Updated: Oct 9, 2020
Social media invites us to communicate in a public forum, and through social media platforms, we craft and curate a public image. Some users will employ a high level of discernment when posting online, while others take more risks that could lead to social consequences (or not). The stage metaphor, notably out of William Shakespeare's As You Like It, tells us "all the world's a stage," and our online presence now serves as center stage. In contemporary scholarship, the famous social psychologist Erving Goffman is a widely referenced scholar who frequently appears in communication scholarship and sociolinguistics. Goffman's treatment of the stage metaphor—i.e., that life is a performance—emphasizes the shaping of impressions when engaging with others.
It's an interesting way to think about life, too, because it's very possible to shape how our day might go. We can't control all aspects of our day, of course, but we can control the messages we offer the world around us. Have you ever had a bad day but decided not to tell anyone about it? In fact, you probably did exactly the opposite—i.e., you put on a cheerful face, never letting on that things weren't going so well. The implementation of positive characteristics can craft one's public image. The cheerful person is often viewed as pleasant, agreeable, or even put-together. If a person complains or gripes even slightly too much, the social perceptions can begin to shift towards aversion or avoidance. That is, people might feel an aversion or desire to avoid people who air their frustrations through social media (or general one-on-one conversation).
The problem with this expectation for happy talk at all times is its unrealistic representation of real life. Even people who wake up thinking about their daily mantra(s)—to do more, be better, have faith, be happy, keep going (!!!)—still live in a world full of obstacles. Life can be challenging for all of us at times. How does one get through the tough times without ever, ever feeling negative, worried, or anxious? Even though generalizations can be overreaching, it's probably safe to say everyone has ups and downs in life that challenge those positive, upbeat mantras and affirmations.
Social media is a stage, and people are watching, evaluating, and, in many cases, judging our performance. Subsequently, communication study invites us to think about the ways we present ourselves to the world. How do we vent when we are frustrated? Who is the right audience for that? Social media might be the most interactive "place" for a lot of people throughout their entire day. However, there are some things to consider when using social media to vent or attempt commiseration among followers, friends, or connections:
1. Not everyone knows you equally. Some friends are friends, but others might be acquaintances, colleagues (past and present), family, and everything in between. Those who know you well might have a better understanding of your personality in a holistic way. This could translate to better acceptance of varied moods and tone in certain social media posts. However, those who do not know you as well might form a false sense of who you really are.
2. Once a message is out there, it's out there. It's easy to delete social media posts, but once the posts are public, even a deletion cannot erase a post from all readers' memories. The reality is that a bad day where "F-bombs" seem fitting could shape your reputation among friends and connections. Even if you RARELY curse in everyday life, people might assume you use that language all the time, etc. (Not that that's a horrible thing to swear a lot, by the way, as some recent social discussions evaluate the inherent intelligence of those who swear a lot, as we see in recent articles on the matter, including this Huffpost article by Lindsay Holmes: "People Who Swear May Be Happier, Healthier And More Honest.")
3. For some reason, being "real" might resonate with only a small portion of your readership. Because a lot of people are stressed or struggling themselves, they may prefer to read happier posts—or at least they think they do!
Research has shown us time and time again that there is a process of seeing posts and then doing social comparison, for example. Happy posts might get the most "likes," but even those posts aren't guaranteed to cultivate the impression we'd like to convey to an audience. If people see a depiction of your perfect life on social media all the time, then they might start to resent you for that, too.
Does this mean social media is a no-win setting, a vicious spiral of sorts? Perhaps. 🌸