On a recent Sunday I found myself at a desolate corner on the southwest edge of Greenwich Village in New York City. I was meeting a friend for brunch, who sent me a text with the proper street coordinates and a line that said “meet me inside at noon.” It was all very Murder She Wrote, if Angela Lansbury’s character could text, so naturally I was completely on board. I had no idea why said friend chose this arbitrary spot for our catch-up over eggs and bottomless coffee. It wasn’t a local treasure or on the list of any recommended restaurants—so an hour in I had to ask, what gives with all the mystery? Turns out, we were there because my friend saw on Instagram that her crush had been making the regular rounds at this spot every Sunday. “Now look like you’re laughing really hard so I can Instagram a brunch picture and he sees it,” she advised me.
What said friend was really doing was cultivating her brand image. It’s by no means a revolutionary argument to say that the practice of branding is powerful. Professional marketers representing juggernaut businesses to smaller-scale start-ups spend billions every year in hopes that the right tagline or compelling story will leverage their brand. The goal is to lock in consumers, hope that they’ll engage, and that ultimately, their efforts will result in a pretty penny. And while industries are pouring resources and energy into social media strategists and branding consultants, there’s a new type of branding that’s emerged from motivation of a different kind. And like business-savvy branding, this type of packaging might also add partners to your rolodex. I’m referring to, of course, to the branding of “you.” And like masters who’ve convinced us that the contents inside of a Heinz jar or Crest tube are magic on the tongue, capturing the essence of your neatly packaged “you” takes deft craftiness in the form of witty tweets and filtered photos.
In 2013 the vast majority of us have graduated from the beginning stages of social media to wearing virtual gap and gowns and receiving honorary doctorates in the field. There’s Facebook to illustrate the breadth and depth of our friendships. I’ve got a boatload of friends, and you can count all 900 of them! There’s Instagram to demonstrate that we’re seeing concerts we wouldn’t care about if it weren’t for the pop-up notification that read “that dude you’re interested in is now following you.” Now there is even video capability on Instagram to demonstrate that See! I was really at the aforementioned concert I uploaded pictures from!
It’s remarkable that we have ways of presumably connecting with more people than ever—but on the flip side, all of these connectors may leave us grossly disconnected. Scan a room at Saturday brunch and notice the gaggle of tables spending more time Instagramming their plates than actually chatting with one another. And would those denizens have even gone to said brunch place, had they not planned on uploading the salivating food-tography?
In the next years or so researchers will have to pay extra close attention to the role of social media in social comparison theory. The theory says that we use others as a benchmark in order to gain “accurate” self-perceptions of ourselves. But in an age when everyone is expertly marketing their own self-brand, we may be comparing ourselves to friends’ lives that don’t actually exist. Moreover, the arbiter of social comparison, Leon Festinger, observed decades ago, that what might be most maladaptive is that we compare ourselves to those whose abilities we perceive closest to our own. While Beyoncé might actually cause you to up your crunches because she represents aspirational motivation, a close friend’s feed could drive the effect in reverse. Instead, this can leave you disheartened at why you haven’t achieved the same level of desired content that you see popping up on his or her social feed.
We should use social media with a grain of salt, allowing it to capture a sliver of life, but not letting it dictate our days. And understand that the seemingly perfect lives your viewing through rose-tinted filters and “likes,” is just the work of a brand manager and not a benchmark for the way you should spend your Sundays. Ah yes, and if only Angela Lansbury’s character could text, then she’d say: u r tots right.
A version of this piece appeared in Our Town Downtown on May 15, 2013.
Festinger, L (1954). A theory of social comparison processes. Human Relations 7:117.