Our so-called lives (my Artistic Licence column, SBP, Feb 1, 2015)

A few weeks ago, yet another new trend started on Facebook. Like last August’s ice-bucket challenge, but without the charity incentive, friends started daring each other to share their first profile pictures on Facebook, the ones they had posted up as far back as 2005, or whenever they first joined Facebook. Much amusement ensued as Facebook users posted up pictures of themselves from a decade or so back – younger versions sporting dodgy haircuts or accompanied by even dodgier ex-boyfriends. Everyone laughed (or LOLed, if you prefer). It was cute.

But looking at all the younger, fresher faces, I couldn’t help but notice that there seemed to be a key difference between the old faces and the new, that had nothing to do with the age gaps involved. Back then, when Facebook first became a thing in Ireland, it felt like we weren’t all so concerned about how we appeared to each other on the site. We weren’t as self-conscious. We weren’t keeping up with the Joneses. We weren’t toting selfie sticks. We weren’t building social media empires. We were just ourselves, in internet format: lumps, bumps, bad fashion and all.

These days, Facebook is an entirely different beast. Around Christmas time, I was having a chat in the pub with a friend I hadn’t seen in ages. “How are you getting on?” he enquired. “Or do I even need to ask – every time I see a picture of you on Facebook or Twitter, you’re doing so great.” I was a little taken aback. Actually, 2014 had been a tough year. But would I have admitted that on Facebook? Would I hell.

Almost without realising it, I had become complicit in a kind of Facebook fraud, selectively editing my life for social media. In fact, when I thought back on it, it struck me that if my year had been better, my Facebook profile would have been less, well, incredibly happy looking. I wouldn’t have felt the need to bother.

Like an awful lot of people these days, my Facebook profile is something of a front. Sure, all the pictures on it are real. But it’s a selective truth, about as representative of my day-to-day life as a glitzy, big-budget MTV video is representative of a musician’s life. I don’t put up pictures of the bad days, the down moments. And here’s the thing – neither does almost anyone else.

If I want to see my friends getting engaged, crossing the line in marathons, getting their degrees, dancing at festivals, I’ll go onto Facebook. But if I’m going to find out about the pain behind their eyes – the truth about how their husband had an affair, or how their mum has been diagnosed with cancer – I’m going to hear it in a pub or a coffee shop, in intimate moments, not on social media. (The few people willing to post messages about life traumas remain exceptions to the rule.)

Facebook itself is a kind of fraud. It promises you friendship with others. But it’s a friendship that prompts you to share a kind of happiness that verges on boasting. It gives you a false impression of people. You might feel close to them through seeing their pictures, but you don’t know them. Not only that, but not only do you not see their problems, you might go completely the other way, and think they’re having the most marvellous time – and that’s bad for you. Study after study has shown that, although Facebook’s popularity is rampant, the network often depresses people. It makes them feel jealous – why did their friends have a party without them? Who’s that girl hanging onto their boyfriend? It makes them feel lonely and unpopular.

But Facebook is here to stay, at least in the short to medium term. That being the case, maybe it’s time for us all to put up some giant disclaimers about the nature of the site. When you use it, call it Fantasy Facebook in your mind – not just in regard to the stuff you’re putting up, but the stuff everyone else is sharing too. Facebook is just the life other people want you to believe they have.