Last Thursday business strategy consultant and Fast Company contributor Don Peppers posted an insightful blog on social media envy and competition. To summarize: In 1993 the SEC forced CEOs of public companies to disclose their salaries. Since then, CEO pay has increased exponentially, running contrary to the SEC’s desired effect. Some have theorized that this is due to the fact that CEOs at other companies can now see what their peers are being paid, and in the natural human spirit of competition and envy, need to ensure that they themselves will not be outdone. Peppers postulates that we are now seeing a similar issue occur socially, due to the rise of social networks. Increased transparency into the lives of our peers has led to new competition and envy, as is evidenced by number of Facebook friends, publicly displayed job titles, posted pictures of newly acquired cars or houses, etc.
While Peppers brings to light some important thoughts on the effect of social networks on our personal lives, his argument is logically flawed. The SEC’s mandate forcing transparency led directly to better pay for CEO’s through competition and envy. If followed logically, his reasoning would dictate that increased transparency through social networks would lead to better social existences for users for the same reason. While it is hard to determine quantitatively, I believe it is safe to assume that few have truly better personal lives because of their activity on social networks. A reason for the flaw in Peppers’ argument is that the competition and envy on social networks is not based on the events in one’s life, but on the public self-portrayal of one’s life. Social networks do lead to greater transparency, but it is selective transparency.
We are represented online by alter-egos that are more-perfect images of our true selves. We can make ourselves seem smarter by displaying to our friends that we regularly catch up on world affairs via the Washington Post Reader app, but can delete that post of us reading about Snooki’s weight problems. We can convey our coolness by listening to that ultra-hip Childish Gambino track on Spotify which none of our friends have “listened” to yet, but choose to hide the five times we rocked out to “Mumbo No. 5.” A friend tweeted a funny comment that received 20 retweets, so we decide to match his comedic prowess with our own funny tweet, only in our case, nobody liked it. So, we can delete the tweet, as if we never thought it in the first place.
No one is becoming more intelligent, attractive, funny or cool because of social media envy. Instead, the improvement lies in our online avatars, the personal vision of our idealized selves. We remain more humanly flawed; they become more inhumanly perfect. What does that mean for our interactions with each other moving forward? While Peppers’ logic may be faulty, there is another comparison I would like to raise between the end result of the SEC’s mandate and social media transparency. Arguably, now that CEOs are making more than ever before, the corporate salary structure as a whole is adversely affected. As our selectively transparent online avatars become more essential to our social lives, are we as a whole also adversely affected?