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Facebook shares new data on the impacts of social comparison

Do you ever scroll through your Instagram feed and feel like you're not doing enough with your life? Do you ever see Facebook updates from old friends and feel inadequate in your own everyday struggles and issues?

Social comparison is a real and significant issue with social media platforms - but it's also an unrealistic and unfair measure to put on yourself. The thing is, you're looking at someone else's highlights. Not many people post about their daily challenges and issues, but they do post about their wins - which means that while it may seem like their lives are great, and better than yours appears to be, nobody's perfect. Everyone has their own problems to overcome. But when you're only seeing one side of the coin, that can lead to negative self-perception.

So what can be done about? Recently, Facebook commissioned a study into the impacts of social comparison, using the input of 37,000 survey respondents, and comparing their thoughts against how they used Facebook over a set period of time. 

The results are largely as you might expect - the data shows that the following experiences worsen the effects of social comparison:

  • Seeing proportionally more positivity in others’ posts

  • Spending more time looking at profiles, particularly one’s own

  • Seeing more content from people about their same age

  • Having more chances for comparison, through either larger Facebook friend networks or more time spent on Facebook

  • Seeing more posts that have a high number of likes or comments can make social comparison worse

The last point is interesting from an algorithm perspective. Facebook's almighty News Feed algorithm boosts the distribution of posts which generate more likes and comments - but the data here suggests that this could worsen social comparison. 

So does Facebook need to update its approach? And if so, what impact would that have on engagement more broadly?

In their expanded findings, the researchers note that teenage users experience more social comparison on Facebook than adults, while women tend to experience more social comparison then men - though in some Eastern countries, the opposite is true.

Yet, even with these results, half of the respondents said that they would still prefer to have seen the content that triggered their reaction: 

"One surprising finding was when we asked people to think of a recent time when they felt worse about themselves: One in five could recall a time they felt worse after seeing a post. We then asked if they wished they hadn’t seen the post, and only half said they wished they hadn’t seen it, while a third felt very happy for the poster."

In their recommendations stemming from this, the researchers suggest that people could look to use Facebook's existing tools, like unfollow and snooze, to better manage their time on the platform. Many of the survey respondents were not aware of these functions - maybe Facebook could look to promote them more overtly to raise awareness.

The researchers also recommend that people should look to "reduce focus on feedback counts on other people’s posts".

Which Facebook could also do, right? As noted, Facebook could update its algorithm to reduce the emphasis on content engagement, which would also likely reduce social comparison. 

But would that be a better experience?

Within its overview of the findings, Facebook says that the News Feed does actually seek to promote more 'meaningful interactions' in line with this.

Facebook points to this 2018 News Feed algorithm update:

"Today, we use signals like how many people react to, comment on or share posts to determine how high they appear in News Feed. With this update, we will also prioritize posts that spark conversations and meaningful interactions between people. To do this, we will predict which posts you might want to interact with your friends about, and show these posts higher in feed."

But that probably doesn't help much in this case, as its this type of social comparison, with content from people you know, that causes the problem. But you may well still interact with those posts, so the impact of the 'meaningful interactions' update is probably moot in this respect.

The research does, however, raise interesting questions, and points to both an ongoing lack of digital literacy, and issues with the way that Facebook prioritizes content distribution. Really, if you could improve the first point, maybe an algorithm wouldn't even be needed - if more people understood how they could customize their News Feed to their liking, maybe Facebook wouldn't need a process to highlight the best content, and boost user engagement. 

But it doesn't seem like that's ever going to be a reality. If Facebook were to switch off its algorithm today, user feeds would be flooded with junk, Pages would up their posting frequency to capitalize - and as a result, people would simply stop using the app as much. An argument could be made that Page content could still be limited, leaving users to manage their personal contacts. That could work - but right now, based on the data available, showing people the posts that they're more likely to engage with, via an algorithm feed, is the best way for Facebook to maximize performance.

But it may also help fuel negative comparison.

How does Facebook combat this? Given that it's released this data, I suspect Facebook may have some form of solution in the works, and it'll be interesting to see if they are able to change the focus of the algorithm to better facilitate more positive engagement.

You can read the full "Social Comparison and Facebook: Feedback, Positivity, and Opportunities for Comparison" paper here

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