Is The “Self-Promotion-And-Envy Spiral” Taking Down Facebook?

Facebook isn’t over the hill, exactly. Last October, it announced that 1 billion people used it every month, in a world of 7 billion people. Leaping from one milestone to the next. But in its key markets, such as the US, where it derives most of its revenues, user rates have been plateauing, and a shudder-inducing D-word has snuck into polite conversation: declining.

Last month, according to social-media monitoring startup Socialbakers, there were 167.4 million active users in the US, down 2.4 million from prior month, and down 123,000 from three months earlier. Over the last six months, growth was a hefty 11.9 million. Other major markets saw similar scenarios, such as Indonesia, the UK, Canada, France, and Germany.

Maybe a seasonal dip. Or an indication that FB users in certain markets are backing off. All sorts of reasons have been bandied about: FB fatigue; too busy for a time suck; leeriness of FB’s no-privacy policy; fear of the treacherous reefs of FB-induced jealousy…. Now we were handed another one. Envy.

More precisely, “Envy on Facebook: A Hidden Threat to Users’ Life Satisfaction?“ The study by two German universities is based on responses from about 600 FB users, mostly German students, who were contacted via university email lists and bribed into participating with a raffle of gift cards.

The study cites research that acknowledges that “passive following”—keeping up with the minutiae of other people’s lives—allowed users to experience positive emotions and “positive cognitive effects” as it reduced uncertainty, “thereby providing a basis for social trust, civic engagement and political participation.” And so “users broaden their horizons and build a sense of connectedness.”

Alas, “a growing body of research warns against this one-sided positive view,” the study exhorts us and adds a laundry list of research on the many drawbacks. But the study focused on envy—”an unalienable part of social interaction” at work or wherever “inter-personal interactions take place.” Envy can lead to positive outcomes, such as “learning, motivation, better performance, and achievement,” but on the other end of the spectrum, it “breeds hostility.” Over the longer term, it can “damage one’s sense of self-worth, result in group dissatisfaction and withdrawal, lead to depressive tendencies, reduce perceptions of well-being, and poor mental health.” In short, envy is not good. Turns out, FB triggers it massively.

Survey respondents blamed 21.3% of all their recent envy feelings on FB. An outsized ratio, given how little time they spent on FB (half of them, 5-30 minutes daily). A mere 7.2% experienced envy elsewhere online. And 71.5% experienced it offline, proof that people still have a life.

In broader terms, 43.8% of the respondents reported at least one positive emotion after the last time they used FB, while 36.9% reported at least one negative emotion. When asked about FB-triggered frustrations, 29.6% of the respondents cited envy, followed distantly by “lack of comments, likes, feedback” (19.5%), “time loss” (13.7%), “social isolation” (10.4%), and “having missed something/not being invited” (5.5%). “Jealousy of one’s (ex-) partner, friend” was, despite overwhelming anecdotal evidence and countless urban legends to the contrary, at the bottom with 2%.

The triggers for envy on FB? “Travel and leisure!” Yes, 56.3% griped about those aggravating pics of Maya ruins in the lush jungle of Guatemala, or similar. In second place, but far behind on the envy-trigger list, was “social interaction” (14.1%), “appearance” (7.1%), etc. Fading out at the bottom were, for example, “success in general” (5.6%), “success in job” (2.8%), and “money” (1.4%).

The researchers determined that the “intensity of passive following,” because it triggers envy, “is likely to reduce users’ life satisfaction in the long-run.” Hence, people try to minimize or avoid envy by using a variety of strategies. None of them good for FB’s top or bottom line.

– Avoid friending, or even unfriend, people one is envious about. Unpopular because it “contradicts social norms” and might lead to tensions.

– Hide content from people one is envious about.

– Engage in “even greater self-promotion and impression management”—exaggeration of accomplishments being a common reaction to envy. But it can trigger a “self-promotion-and-envy spiral,” where users combat the self-promotional content of others with ever more self-promotion of their own. A vicious cycle that would lead the “envy-ridden character” of FB deeper into the thicket.

– Reduce, or refrain from, passive following. Users would miss out on information or events and thus see less value in FB. And FB would see less participation in an essential user activity.

A heads-up for FB. “Our findings signal that users frequently perceive Facebook as a stressful environment, which may, in the long-run, endanger platform sustainability,” the researchers concluded. And they warned that “addressing this threat should be seen as priority.”

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