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Nishant Kothary on the Human Web

In Pursuit of Facebook Happiness

· Published in User Experience, Interaction Design, Community · 8 Comments

The outrage being directed at Facebook right now centers on its experiment in manipulating the emotions of 689,003 users in 2012.

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Regardless of where you stand on the issue, there’s no denying the phantasmagorical irony that we’re upset (and sad) about how Facebook affects our emotions thanks to learning about a study where Facebook affected our emotions through someone on Facebook. Maybe that, too, was to be expected.

One of the motivations for Facebook’s controversial study was to debunk the notion that seeing our friends’ happy posts in our news feeds actually makes us sadder. And according to a post by Adam Kramer, the primary author of the study, it did exactly that, “We found the exact opposite to what was then the conventional wisdom: Seeing a certain kind of emotion (positive) encourages it rather than suppresses it.”

But, how profound is this effect on users’ overall enjoyment while they’re using Facebook? That remains unknown, and in my experience, it’s not much at all.

We already know that social media has a profound effect on our emotions. I’ve personally struggled with the emotional rollercoaster for years now. My Achilles’ heel used to be Twitter because I used to be a heavy user. I even quit the service for a whole year to regain my bearings. And while the hiatus turned out to be very positive, I didn’t quite get to the bottom of what inevitably turns me off about Twitter. And then, of course, there was Facebook.

Facebook affected my mood so dramatically that I’d stopped using it entirely for years until a few months ago. I used to refer to Facebook as, “The place my Instagram pictures go to die.” This was partly in jest, partly serious. My Instagram account is dedicated to my dog, and it’s hard to not notice that a picture or video that can get a few hundred likes, spur over a hundred comments, and bring so much joy to both me and my followers is often met with dead silence or, worse, scorn on Facebook (and honestly, on Twitter as well). There are many reasons for this, several that I covered in one of my prior columns, The REAL Real Problem with Facebook. But there is one above all: Not everyone is interested in pictures of my dog.

*Blasphemy!*

OK, so this isn’t really news, and it’s hardly blasphemous. It’s understandable that people wouldn’t want to see images of someone else’s dog every day. But then why the disparity between how enthusiastically my content is received on Instagram as opposed to Facebook (or even Twitter)? Therein lies the key to the puzzle.

It’s really quite simple: people follow me on Instagram specifically for pictures of my Weimaraner (yes, it’s a notoriously difficult to pronounce dog breed).

I never intended on turning my Instagram account into a dog account. It just happened. And in the process I met loads of Weimaraner (and dog) people from around the world (some whom, true story, I’ve subsequently met in real life). I now honor an informal contract to only post pictures of my dog. And what happens when I break that contract and post the occasional picture of something else? I’m rewarded with crickets in terms of engagement.

What escaped me back when I quit Twitter or when I silently shunned Facebook was that the negativity or the positivity of the posts wasn’t even relevant to the compounding effect of the social network on my emotional well being. What was more to blame was the lack of engagement; the lack of feeling a connection. As much as we do in all life, online we want to meet, engage, and be engaged by others who share our passions and interests. And when that doesn’t happen, well, it can be a bummer.

Over the past few months I’ve joined numerous groups related to my interests on Facebook (yes, including a Weimaraner group). The result is that my Facebook news feed is now flooded with content I enjoy far more. I’ve essentially hacked my Facebook world to feel a lot more like my Instagram world—more focused on my interests and pastimes. Sharing and talking with folks who care about the same things has made Facebooking infinitely more enjoyable. In an unexpected way, I think it has also helped me understand the mid-conversation exclamations I receive from some people about how much they love Pinterest.

One would think that Pinterest would be the ideal social network for most of us, especially me. After all, on Pinterest you can follow someone’s Weimaraner board, and dodge all their gardening, baby, culinary, and political content. What’s not to like? Well, clearly something, because like loads of people, I’ve never quite gotten into Pinterest. I have some theories why that’s the case, but my disinterest is beside the point. What seems clear to me is that Pinterest is really onto something. We need a social network that acknowledges that we all have facets, and that it’s OK for us to pick and choose each other based on our interests. In my experience, the amount of happiness you feel on a social network seems to relate more closely to how much the content caters to your interests.

So, if you’re looking to maximize your happiness on social networks, here’s the short-term solution: fill your account with content that’s interesting to you. Like or follow your favorite sports teams, TV shows, clubs, non-profits, news organizations, web design magazines, and anything else you’re into. In other words, make your feeds about things you genuinely like, happy or sad, instead of about your real-world social obligations.

And that may also mean muting or unfollowing the people filling your feed with posts about their gardens, babies, food, or politics.

Or, god forbid, their dogs.

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