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Looking for ‘Likes’ in All the Wrong Places

Why social media can be damaging to self-worth.

How is Facebook like a drug? (Image:

We post something on Facebook, say our latest gastronomical experiment, or a scathing takedown of a celebrity making a fool of himself. Or we let fly a clever tweet paired with a shrewd hashtag we’re certain is going to go viral.

Then, crickets. As in, no “likes,” no retweets, no nothing.

And how does all this make us feel? More insignificant than if we’d posted nothing at all.

That’s the power, and danger, of social media.

A student of mine recently complained that no one was responding to her Facebook status updates. The blog she posted had received scant followers. She couldn’t understand why people would be so cruel as to ignore her. She seemed genuinely hurt.

She made the mistake that a lot of people do. Not just people desperate for attention, but average everyday folks eager for someone to listen, to find them clever, or funny, or sympathetic.

People are looking for love—or “likes”—in all the wrong places.

I’m vulnerable to a social media affliction similar to my student’s malady. Let’s call it Acceptance Disorder. The reaction, or lack of reaction, to these mini versions of myself—which is what an update, tweet, or other online comment is all about—can hit me hard.

I fall prey to the affection of numbers.

In my mind, how many people retweet, “like,” or comment on something I’ve posted, can become dangerously synonymous with acceptance, even love. I say this as a sometimes shallow, attention-seeking person, but also as an observer of the ways social media has distorted our collective sense of self-worth.

Already, studies warn against the adverse effects of social media projecting “perfect lives” to make others feel worthless. Tweets and status updates are powerful visions that can cause envy, self-loathing, and problems with self-esteem. This so-called “Facebook envy” is troubling, and Instagram might be even worse, in that images of happiness, financial success, exotic trips, and so forth pack a more powerful emotional wallop than mere words.

There are many ways that Facebook and Twitter are wonderful. But they can also feel like popularity contests as cutthroat as high school cliques.

This weekend, I threw up a flippant post about getting a cold (once again). Only seven people commented.

What, wasn’t I funny enough? I wondered.

In my more needy states, the effects of not being “liked” or “shared” becomes the equivalent of not being asked to the big dance. These are my own demons, my own foolish thoughts. I am shocked when I find myself thinking them. But I will say, in my defense, that social media has done an admirable job in a matter of a few years redefining the community from which we seek feedback about ourselves.

Increasingly, it is an ever-growing web of ethereal, quasi-friends who validate, judge, like, friend, unfriend, and block us, their myriad responses and reactions sometimes overwhelming us.

But imagine when we do get favorable feedback—or even excessive affirmation in response to a post. Such as, more than 100 friends liking a post, or more than 50 people adding their two cents to a pool of comments. How does that make us feel? Most likely, amazing.

A recent story I wrote for Salon has, at last count, been liked more than 19,000 times.

So I felt good about myself, right? I got that little high. Like an addict, I felt that ego boost and noted a slightly more favorable view of myself. Perhaps I am OK, smart enough, good enough, all that.

But of course these happy feelings are fleeting. The burst of self-esteem fades. Soon, I want that “hit” again. The cycle continues. And I am again reminded that this virtual call and response, this social media echo chamber feels not entirely healthy.

At least for someone like me, someone who is, yes, superficial and shallow at times, but also yearning to connect with real humans and not only their eerie presences on the internet.

[This originally appeared on WBUR's Cognoscneti.]