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Like: Facebook and Schadenfreude

October 30, 2012 | by

I was the 501st person to join Facebook. The inimitable Hatty Hong, number 499, urged me on from her desk across our freshman dorm room. I hardly used it the first few months because so few others were active, and as a senior I logged on to look at dead people’s profiles. Or to click through photographs of myself to remember where my time went. I didn’t think it was appropriate to remain a member after graduation. Facebook was something you were to outgrow, like Tommy Girl perfume or AOL Instant Messenger. Five years since graduation, I use it more now than ever.

As an elder user, I can say one thing with authority: When it comes to disseminating news about Facebook, few media are more effective than Facebook itself. That’s how I came to learn that longtime users like me are more likely to believe others happier than themselves. At least according to a study from Utah Valley University. The longer one has used Facebook, they found, the more likely he or she is to recall other people’s positive posts: the stunning honeymoon in Greece of a girl you never really knew in high school—and whose last name now looks, well, Greek; a list of very impressive graduate school acceptances, the likes of which prompted one Awl writer to dash off a lesson in Facebook manners. The more acquaintances and strangers—the more blanks, I’d call them—a user is “friends” with, the more unmediated these positive images and the worse these suspicions. The lives of blanks look better.

Utah’s findings provided numbers for what so many feel, but perhaps haven’t articulated. Many, I suppose, not including Facebook employees in Menlo Park, California. Facebook thinks that images of joy beget more joy. The dictum of the Facebook design team is “serotonin”—the neurotransmitter responsible for feelings of happiness. “That's our term for those little moments of delight you get on Facebook,” design manager Julie Zhuo told Fast Company.

We don’t want people to remember their interactions with Facebook,” said director of design Kate Aronowitz. “It’s more like designing a plaza or a restaurant,” said VP of product Chris Cox. “The best building is one where the people inside get it and work together and are connected. That connectivity is created by how everything is arranged.”

What Facebook doesn’t acknowledge is that unless the shared material is neutral, the joy of it isn’t usually shared. Personally, I love seeing baby pictures and I find wedding photos sociologically fascinating. But I know—not least from the Awl—that not everyone else does. I suspect when I am loveless, barren, and twenty years older, I might not see the soft skull of an amusing little alien, but something I want very badly and envy. And I am certain that a neutral, several-years-old Onion article that I posted brought far more delight to my Facebook friends than any little missive I have ever written and shared.

But Facebook doesn’t differentiate between types of sharing—all bits of user activity build the company’s base. To Facebook, all sharing is positive sharing, and so it makes sense that they believe, and that they can design their platform such that the sight of that banal cornflower blue banner might ring in, like a Pavlovian bell, the release of happy hormones. During a design meeting this past spring, “serotonin” was the word written on a post-it note stuck to the wall.

And since this past spring, since May, the very word “Facebook” has been clanging that bell, releasing an onslaught of some sort of happy hormone—just not, exactly, in the way the design team had hoped. Rather it came by way of schadenfreude: the delight of watching Icarian overreaches and Icarrian falls. On May seventeenth, the evening before Facebook’s much anticipated initial public offering, Zuckerberg and his team set Facebook’s shares at $38 a piece, ultimately pricing it higher than the $28-$35 range previously discussed. The day of the IPO, banks bought $11 billion worth of shares to prevent them from plummeting (and they billed Facebook for over $100 million in flotation fees). The Economist spouted off with the headline, “Facebook goes public: Not top of the pops” and, seemingly wryly noted that, “Facebulls” thought Facebook had “pitched the offering perfectly.” The good Brits had a great deal of fun when five days later, the stock had fallen 16%, running a story that opened, “It was supposed to be a coming-out party for the most eligible firm in the world” under the headline, “Facebook’s flotation: That sinking feeling.” The Guardian called Facebook investors fools and comedian Andy Borowitz said: “For years, you’ve wasted your time on Facebook. Now here’s your chance to waste your money on it, too.” (But, of course, no one wore their glee better than the New York Post.)

Our typical interactions with Facebook don’t permit negative expression, so everyone seized the opportunity for schadenfreude in Facebook’s falling stock. When it turned out that this delivery system for enviable announcements wasn’t going to break every record for profitability, people went woozy with relief. Indeed, the schadenfreude fairies are still rollicking, clanging the hell out of that bell.

Eric G Wilson, author of Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck, has rather lofty interpretations of schadenfreude and of why, more generally, humans are beguiled by anybody and everybody’s bad news. He suggests the terrible attracts because it presents a fulfilling opportunity to empathize with the pain of others. Or because it’s adaptive—a moral can be salvaged from the ruination of others’ ruin! Wilson entertains Jason Zinoman’s belief that the exhilaration provoked by confronting the taboo or the disreputable returns us to the innocence and emotional sensationalism of childhood. (Zinoman talks mostly about horror films, but his point seems to apply more generally, too.) He mentions the Natyasastra, an ancient Sanskrit text from AD200-300, which argues that aesthetic renderings of grief pull us away from our preoccupation with ourselves. Wilson’s own preferred interpretation is that “the morbid offers illuminations brighter than the sun.”

Well, I don’t know about that. The only thing schadenfreude spotlights is the preexistence of envy. Theories like these are too eager to explain away the fact that misery loves company, a truth so basic that you might find it crocheted upon a pillow.

I should know. Perhaps because I am one of the longest users, I did, initially, believe others led more colorful lives. I started to fantasize about putting negative news on Facebook. What if my wall became the wall of rejection? Wouldn’t everyone take delight in my failings? You’ll look too pathetic, a friend anxiously cautioned, which of course was the point, a point he thought lacked enough profundity to warrant the humiliation. Ultimately having to agree, I maintained enough of an egg-shell of self-respect to withhold the yolks of schadenfreude from oozing all over the internet.

But I’ve heard tales of people cracking and I’ve seen it once, on the wall of a blank, so to speak. Phoebe, as we’ll call her, was someone I’d taken a photography class with eight or so years ago. While I was snapping infantilizing images of my Nonie in her nightgown, she was photographing herself blowing her future husband. (Or could that have been someone else? I was in classes with several impossibly adult seniors when I was a freshman.) I’d noticed her online one other time since her graduation, when her wedding pictures appeared on my newsfeed a few years ago. At the time, I spent a good two or three minutes idly clicking through a third of them, approving the tasteful blue shingles and subdued grayscapes of the Cape. Not more than a year or two later, it seemed, Phoebe announced her separation in her status. Dispatches of sympathy and support kept streaming through my newsfeed—as many, if not more reactions than were elicited by her wedding photos. It was a truly bizarre spectacle. I’m sure some peopled experienced schadenfreude but I felt fright. That sort of sharing felt like the reflex of someone truly helpless. What were her exact words? X and I are separating? I am happy to announce X and I are getting divorced? It wasn’t just a charmless broken heart icon; it was a startlingly direct statement.

Wondering just what the words were, I recently looked her up and scrolled through the cycles of career announcements and birthday wishes that kept materializing at the bottom of the screen. Cntrl F D-i-v-o and s-e-p-a-r and s-p-l-i-t didn’t pull up anything. Neither did the name of her husband, who we’ll call Joe Codd. Three cycles of birthday wishes revealed only this:

1. Happy birthday Phoebe!

2. Happy birthday Mrs. Codd ;)!

3. Happy birthday Phoebe!

And I was comforted to see that her divorce, like her marriage, was no longer live.

Francesca Mari is an associate editor for Texas Monthly and has written for The New Republic, The New York Times Book Review, and other publications. She last wrote for the Daily on bookshelves.

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