What to Do When Social Media Inspires Envy

Selfie in Paris
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If we’re Facebook friends, I probably hate you. Not all the time, but intermittently, and with the burning hatred that only envy can inspire.

My envy can be inspired by the personal or the professional: by your delightful and picturesque vacation, or your new and fabulous job. It can be provoked by something shallow and materialistic, like the boots you are wearing in your latest selfie, or by something human and meaningful, like your child’s latest academic success. It can be directed towards your success in a field of endeavor we share, like writing, or a field of endeavor I wish I’d thought to pursue, like the law. It can focus on something tangible, like the size of the mansion you just bought, or something intangible, like how you’re able to be content in your tiny bungalow.

In her biweekly column “The Digital Voyage,” Alexandra Samuel investigates the key psychological, social, and practical challenges of migrating to an online world. Reach her on Twitter @awsamuel.

Nor am I alone.  Envy is so profoundly woven into the experience of using social media that it has brought the term FOMO into common currency: Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) is an almost inevitable byproduct of witnessing other people’s vacations, parties, and purchases through social media.

If it feels like social media has given envy a new lease on life, it’s hardly the first time technological change has turned humanity a little more green. There’s solid historical precedent for an envy revolution, and for rethinking our relationship to this complicated and fascinating social emotion.  To understand how social media has changed the nature of envy—and given us new ways of grappling with it—we need to start by looking at what we know about envy, and why we have so much trouble dealing with it.

What Envy Is

Let’s start with some definitions: envy has a couple of close cousins, jealousy and resentment, with which it is often confused.  In “Envy as Pain,” Tai et al. describes envy simply as “pain at another’s good fortune.”

If envy is about wanting what you don’t have, jealousy is about wanting to protect what’s already in your possession. In “Jealousy in Relation to Envy,” Luke Purshouse writes that:

Jealousy, unlike envy, does not always involve one’s perceived inferiority to another: a jealous subject may see himself as having more of the good, about which he is jealous, than his rival has. The relationship between envy and resentment is a little more nuanced.

According to Harrison P. Frye, who delves deeply into the role of envy in the political theory of John Rawls,

Envy includes an affective component (“hostility”), a cognitive component (“the greater good of others even though their being more fortunate than we are does not detract from our advantages”), and a motivating component (“willing to deprive them of their greater good even if it is necessary to give up something ourselves”)….[E]nvy is not a moral feeling, because it does not refer to moral concepts such as justice. Resentment, on the other hand, is a moral feeling. We feel resentment towards those who benefit from and propagate injustice.

You envy someone for having something they deserve; you resent them for having something they don’t.

This fine-tuning of our notion of envy is essential to figuring out what we should do about it—because our definition of envy determines whether we think it’s a social ill or a possibly beneficial inevitability. In the lyrical “In Praise of Envy,” Michele Morano points out that:

Historically, Envy has gotten a bad rap. Also known as coveting, Envy provokes warnings throughout the Bible, from the Ten Commandments to Ecclesiasticus 30:24, “Envy and wrath shorten the life.”…Samuel Johnson—to whom Envy was no stranger—goes even further: “Envy is mere unmixed and genuine evil; it pursues a hateful end by despicable mean and desires not so much its own happiness as another’s misery.

The Social Impact of Envy

The critique of envy rests on some very practical anxieties about its social impact. In “The Anatomy of Envy,” an anthropological review of envy across a range of cultural contexts, George M. Foster writes about how the envy “of the ‘have-not’ for the ‘have,’” leads to social segregation in order to contain the “disruptive effects of this envy”. Smith at al. catalogue similar concerns about envy in the workplace, where researchers have found that envy can lead to “lower job and group satisfaction, lower organization-based self-esteem, feelings of group potency, and greater withdrawal—absenteeism, turnover intentions, and reduced commitment.” With that pedigree, it’s no wonder that Foster can wonder at “how remarkable it is that one can admit to feelings of guilt, shame, pride, greed, and even anger without loss of self-esteem, but that it is almost impossible, at least in American society, to admit to feelings of envy.”

One scholar argues that envy can actually play a constructive role in confronting social injustice.

Yet not everyone shares Foster’s categorization of envy as the emotion that dare not speak its name. In his reassessment of envy in the work of John Rawls, Frye argues that envy can actually play a constructive role in confronting social injustice:

When confronted with facts about inequality, people might find themselves experiencing strong feelings against those with more. Now, upon feeling such strong feelings, a person might be moved to reflect upon these feelings. Why is it that I feel such rancor towards those with more? Is this justified?

And even if envy doesn’t inspire social critique, it may inspire personal betterment, thanks to the power of competition. As Foster writes,

envy between conceptual equals appears to be based largely or entirely on the concept of rivalry, in which competition for some desired property occurs between more or less evenly qualified and matched opponents. In Western society, at least, the competition, whether in sports, politics, cards, or for the affection of a woman, is to be carried out according to “rules of the game” to which the competitors are expected to conform.

Once again, Michelle Morano puts it more poetically: “Envy…is less concerned with a beloved object or person than with the rival herself. Envy wants to know how you stack up against the competition, what she has you don’t.”

But seeing envy as a potential motivator required a significant shift away from religious traditions in which envy was seen as a sin, or as something that had to be warded off by the evil eye. Susan J. Matt points out that the idea of envy as a force for personal betterment was encouraged by the decline of “the idea that God had chosen individuals’ stations in life specifically for them,” and in its place, the rise of Darwinism: “Evolutionary theory endorsed the idea that struggle, competition, and anger were natural, an idea which many who defended envy and discontent eagerly seized upon.”

Darwin was hardly the chief force behind the rehabilitation of envy, however. Looking specifically at the history of children’s envy, Matt writes that “formal advice about children’s envy began to change around the time of the first World War.”

During the last years of the nineteenth century and the first decade of the twentieth, they often expressed the fear that the dresses, toys, wagons, and other playthings which were being mass produced, and which store windows, catalog pages, and magazine ads prominently displayed, would corrupt the nation’s youth. Moralists and educators who hoped to limit youthful involvement in the consumer culture often focused on young people’s envy, believing that if they could teach children to control the emotion, they might be able to limit their consumer activity and reduce the amount of moral damage which the material world—and all of its temptations—could wreak on young character.

Matt attributes this pre-war perception of envy to a generation that pre-dated the rise of mass production and consumerism; the the 1910s and 1920s, children “were learning that they need never feel such deprivation. Instead, they should acquire or be given whatever they wanted.” This was the wisdom that came from a “new generation of advisors, which included doctors, economists, psychologists, and advertisers, [who] had grown up along with the consumer society and the expanding urban industrial order.”

If the rise of mass production and consumerism gave birth to a new moral code that endorsed acquisitiveness and envy as natural, Darwinian forces for personal and social betterment, could the rise of social media help us embrace envy as we know it today? There are certainly aspects of social media that specifically affect the dynamics of envy as we understand it. After all, just about everyone agrees that envy is a powerful social force (whether it’s a force for good or ill), which means that there are lots of social structures set up to contain and channel it.

How Social Media Changes The Way Envy Works

And disrupting social structures is what digital (and especially social) media tends to do. In the case of envy, social media works in three closely related ways: by increasing proximity, by eliminating encapsulation, and by rejecting concealment.

The notion of proximity comes from the work of philosopher Aaron Ben-Ze’ev, who notes that our envy tends to be directed to people who are socially proximate, “because those who are close to us, but still above us, emphasize our own inferiority more than those who are distant from us.” He cites a study of people with different salaries: “They were asked how much of a raise they required in order to live comfortably. Most subjects in all salary ranges indicated that an increase of about 15 percent would suffice. To put it crudely, this is usually the range of our envy.”

Social media breaks this proximity principle because it makes a wider range of outcomes, goods, and experiences feel like they’re within our reach. We have at least the illusion of intimacy with a much wider range of people, so that we’re able to imagine not just what our lives would look like if they were 15% better, but what it would be like to have the wealth of a Kardashian, the influence of Elon Musk, and the talent of Rihanna.

If social media unleashes the envy of proximity, it’s by breaking the longstanding strategy of encapsulation. Foster describes encapsulation as the widespread social strategy of producing

…subsocieties within wider civilizations, in which all members ideally have about the same access to what are considered to be the good things in life. Encapsulated social units are marked off from each other by social, psychological, cultural, and often physical boundaries….Encapsulation also takes the form of private clubs. With restricted membership, retirement communities and homes, restrictive suburban neighborhoods, and other institutions that bring together people of comparable means and statuses, excluding those deemed not meeting entrance requirements. Encapsulation in America, in the form of caste, class, and family groups, has been a potent factor for generations in suppressing envy between groups, and thereby contributing to a basic social stability. It is clear that in the future this device will work much less well. How envy can be controlled, or if it can be controlled, remains to be seen.

The fact that Foster flagged the potential breakdown of encapsulation all the way back in 1972 shows that social media isn’t the only force leading to the breakdown of social segregation. But it has certainly accelerated the process and made it all but impossible to sustain opaque boundaries that keep the have-nots from seeing what they’re missing. That has profound implications not only for how much envy we feel, but what that envy does to social stability, since, as Ben-Ze’ev notes that “[a]s people become more engaged with each other, they have less tolerance for a given level of inequality.” The more that Instagram and Twitter give us a front row seat for the lives of the wealthy and powerful, the less happy we are being poor and powerless.

If envy is indeed a driver for personal betterment in a society fueled by Darwinian competition, we are moving full steam ahead towards our greater glory.

That’s because social media culture is quickly dispensing with what has long been the prevailing strategy for warding off envy: concealment. Foster was able to write that “largely apart from cultural specifics, people prefer, if at all possible, to conceal whatever properties they fear may be envied.” It’s hard to imagine anyone writing that with a straight face today, now that posting a selfie is a de rigeur part of celebrating any big-ticket acquisition. We have moved from the idea of concealing what might be envied to celebrating each enviable experience and acquisition, without regard for either the psychological impact it may have on the envier, or the social impact it may have on a society that is both increasingly unequal and increasingly transparent in its inequalities.

Thanks to social media, we have not only moved past the early twenieth century embrace of envy as a natural part of a consumer culture; we’re actually well on our way to dismantling all the social norms and structures that used to mitigate the risks envy posed to both personal and social well-being. If envy is indeed a driver for personal betterment in a society fueled by Darwinian competition, we are moving full steam ahead towards our greater glory.

But if we still worry about the dangers that envy can pose to both social cohesion and personal happiness—well, perhaps it’s time to tap on the brakes. Ben-Ze’ev points to one possibility that social media is well positioned to support: he notes that envy is reduced when social comparison takes place across a wider range of domains: if we value a wider range of successes or attributes, any one person is less likely to feel inferior across the board.

Social media could help us feel less envious about vacations if it also celebrated quiet nights in; it could help us feel less envious of other people’s perfect children if it also celebrated the beauty of the bachelor apartment we just arranged to utter perfection. Yes, we see little eclectic snippets, but there’s no question that the almighty algorithm rewards and celebrates some kinds of moments over others, herding us all towards a monolithic view of what is enviable. An anti-envy algorithm would be one that instead embraced Ben-Ze’ev’s vision of a diversity of valued domains, so that we can escape from this singular vision of what happiness and success must look like.

We could hold our collective breath and wait for Facebook and Twitter and Instagram to vindicate the diversity our strengths and contentments. Or we could do it ourselves: by demanding honesty and vulnerability from our online friends, and from ourselves.

There’s no room in my feed for envy farmers: people who share only their finest moments, as if the whole purpose of their social media presence is to inspire envy. Instead, let’s embrace the online equivalent of the evil eye: sharing our disappointments and our pain to remind one another that whatever we envy is just one slice of a much larger and more complicated picture.


JSTOR Citations

ENVY AS PAIN: RETHINKING THE NATURE OF ENVY AND ITS IMPLICATIONS FOR EMPLOYEES AND ORGANIZATIONS

By: KENNETH TAI, JAYANTH NARAYANAN and DANIEL J. MCALLISTER

The Academy of Management Review, Vol. 37, No. 1 (January 2012), pp. 107-129

Academy of Management

Jealousy in Relation to Envy

By: Luke Purshouse

Erkenntnis (1975-), Vol. 60, No. 2 (Mar., 2004), pp. 179-204

Springer

The Relation of Envy to Distributive Justice

By: Harrison P. Frye

Social Theory and Practice, Vol. 42, No. 3 (July 2016), pp. 501-524

Florida State University Department of Philosophy

In Praise of Envy

By: Michele Morano

The Georgia Review, Vol. 57, No. 4 (WINTER 2003), pp. 737-745

Georgia Review

The Anatomy of Envy: A Study in Symbolic Behavior [and Comments and Reply]

By: George M. Foster, R. J. Apthorpe, H. Russell Bernard, Bernard Bock, Jan Brogger, Judith K. Brown, Stephen C. Cappannari, Jean Cuisenier, Roy G. D'Andrade, James Faris, Susan T. Freeman, Pauline Kolenda, Michael MacCoby, Simon D. Messing, Isidoro Moreno-Navarro, John Paddock, Harriet R. Reynolds, James E. Ritchie, Vera St. Erlich, Joel S. Saviahinsky, J. D. Seddon, Francis Lee Utley and Beatrice Blyth Whiting

Current Anthropology, Vol. 13, No. 2 (Apr., 1972), pp. 165-202

The University of Chicago Press on behalf of Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research

Children's Envy and the Emergence of the Modern Consumer Ethic, 1890-1930

By: Susan J. Matt

Journal of Social History, Vol. 36, No. 2 (Winter, 2002), pp. 283-302

Oxford University Press

Envy and Jealousy

By: Aaron Ben-Ze'ev

Canadian Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 20, No. 4 (Dec., 1990), pp. 487-516

Canadian Journal of Philosophy

Alexandra Samuel is a technology writer, researcher and speaker. She is the author of Work Smarter with Social Media (Harvard Business Review Press, 2015), and is a regular contributor to the Harvard Business Review and The Wall Street Journal. Alex holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from Harvard University and a B.A. from Oberlin College. You can find her on Twitter as @awsamuel and on her own site, alexandrasamuel.com.

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