Kim Stolz is the author of a new book called Unfriending My Ex: And Other Things I’ll Never Do, which focuses on social media’s influence on our personal relationships. Stolz is a bit of a social media celebrity after stints on America’s Next Top Model and years of work for MTV News as a broadcast reporter. These days she trades with Citi Group and is in the midst of promoting her book, which is available for pre-order now.
When I was writing Unfriending My Ex: And Other Things I’ll Never Do, I read an article by Robin Dunbar, evolutionary anthropologist, which said that humans cannot process more than 150 friendships at any given point in our lives. This really resonated with me as I had been feeling spread thin on social media, only getting glimpses of the people I wanted to interact with because of the multitude of posts from distant acquaintances who I had met once and impulsively “friended” or strangers whom I had thoughtlessly accepted friendship requests from.
I went on a Facebook rampage (you know the kind) and began unfriending every person that I did not consider worthy of my definition of true friendship: you know, the people you trust, call when you’re going through a breakup and invite to your birthday party. I started that day with 1,462 friends and ended it with 984. It felt great to let go of those 478 strangers that I’d shared my most intimate thoughts and family photographs with for the past few years. I felt renewed and rejoiced in the notion that I’d cleaned out my virtual closet.
The “like” is an interesting form of social currency.
The next day, I posted a photo of a day of wine tasting on a vineyard in Bridgehampton (you know, one of those posts that everyone sort of rolls their eyes at but you do anyway). I sat back and waited for the usual likes to come in on Instagram and Facebook.
The “like” is an interesting form of social currency. We give them out with an effortless click (or double click) but the receiver on the other end enjoys a multitude of positive emotions. Every time we see that our “likes” have grown, we get a mini-boost of self-confidence. If someone we like or have a crush on likes our photo, our thoughts spiral into whether they might like us too and begin to imagine life events with them like marriage or having children. If an ex likes our photo, it can be the first step in getting back together. And so we post things to see what we might get back. I know my Instagram “likes” formula pretty well at this point.
Something funny = 140-150 likes
A fancy cocktail = 125-140 likes
A pretty view = 100-125 likes
Photos of me under age 8 = 100-110 likes
An obnoxious photo from a vacation = 90-100 likes
Obligatory “it’s after 2am and I’m drunk posting” = 75-90 likes
Anytime I try to self promote = 50-75 posts (I get it)
Sidenote: The only “like” experience I don’t understand is the flower upload. Every time I post a photo of flowers or a garden or something along those lines, I get like 200+ likes. Is there an underground flower mafia on Instagram or something? So weird. But, moving on…
On Facebook, the “likes” and comments work in similar proportions but in smaller size as I have around a thousand Facebook friends but six times that on Instagram. And so having posted my new photo on Facebook, I waited for all my “friends” to acknowledge my gorgeous day at the vineyard. An hour went by and what usually would have garnered 40 or 50 Facebook likes currently stood at only four sad little likes. I didn’t understand it. Did all my friends hate me? Were they mad at me? Was my social life over, as I knew it? I had to get to the bottom of this.
I went back through my Facebook posts to see who had given me my likes in the past. Scrolling through, I recognized so few names that I went back to the top to make sure I was looking at my own page. I began to click on the names and I was given the option to add each one as a friend. I didn’t understand. Didn’t I have my privacy settings so that only my “Friends” could see my photos? And then it hit me.
The vast majority of my past “likes” had been given by the 478 strangers I had just unfriended. I had unliked my likers! For years, I had felt excited and popular and loved by my friends when truly the pings of dopamine that I was getting each time I saw that my photo had “50 likes” were from full strangers whom I neither cared nor knew anything about. I was crushed.
The vast majority of my past “likes” had been given by the 478 strangers I had just unfriended. I had unliked my likers!
My digital presence on social media had created a false bubble of security that I had been living happily and unknowingly inside. When I saw 150 likes on my Instagram photo, I hadn’t cared or thought about who was liking it, just that I was in fact getting “liked”. The social currency of the “like” made me feel rich in popularity.
Now, as the bubble burst, I felt sort of lonely and embarrassed, knowing I had let my digital self (my actual self?) take so much pride in a bunch of strangers double-clicking my photos. I had let myself become so thinly spread on social media that I had lost track of the digital lives of my real friends as I was being constantly inundated by the photos and updates and likes and comments of the randoms and distant 4th. Facebook feeds can’t tell the difference between our actual friends and those we have randomly confirmed.
A year ago, one of my best friends from high school got engaged and, as we do, posted it on all of her social media before the ring was even fully on her finger. Scrolling through my feed of 984 Facebook friends, I missed it. A few days later, she wrote me a passive aggressive email about not congratulating her. I swore I hadn’t known but she reminded me of my social media addiction (I did write a book about it after all so I guess that was fair game) and refused to believe me.
Even though she was mistaken and I actually had not known, the experience also confirmed for me that she and I were no longer as close as we used to be. When I got engaged, I called my eight or nine best friends to tell them the news and let the rest of the world and my peripheral friends find out via social media. I remember being sort of annoyed when one of my best friends (one of the ones whom I had called) failed to “like” my engagement photo on Instagram. I brought it up with her (so annoying) and her response was a very defensive “I screamed in happiness on the phone with you! Couldn’t you tell I was happy then? You need a like to confirm that??”
My friend was right. Why would I need a double click on an Instagram photo to confirm for me that my best friend (and a bridesmaid in my wedding) was excited about my life change. But the fact is, we have become so used to measuring and evaluating our popularity and strength of our friendships by our digital presence and social media interactivity that we’ve begun to lose sight of what a friendship truly should bring to the table and how to have healthy emotions around our real life interactions.
The amount of stimulus we are receiving on a second-by-second basis when we scroll through our Instagram, Facebook, Vine, Foursquare, Twitter, Snapchat and every other social media app we check between five and ten times per day makes us less capable of having normal reactions and feelings about the few posts that actually contain important information. As humans, while we fool ourselves into thinking otherwise, in reality we’re actually not skillful multi-taskers.
When we hear bad news via social media, we barely have time to react before something else catches our eye. I have found that I also feel less empathy for people when I communicate with them via social media rather than in person. In fact, Robin Dunbar found that emotional closeness declines by around 15% per year in the absence of face-to-face interaction.
We have become so used to measuring and evaluating our popularity and strength of our friendships by our digital presence and social media interactivity that we’ve begun to lose sight of what a friendship should be.
So if our empathy is going down, our minds and hearts are being spread thin on social media and the number of strangers we display our lives to is going up while the number of friends stays constant, the question becomes why do we like “likes” so much? How can they be so fulfilling to us?
The fact is that each time our phone lights up with a notification, the uncertainty of what it could be and the fact that we are getting attention releases a neurotransmitter called dopamine into our system and we get a mini-euphoric feeling. We crave that attention and the unknown of what the notification is and whom it is from.
So are we all becoming narcissists as we get increasingly addicted to that digitally induced dopamine fix? Are we liking others’ photos just to get more of our own? Do we post just for attention or is there a deeper more genuine reason? Is there anything really wrong with “likes” if they truly do make us feel good? We can be having a terrible day and then someone likes a #selfie of ours and suddenly we feel pretty and attractive. The problem is that as we become more narcissistic and addicted to fueling our digital egos, we stop caring about each other. We stop picking up on the emotions that our friends and loved ones are putting down. We can’t listen because we’re distracted and trying to multi-task social media and real life.
The other day I received some bad news and instead of my usual distraction of scrolling through every bit of social media I could find, I picked up the phone and called a friend. Hearing her voice and letting her hear the sadness in mine made me feel a thousand times better than a thousand “likes” would have. I was happy to know that I was still a little bit human, rooted in my desire for real, true life interaction. I appreciated her help and immediately told her so on her Facebook wall. She “liked” my post and that made me feel good. That post ultimately only got one “like” but it was from a real life friend. I liked that better than the 262 likes I got when I uploaded the tulips blooming on Park Avenue. It’s only a small step away from my digital narcissism, but it’s something.
#Love is a new column on TechCrunch dealing with digital matters of the heart. It explores our relationships, their relationship with technology, and all the gory details that come with it. Jordan Crook will be leading the charge, and is looking for guest writers to tell their own stories each week. Maybe you found your soul mate on Tinder, or got dumped on Facebook, or have an outrageously interesting sext life. We all have our stories. If you’re interested in contributing, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line #Love for more details.