Jealousy, Attention, and the Social Media Highlight Reel


Everyone has had that night. It's been a long day. You didn't get much sleep. Some crazy driver cut you off on the way home. You're behind on all your work. There's family stress and financial stress. Prayer was supposed to be a refuge but you just rushed and got it over with. In short, life is hard. You're grinding, but you're burned out. It can feel like there is no end. Then you log on to Facebook and see this.


And that's when it happens. Why does everyone else have such an amazing and easy life, and mine is so difficult? 

The nature of social media means that you're constantly posting highlights. When you go to a nice restaurant and check-in, you post a photo and tag it to let everyone know what amazing meal you're about to try. When we meet someone famous, we no longer try to get their autograph. We take a selfie with them instead. We want to make Vine videos of our kids that get picked up by Buzzfeed (don't know how it happened, but that's my daughter on video #9).

Of course no one posts photos online when they're eating leftovers in their cubicle at work. No one checks in on Facebook when they have to make an emergency run to Wal-Mart for milk at 1am. And no one posts a stats update about having a regular, hard, and mundane day - like 80% of their normal days. It's just not that interesting. Or in other words, no one will like that status if I posted it.

We'll let everyone know when where we plan on going to college, but there's no updates about the 5 schools who rejected your admissions application. We post pictures of our kids all dressed up and showered, but we won't post the picture of them with their faces and clothes smothered in spaghetti sauce. We check in at the gym, but we don't post about the week of missed workouts because we were just sad, tired, and didn't feel like getting up. We'll post about date night with our spouse, or even check-in at the movie theater, but we won't post about those nights where we're too exhausted to do anything but watch House Hunters reruns.

The economist Tyler Cowen once told me a test for whether a couple can be happy in a relationship is whether they can go to a drug store together with a shopping list, pick out the right items, pay, and leave the store, without once getting in an argument. His point, as I understood it, was that when you’re in a relationship you need to get through the day to day trivia and tedium of life — such as picking up extra toilet paper at a Rite Aid — with a kind of communal contentment (Ben Casnocha - Life is Not a Highlight Reel).

Can you imagine updating your social media by simply saying "hey everyone, just having a normal day" over and over again?


It's kind of ludicrous to even think about that because it is not a status update that gets attention. And that's the name of the game. Attention is currency (i.e. money) as far as social media is concerned. If the status won't generate likes, comments, retweets, and so on, then we are not incentivized to post it. How happy can we be if we start to degrade the ordinary (where 90% of our lives happen)? We miss out on the moments that make up life waiting to get the next highlight so we can share it.

Not only do we create a highlight reel, but at the end of the year Facebook and Instagram will create a video highlighting the best of your highlights.


We can't enjoy simple moments without documenting them. In fact, we manufacture experiences just to post them on social media. We used to have cool stories about going out with friends. Now the stories are untold because if told truthfully, they would have to start out with phrases like, "Hey, remember that time we took 37 photos in your car?"

Life has turned into a popularity contest. We vote on others highlights and then post our own.

The largest consequence of this behavior is envy.

We become envious when we see others posts. There is a lot of good advice on how to deal with envy, but the advice is useless if we keep recreating the scenarios that cause it.

Think about a person struggling to get married, or going through difficulties with their spouse. After a long day they're checking Facebook to go to sleep and see a barrage of messages. So-and-so updated their relationship status to engaged. Another friend checked in at Cheesecake Factory - "Dessert with BAE <3!!!" Someone else has a photo of their honeymoon - 2 sets of feet pointed at the beach while the sun sets. It's almost impossible to not have feelings of jealousy in this situation.

The opposite is true as well. We legitimately may be enjoying something good and want to share it. There is no easy way to say what you should and should not share. Each person has to strike their own level of balance. A lot of this comes from introspection about your own intention and why you're posting something - like food photos on Instagram.

Imam Tahir Anwar shared some great advice on this,

And Mufti Menk touched on this briefly as well,


So how do we move forward from here?

If you find yourself feeling down, and the posts you see on social media are increasing your feelings of envy, then just take a break. Go for a walk without your phone and clear your head. Turn your phone off for a day. Delete Snapchat for a day and then reinstall it if you have to, but just take a break somehow.

Make dua for yourself, and your friends online.



As for what you post, then this requires the 1-2 punch of 1) Check your intentions, and 2) Slow down.

Be comfortable with why you're posting something and who you're sharing it with. This means you have to slow down and think before posting.

Don't turn into this guy:


You never want to create a false image of yourself. This is easier said than done. But as you struggle with this, also remind yourself that no one else has a life that is as easy as their online persona makes it out to be. In reality, a lot of the people you see online are actually this guy:


How have you dealt with issues of envy on social media? How has it affected you or someone you know?