Online social media is responsible for a great many things: increased communication, new economies, selfies… it has also made it easier to compare yourself to someone else in your network. Perhaps someone that you haven’t seen in a while, or someone that you might never have seen outside of high school before Facebook came along. Regardless, you can now see their lives through newsfeeds and know in an instant how they did on their last marathon or what their new house looks like. This competition is a driving force in our economy, and in our human nature. In fact, it is expected that 2014 will bring record amounts of consumer debt to the average Canadian — up to $28,853. Naturally, this is not all owed to competing with your friends, but the desire to show your status by what you own is a real issue for today’s society. How much does social media play into this?
“Keeping up with the Joneses” isn’t a new concept. According to Wikipedia, it was first popularized in 1913 through a comic strip, which ran for 26 years. This drive for rank or status is a fundamental part of human nature, something that is around from your childhood. Charles Kadushin notes in his book Understanding Social Networks that “a person need not even be directly aware of the Joneses or that he or she is competing with them or trying to emulate them” (65). Think about your own newsfeed. You log on, scroll through updates, see a new house, a baby, a car, a new diet… and subconsciously, you may begin to wish these for yourself. And why not? Your friends have them. Why not you?
Interestingly, most people emulate others within their “reach”. You may not consider yourself to be a leader, or a bragger, or even someone with something to be jealous of, but someone else may be viewing your life (and able to because of Facebook) with envious eyes. The grass is always greener, right?
Curiously, Kadushin points out that people do not want to reach higher, to the Beyonces and Brad Pitts, but rather to the neighbour with the new toy. Research from the University of Warwick in 2010 found that money only made people happier if others perceived that they made more. The actual balance in their bank account was irrelevant if your friends weren’t aware that you were making more. “Earning a million pounds a year appears to be not enough to make you happy if you know your friends all earn 2 million a year.”
With new online engagement methods, you can now see more “neighbours” than ever before, in an instant. Facebook says that the median number of friends in 2011 was 100 – it makes me wonder, how healthy is social networking for our minds — and our wallets?