by Colin Eatock
What's up with my friends on Facebook these days? Let's have a look.
One of my friends recently starred in a TedX video. Another friend was just interviewed by the BBC. Another just got tenure at the college where she teaches. Yet another is directing a theatrical piece that's about to open. And a friend of a friend published a short story about a cat in Paris.
These and other similar announcements pop up in my newsfeed on a daily basis. Thanks to Facebook, I know that I have friends who wear only the most fashionable clothes, friends who make scrumptious pies and cakes, friends with perfect marriages, and friends who go on splendid vacations – with the photos to prove it.
All of these informative (if not exactly helpful) nuggets of knowledge can be described with one simple word: boasting. Moreover, there's nothing sly, discreet or tangential about this kind of boasting – it's unfettered, undisguised and unapologetic. It's a kind of boasting doesn't ask permission to speak, and doesn't wonder if anyone is interested in what it has to say. It's so pervasive that Facebook should be renamed “Boastbook.”
Yet not so long ago in North America (and especially in Canada, where I live) boasting was considered a very bad thing. Boasting used to be vain and egotistical. Boasting was tedious and insufferable to others. Boasting was pathetic, because it was rooted in some kind of deep-seated insecurity complex. Boasting was also a stupid thing to do because it so often achieved the opposite of its goal: damaging, rather than enhancing, the boaster's social stature.
Then along came a clever young Harvard student named Mark Zuckerberg. Before he launched Facebook, it was by no means demonstrated that there was a strong demand for people to cobble together their friends and acquaintances and boast at them, via the internet. Like many a successful inventor and businessman before him, Zuckerberg somehow knew that people would want his product, even though they didn't yet know they wanted it.
And so, less than a decade after Facebook was launched, it's become a part of everyday life. It has spawned a host of competing services, such as LinkedIn, twitter and Google+. And although there are some indications that Facebook's star may be in decline, over 1 billion users around the world is nothing to sniff at.
Something so big is bound to be a game-changer – and indeed it has been. Facebook has connected humans together and isolated us from each other. Facebook has made a verb out of the word “friend,” and coined an opposite form: to “unfriend.” Facebook has reconnected long-lost acquaintances, has enabled internet stalkers, and has been the catalyst for marriages and divorces. It has even become a tool of international espionage. But who could have foretold that the world's most popular social media website would transform us into a society of in-your-Facebook braggarts?
It is here that latency becomes a key concept. If there weren't a latent demand, lying dormant with the collective North American bosom, to shake up the centuries-old mores surrounding boasting, no such transformation would have occurred. Facebook rewrote the rules on boasting because we wanted it to.
Predictably, some observers of this phenomenon, such as the Wall Street Journal's Elizabeth Bernstein, have decried the development of a boasting culture on Facebook. “Friends, family and co-workers,” she began, in a column last year, “I think you're fabulous – just not quite as fabulous as you think you are.” She also pointed to a recent study from Western Illinois University that links Facebook to “excessive narcissism.”
Yet I believe that Facebook boasting – in moderation – is a good thing.
How does it benefit North American society to be so tightly proscriptive about publicly declaring one's accomplishments, virtues or good fortune? What do we gain from frowning on telling the world about the things that make us happy and proud, that enhance our wellbeing and bolster our self-esteem?
And where did our anti-boasting convention come from? Perhaps it is derived from Puritanical ideas about the sin of pride. Or perhaps it is rooted in our democratic ideals of equality. Or perhaps it is something less righteous and dignified than it appears to be – such as an expression of hostility towards those who inspire feelings of jealousy in us.
Whatever the origins of the rules, it's worth noting that Facebook isn't the first device our culture has employed to work around or subvert the prohibition against boasting. For the great and famous, there are publicists for hire, who will spread word of their clients' glory far and wide. The literary accomplishments of authors are proudly presented on the flaps of dust-jackets, for all to read. Also, wealthy philanthropists may donate millions of dollars toward the construction of public buildings and other projects – which are then duly named after the donors.
But most people have traditionally had to resort to more homespun methods. For instance, it's permissible to display awards, diplomas and trophies in the privacy of one's own home – where they will of course be seen by visitors. And there's the annual “Christmas letter,” inserted in a greeting card, informing recipients of events and achievements during the year. The “humblebrag” is a sneaky form of boasting that has long been acceptable in conversation. (“All the international travelling I've been doing lately has really worn me out. I just can't keep up with it all.”) A more recent innovation is the “wing man,” who helps another man pick up women in a bar, by telling them what a swell guy his buddy is.
But these tricks-of-the-trade pale in comparison to what can be, and has been, accomplished in the realm of boasting since Facebook first launched. Facebook offers boasters a global reach, a one-size-fits all broadcast capability – and, most importantly, a carte-blanche invitation to tell the world “what's on your mind.” Not surprisingly, what's on people's minds tends to be their own activities, ambitions and general welfare. And when offered a forum to discuss these things, people find they enjoy it – a lot.
“Bragging on twitter and Facebook can feel as good as sex, researchers have revealed,” declared the UK's Daily Mail last year. Apparently, some Harvard neuroscientists used an MRI scanner to watch what was happening in people's brains when they were invited to talk about themselves. Researchers noted “increased activity in the mesolimbic dopamine system.” That's the part of the brain that generates feelings of joy and reward during a variety of pleasurable experiences.
I don't mean for my comments here to be read as a sweeping paean to Facebook. To be sure, it has its downsides, including an ever-increasing advertising presence, and intrusive information-gathering tactics. And it's a poor excuse for real human contact.
Yet, at its best, Facebook's boasting function offers a breath of fresh air – permitting an openness and honesty of self-expression that is still tightly proscribed in many other social contexts. If there's something good happening in your life that is genuinely of interest to your friends, you do both them and yourself a service by speaking up about it. (And if your friends aren't genuinely pleased to learn of your joys and achievements, then maybe you need some new friends.)
As for the “excessive narcissists” out there, Facebook has given them enough rope to hang themselves. Thankfully, for those acquainted with the ins-and-outs of Facebook's control settings, there are ways to shut them down.
* * *
Colin Eatock is a writer who lives in Toronto. He refuses to say more about himself, as he does not wish to appear boastful.