be taken from me. I know people would cheer if they were. I share my life and personality, but my life isn’t a series of highs and lows. I’m learning to romanticize the mundane, to find glee in the corners of every repository.
There’s a reason I don’t delete my social media accounts or the thousands of people connected to them. When my headspace is clear, social media brings me joy. I want to see your cat climbing on your kitchen table and your dog howling to Whitney Houston. I want to see the ravioli you ordered at the new Italian spot. The song that’s been stuck in your head for weeks. The book you read in a day. The fall foliage you painted. The denim jacket you scored at the thrift shop. I want to see your photograph of the sunset–the one you were scared to post because sunset pictures are so ordinary, but you reminded yourself that its commonality doesn’t make it less beautiful, and that this sunset picture is different because it’s yours.