Scrolling through my friends’ Facebook posts is as close as I get to a dash of salacious voyeurism. Admittedly it is a rather sneaky yet efficient way of peering through the net curtains of their life. And whilst I know it’s not entirely logical, somehow the glimpse of what they wore to the school trivia night, what messiness lurks behind them in the ubiquitous bathroom selfie shot and whose shoulder they were dribbling on in a drunken moment makes me feel inestimably closer to them. In fact at times I feel something approaching tenderness towards people I may barely know. I think this cyber tenderness is due to the fact we unwittingly reveal so much about ourselves in what we post. And people tend to fall into a definite posting category. For instance, there are the serial selfie offenders, who like me, have worked out what angle to pose at to hide double chins, stubborn back fat and creeping wrinkles by using the same head tilt for every shot, filtered within an inch of our Cruz tinted lives (yep it takes one to know one). Then there are those who rarely appear in their own pics, instead the household pet, fetching love-heart on top of their latte, or over-achieving photogenic progeny take centre stage, carefully captured and offered up for tentative approval to the FB public. And let’s not forget the Meme Brigade, who give us all pause for thought with the titbits of wisdom from someone infinitely more zen stretched across a canvas of a life we’d rather be living.
Psychology love this stuff and research shows we use FB as a means of building our image and increasing our social capital. Serious stuff eh? So whilst it may seem mad to my husband that I insist he takes close to 30 shots of me huddled together with my shiny girlfriends at a fancy restaurant, it allows me to select the pic that makes me look at least 15% better looking than I actually am and leading a far more glamourous life than the piles of last year’s dirty washing and infinite nights in front of the TV attest to. FB cleverly meets our needs for gratification; by giving us an avenue not only for receiving attention but also for gaining support and receiving comfort from others in times of distress. This was brought home to me recently when a dear friend put up a number of heartfelt posts detailing an event that had left her reeling with hurt and disbelief. The lines radiated with pain. It made for poignant reading and I felt compelled to give her a cyber hug. As I logged on to comment, I noticed a ream of earnest messages from friends, in what can only be described as a rallying call of support and shared indignancy. To know that she would have received these within moments of posting was of great comfort and I hoped, may have lessened the sting. By sharing her experience on FB, she was able to process her emotional response boosted by the support of this ready made online community. It made me reflect on how powerful FB comments can be in enhancing our self-esteem and our sense that what happens to us matters to someone, anyone, even one of our 276 FB friends. I know how ridiculously pleased I am when someone comments on a post I’ve made and how that gesture in itself acts as a building block in what essentially are rather remote friendships. This notion of reciprocation is a powerful thing; when we offer a part of ourselves to someone, be it a photo, a vignette of our day or an opinion on something we find meaningful, we are seeking some kind of approval. When we receive positive acknowledgment in the form of a kind comment, our brains actually fire off a shot of the same feel good hormone that is produced when we have good sex or breast feed our baby; oxytocin. This induces feelings of warmth, euphoria, and connection to others. And it has a rather lovely knock on effect. In laboratory studies, Paul Zak, the director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University, has found that a dose of oxytocin will cause people to give more generously and to feel more empathy towards others, with “symptoms” lasting up to two hours. So I staged a little experiment with this at home because let’s face it, as every stressed time-poor woman of a certain age knows, we could all do with a little oxytocin honey from time to time. I Thus began my own little comment revolution. Rather than swipe idly past another picture of a lonely latte or freshy pressed progeny on their first day back at school, I started commenting. And boy did it pay dividends. By commenting I began to feel a little more connected with others. Warmth suffused through me as I made the comment and if that little blue thumbs up sign quivered in recognition, I experienced another sweet injection of pleasure and a deeper sense of belonging. Being a tad disorganised in the keeping-up-with-friends stakes, these comments enabled me to lighty lubricate the wheels of friendships in a satisfyingly efficient manner, and I didn’t even have to haul myself off the sofa! And as for the oxytocin release, don’t tell my husband, he might think it’s his birthday again 😉