Social media has conquered the world, racking up over a billion users and even helping to unseat governments. The one thing it can’t topple: human vanity.
The world is awash with gripes and tales of the annoyances of what is shared on Facebook, Twitter and other platforms. Enough of the bragging!
Take this satirical mock comment from an article on the insufferable aspects of Facebook, where bragging ranks No. 1:
“On my walk home from work, I was whistled at twice, honked at twice, but a car did get in an accident while slowing down to stare at me. That’s what running five miles a day and two hours at the gym will do. Although I hardly have time with my yoga and Zen meditation classes and pursuing my third doctorate while working to feed the hungry and bring about world peace. I couldn’t do it without my family. Thanks so much to my loving and super model wife and honor roll, well behaved kids. I really have a wonderful life. It’s great to be me and hard to be humble.”
We can’t stop talking about how awesome we are. A recent New York Times story looked at the envy factor that’s emerged on Instagram:
“It’s not unusual to scroll through one’s Instagram feed and feel suffocated by fabulousness: There’s one friend paddling in the surf at Positano under a fiery Italian sunset. Another is snapping away at a sweaty Thom Yorke from the third row at an Atoms for Peace concert in Austin. Yet another is sipping Champagne in Lufthansa business class en route to Frankfurt, while a fourth is huddling with friends over omakase at Masa.”
In this sea of social media, polluted by humble brags and boasts, some are saying that this behavior should be cleaned up. Gary Vaynerchuk, a social media mastermind, puts it this way: “One of the absolute worst things a human being can do is brag about himself all the time.”
He points to examples of people retweeting favorable comments about themselves. Vaynerchuk says it’s reasonable to do once every 30 to 40 tweets. But instead of connecting and interacting, people are overwhelmingly broadcasting their own praises.
Vaynerchuk emphasizes being human online. Yet social media is a place where users present their ideal self, not their whole human self. That trip to Iceland? Shared. Stepping in dog poop with your new shoes? Nope. As everyone begins to mirror the PR arm of a Fortune 500 company, spinning out press releases of good news and glossing over the bad, we lose authenticity.
It’s tempting to ask everyone to just end the bragging and overdose on humility. But then good news rarely gets shared. It’s reasonable to share one’s triumphs and accomplishments with your good friends. This is where a fatal flaw of social media surfaces.
Research has shown that most humans can count their close friends on one hand. Yet the average Facebook user has 130 “friends.” So most of the people we receive digital updates from are loose ties — people we don’t know deeply or encounter regularly in the physical world.
Imagine if an old acquaintance — someone you haven’t seen in years — walked by you on the street and screamed, “I just won the lottery! Here’s the private jet I bought,” while waving a photo of a Learjet in your face. Then he kept walking. No small talk. No questions about how you’re doing. Just a drive-by brag.
That’s socially unacceptable and inconsiderate. It’s the behavior Vaynerchuk is talking about as he warns of the importance of staying human. Social media is at its best when our behaviors mirror the successful social norms of the physical world. If you ran into someone you hadn’t interacted with in months, the first or second sentence out of your mouth wouldn’t be a boast.
Yet our insistence on hoarding large numbers of contacts on social networks sets us up to be the victims of bragging. Consider the irony: The desire to look impressive via a large friend/follower count leads to unwanted exposure to other people’s attempts to look impressive.
If that same lottery-winning message comes from a lifelong friend you were corresponding with yesterday, the brag isn’t off-putting. It’s an entirely different feeling.
So, we find ourselves stuck in a mess. The world needs an innovation to fix the bragging problem on social media. Entrepreneurs, this is your chance.
Matt McFarland is the editor of The Washington Post’s Innovations blog.