(File pix) Facebook brings us news or happenings we might otherwise never read about or encounter. AFP Photo

LONG before the data breach that led to Mark Zuckerberg’s congressional testimony this week, during which the Facebook chairman acknowledged that he was unable to keep even his own personal information secure, we suspected that Facebook was something less than a net positive for civilisation.

We knew this because we have stood on sweltering subway platforms in midtown Manhattan, in July, scrolling through a Facebook feed and discovering that our friends — in many cases people we did not really know or particularly care for — were feeling blessed to be eating lobster salad on sailboats off Nantucket or learning so much about Joyce in Dublin with an Oxford don as a paid personal guide.

We felt bad in a way that was diagnosable; several years ago the popular psychological press had come up with the term “Facebook envy” to describe the particular sense of despair that arises when we encounter the gloating, verbal or visual, of others on the site.

Studies confirmed instinct: certain kinds of social media engagement drain happiness rather than generate it.

Two years ago researchers at the University of Copenhagen who looked at 1,095 Facebook users across Denmark asked: “We are surely better connected now than ever before, but, is this new connectedness doing any good to our wellbeing?” The answer, they concluded, was “no”, adding that the predominant uses of Facebook are “affecting our wellbeing negatively on several dimensions”.

The experiment had half its subjects continue their Facebook rituals and the other half abstain from them. Thirteen per cent of the abstainers could not keep away and wound up succumbing to their addiction. In the end, those who had no contact with Facebook during the course of a week rated their general sense of satisfaction higher than those who retained their habit.

An earlier German study found that “this magnitude of envy incidents taking place on FB alone is astounding”, providing evidence “that FB offers a breeding ground for invidious feelings”.

But, apart from envy, Facebook, in my experience, primarily energises profound feelings of dread, perhaps especially for those in the middle age, because it serves to remind us over and over how many ways life can go horribly and dramatically wrong.

Just this week, someone I do not know posted that she had just lost her best friend.

I continued reading to discover that her friend, who lived in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, was killed in a car crash in Colorado along with her husband and two children. The crash appeared to involve black ice (the terrifying subject the writer John Seabrook had recently published an article about in The New Yorker).

At present, I have 3,423 Facebook friends, most of whom I do not know, or know only tangentially. Had it not been for Facebook, I would not have heard that the wife of a former colleague I had not seen or been in touch with for more than 15 years had suffered a brain aneurysm. She survived, miraculously, but she was a relatively young mother who was going about her life only to come very close to death unexpectedly.

I felt horribly for her and her family, but because of the distancing intimacy that provides Facebook’s context, I could more easily indulge in my own spiralling anxiety than anything else. Facebook became the processing mechanism that quickly turned compassion into a kind of self-obsessed and paralysing fear. “Tomorrow, I could wake up with a brain aneurysm”, became the predominant thought.

Of course, hearing this sort of story outside the world of Facebook could certainly produce the same reaction; it is just that Facebook allows you to go deep, to become privy to information you might not otherwise ever have, to see the hospital photos and read through the threads in which other people closer to the person afflicted might weigh in with the stories of their own similar ailments. Recently, a writer I had profiled years ago posted on Facebook that he had cancer. He specifically asked that others refrain from commenting with their own cancer stories because it was more than he could handle.

Last year, I became compelled by the entry of a man whose wife had been hospitalised with an acute form of psychosis that followed a week of serious depression. Two weeks earlier, he had posted a picture of them looking cheerful at an Italian restaurant. What had happened in the interim? I felt I had the right to know, while at the same time, I felt it would have been awkward and intrusive to send good thoughts and caring wishes as his actual friends had done. This voyeurism seemed much more invidious than whatever bitterness I might feel over the fact that someone else was on an eating tour of Umbria when I was not.

The news is a delivery system for misery of course, especially now, but Facebook brings us news we might otherwise never encounter, supplying it in bulk and elevating our relationship to it. The value of that remains dubious. NYT

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