Social 'Life' and a Little Proust
Bear with me. There is a payback.
This post touches on history, Facebook, social personality and the early 20th century French novelist and critic Marcel Proust, author of À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time). And it will have something to say about the social web's affect on the shaping of our social nature.
But it begins in 1981, shortly after my wife and I returned from living in Paris for a year — she studying at the Sorbonne and me earning an admittedly meagre living as a freelance arts journalist. We had bought our first house, a semi-detached in Toronto's Ossington and Bloor neighbourhood.
The 'semi-detached' is an important fact because on the other side of the demising wall lived at various times 14 people. Now how shall I put this? Let's just say that the level of ambient noise in this house of recent immigrants from an island off the west coast of Europe was sonorous. By this point, my wife was pursuing a law degree and I was, yes, continuing to earn a meagre living in arts journalism.
We had one room in that house that was separated from the demising wall and it was a slightly muffled refuge from the thumping (music) and shouting. It was in that room, as I kept my wife company, that I began reading Swann's Way the first book in Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu. I don't recall now why, except that with an M.A. in dramatic literature, and being a committed Francophile, it's what I thought I should do. I finished Swann's Way and Within a Budding Grove and took little away from it, and remembered the events in it less.
Flash forward 35 years. This week I started to re-read Proust, in the same three-volume edition as in that room of refuge. But this time around, and only 100 or so pages in, I'm taken aback by the limpidness of his inquiries about early 20th century France, the people and lives around him . . . and the relevance of these observations for us today.
In fact as Justice Stephen Beyer, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, said in The New York Review of Books: "It’s all there in Proust—all mankind! Not only all the different character types, but also every emotion, every imaginable situation. Proust is a universal author: he can touch anyone, for different reasons; each of us can find some piece of himself in Proust, at different ages."
Here's where Facebook and social personality make their entrance. Proust has this to say about how social personality is conceived:
But then, even in the most insignificant details of our daily life, none of us can be said to constitute a material whole, which is identical for everyone, and need only to be turned up like a page in an account-book or the record of a will; our social personality is a creation of the thoughts of other people. Even the simple of act which we describe as 'seeing someone we know' is to some extent an intellectual process. We pack the physical outline of the person we see with all the notions we have already formed about him, and in the total picture of him which we compose in our minds those notions have certainly the principal place.
This explains why we are so attached to social networks. It is others who shape and decode who we are as social beings; so, we feel compelled to interpret ourselves to our friends, colleagues and family, or define ourselves for strangers even before we have met them.
But there's a problem when this plays out on Facebook: The compiling and interpretation, the clash between how others read us and how we attempt to shape that perception, on Facebook is not making us happy. A study by Holly B. Shakya and Nichola A. Christakis reported in Harvard Business Review found:
Overall, our results showed that, while real-world social networks were positively associated with overall well-being, the use of Facebook was negatively associated with overall well-being. These results were particularly strong for mental health; most measures of Facebook use in one year predicted a decrease in mental health in a later year. We found consistently that both liking others’ content and clicking links significantly predicted a subsequent reduction in self-reported physical health, mental health, and life satisfaction.
Had the study included Instagram—home of the happiest, hippest photos— the diagnosis would likely be even bleaker.
But Proust has the answer: “One cannot change, that is to say become a different person, while continuing to acquiesce to the feelings of the person one has ceased to be.” So stop comparing; don't spend so much time checking your Facebook news feed and focus on discovering and cleaving to real healthy relationships.