Why You’ll Never Stop Comparing Your Life With Influencers

comparison culture social media

“Jim Morrison released six albums with The Doors over a five-year period, toured all over the world and then died in a bathtub in Paris at 27,” says Josh, a British filmmaker, who often thinks about The 27 Club.

“That was like the first thing I thought of when I turned 27, and that’s the first thing I thought of when I turned 28 too. You get to 28, and you think, ‘Oh a lot of my heroes never got to the age that I am now and think of all the stuff they achieved before they died’, and it’s like, ‘Woah, fuck me.'”

I get that these people we’re talking about now are one-of-a-kind people, but still.”

We’ve always known that there are people out there that are more ‘successful’ than us: models who don’t get out of bed for less than 10k and men in turtlenecks constructing the new world order from their Silicon Valley playgrounds. Lucky individuals in far-flung places achieving far-flung things that — aside from what we gathered in the occasional magazine spread — we didn’t know all that much about.

Of course, the rise of social media has changed all that; celebrity is no longer the stuff of fantasy and Woman’s Day exposés. These days it’s pretty standard to digest the content of those you love, or love to hate, online. We have close to 24-hour access to the privilege and the lifestyles of the rich and famous and yet, these trappings of success are more out of reach than ever. The portrayals of perfection elude even those that promote them (see: Celeb Face).

It isn’t just celebrities and influencers, either. All of us — friends, family, co-workers, your barista — go to some lengths to put out the best version of ourselves online. And why wouldn’t we? It’s a place to tell our story, to share in our wins and our excitements, our vulnerabilities too. The people who get ahead online are the ones who know this and perform accordingly, and that’s okay.

We know that social comparisons are made by our brains without us even realising

But it would be remiss of us not to acknowledge a fundamental truth: that all this access, this peeking under the covers of each others’ supposed lives, paves the way for a shitload of comparison. What this voyeurism does to a person; the deeper effects of all this weighing up, keeping up and sizing up, is yet to be determined. There are a few studies, but social media is still in its infancy. It’s simply too soon to tell.

We Can’t Help It

Here’s what we know for sure. We know that social comparisons are made by our brains without us even realising, and these comparisons, whether we know we’re making them or not, play on our conscious evaluations of our self. We know that using Facebook frequently has detrimental effects on wellbeing and that these effects are due, at least in part, to upward social comparisons. We know that social networking sites are the ideal breeding ground for comparisons; the pool of people to measure against has swelled to the billions in their wake.

We know that people who suffer from low self-esteem are more likely to use social media as a tool for self-evaluation and expression, the knock-on effect being (you guessed it!) even lower self-esteem. We also know that some people are more prone to comparing, and how much these evaluations affect us varies from person to person too. All in all, a lot of pretty depressing evidence proves that spending time on social media ain’t so great for mental health.

Comparing has always been an implicit human function. There was safety in numbers back in the caveman days, and comparisons helped us to know our place, belong to a group, and ultimately survive. Even now, these abilities serve a purpose.

“We can boil it [comparing] down to some really basic drives within humans,” explains Jocelyn Brewer, a Sydney psychologist specialising in digital wellbeing. “The way that we survive now is much more social than it is physical … Most of our basic needs are met, especially around food and shelter for a good majority of people. Whereas [with] some of the belonging and the love needs, we’re definitely kind of compensating or using different sources of belonging in that social media space to gain a sense of who we are and where we fit.”

Ella is a stage manager in Sydney. At 22, she’s straight out of uni and has already scored some noteworthy gigs working for big-name theatre productions. She’s the sort of person who has lists for her lists. From the outside at least, she appears to have her shit together. Still, she often catches herself drawing parallels.

“It can be really alienating,” Ella says. She goes on to detail her love-hate relationship with Youtube vloggers. On the one hand, she’s drawn to the pretty personas and exciting allure of a different lifestyle; a welcome break from the lulls in her day. On the other, watching someone else live their life inevitably calls her to question her choices. ”It’s a form of entertainment, but it subconsciously makes you feel like shit about your own life,” she tells me.

A Measure Of Success

The online world offers up so many opportunities for change, from clothes to careers, cities, even relationships. It’s easy to start wanting things simply because others have them. “The more they [influencers] let me in, the more that I start to think that I am more entitled to everything that they have,” Ella admits. “When I realise I don’t have it, I feel deflated.”

Career angst is almost a millennial rite of passage. Where personal branding helps us get jobs and free stuff, it also shapes lives into perfectly packaged success stories. As we digest all these stranger’s achievements, we’re increasingly expecting — and in some ways, expected– to set the world on fire from our early 20s onwards. For those with any vague sense of ambition, myself included, there’s a certain anxiety that comes from feeling like we’re not quite making the mark with each passing year. The ticking clock is taking you further and further away from that 30 Under 30 list.

I realised recently that one of the first questions I ask when I hear about a ‘successful’ person’s rise is their age. If they’re a fair bit older than me, then no worries, I have plenty of time to ‘catch up’. If they’re around the same age, it starts to sting. God help me if they’re 21 or something.

Keeping up with the Joneses was a thing long before Keeping Up with the Kardashians was.

Erin Vogel, an academic at the University of California, has researched and written extensively about social comparison and how it manifests online. She says a healthier relationship with social media starts with addressing the way we use these networks.

“Social media is most beneficial when we use it to connect with our friends [in groups or in chats],” Erin says. “Spending a lot of time just scrolling through our newsfeeds often has the opposite effect. We feel like we’ve wasted time and we feel inferior to other people,”

“I’d suggest tracking your social media use and setting challenging, but achievable goals to reduce it … gradual change [rather than a digital detox] is probably more conducive to long-term healthy habits,” Erin tells me.

There’s an argument that we shouldn’t be coddled. People shouldn’t have to post as many bad pictures as good pictures online to validate those who feel triggered by their success/appearance/*insert concern here*. They shouldn’t have to share their whole story just to be considered ‘authentic’ or balance the comparative scales. And they’re right — they shouldn’t.

Even if they wanted to, no amount of #nofilter selfies would stop us comparing. The valuing of certain types of traits and ideals over others is just part and parcel of human nature and capitalism and all the things that good ol’ Western society holds dear. Keeping up with the Joneses was a thing long before Keeping Up with the Kardashians was.

However, to say that people should hold the emotional intelligence to see through all the highlights reels and figure that there must be more to the story is reductive. Sure, we may be able to manage it occasionally, but a lot of the time, we see only what’s put in front of us. It took us decades — plus a lot of feminists’ blood, sweat and tears — for us to get that airbrushing in magazines was a thing.

Believe it or not, I have no intention to hate on social media. Plenty of good comes from these platforms too, and I’m not trying to dump all of life’s problems onto Mark Zuckerberg’s shoulders (I imagine they’re already quite heavy). Instead, think of this as a subtle reminder to be a little more mindful online.

We’re inhabiting the virtual Wild West and, like Will Smith’s ‘99 iteration (the one with two ‘Wild’s), it has the potential to do us some damage. My hot tip? More puppy videos — they’re always fun.

Alice Griffin is a freelance writer and travel presenter in Sydney. She’s trying to be better on Twitter, give her some encouragement here.

Photo by from Pexels