A REALITY FILTER

A data scientist explains how to use Google to cure your Facebook FOMO

Obsession
Life as Laboratory
Obsession
Life as Laboratory

There are more Tweets about golfing than doing the dishes. More Facebook checkins at the luxurious Bellagio in Las Vegas than the budget Circus Circus, even though the same number of guests stay at the two hotels. And more Facebook likes for the high-brow Atlantic Magazine than the much more widely read National Enquirer.

“We are all dimly aware that everybody else can’t possibly be as successful, rich, attractive, relaxed, intellectual and joyous as they appear to be on Facebook,” writes Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, who cites these examples of mismatched social media portrayals and reality in a recent New York Times op-ed. “Yet we can’t help comparing our inner lives with the curated lives of our friends.”

These acts of comparison can be harmful. Researchers studying workers at a security organization that had banned some types of workers from using Facebook, recently found that the Facebook users were less happy because they more often compared themselves to others. This was true even though they didn’t necessarily overestimate their friends’ happiness.

Stephens-Davidowitz, a data scientist and the author of a book that draws insights about humanity from internet data, writes that studying aggregate Google search data helped him gain new perspective on his tendency to compare himself with his social media friends. People are more honest on Google, where their searches aren’t posted publicly, he writes: “Once you’ve looked at enough aggregate search data, it’s hard to take the curated selves we see on social media too seriously. Or, as I like to sum up what Google data has taught me: We’re all a mess.”

For example, on social media the phrase “My husband is…” is most often completed by “the best,” “my best friend,” “amazing,” “the greatest” and “so cute.” In Google searches, people also complete the phrase with “amazing,” but the other top searches are for “a jerk,” “annoying,” “gay” and “mean.”

Stephens-Davidowitz found observations like these to be “comforting.” We’re not all data scientists, but he suggests we can all achieve a similar effect by using Google’s “autocomplete” search feature, which automatically suggests searches that other people are making. “Type in ‘I always …’ and you may see the suggestion, based on other people’s searches, ‘I always feel tired’ or ‘I always have diarrhea,'” he writes. “This can offer a stark contrast to social media, where everybody ‘always’ seems to be on a Caribbean vacation.”

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