Facebook as Virtual Mirror – Book review

By Serena Westra

Facebook makes us unhappy is the main premise of Dutch author Koen Damhuis. In his new book ‘De Virtuele Spiegel; Waarom Facebook ons Ongelukkig Maakt’ (The Virtual Mirror; Why Facebook makes us Unhappy) he is examining his generation, Generation Y, which is raised in a society with high expectations and no room for failure. According to him, the ubiquitous presence of Facebook makes us unhappy because we are confronted with all the things we did not accomplish and chances we did not take. Facebook friends always seem to look better, prettier and more successful. ‘Facebook provides the possibility to get closer to perfection; consequently the discrepancy between the ordinary world and our virtual image of the world gets bigger. […] It becomes harder and harder to accept failure, especially for Generation Y that want’s everything’ (Damhuis, 2012).

In The Virtual Mirror Damhuis gives three options to deal with this issue. First self-improvement: be better then your Facebook friends. You can use Facebook to hide your authentic self and to ‘fake it till you make it’. Second: have fewer ambitions. Creating borders in a borderless world might be a solution, because giving up your ambitions can be just as fulfilling as succeeding. The third option is a combination of both: try to be better than your friends, but accept failure too.

According to Damhuis we are living in a performance culture. Instead of accepting the fact that we are not necessarily the prettiest or most important person in the world, we oblige each other to see ourselves as special. Facebook helps us with this from commercial grounds – the more personalized the profile, the more personalized the advertisement can be – and provides us with the space we need to do this. Virtually we all look pretty and exceptional. ‘You are putting on a mask to hide your own mediocrity – we are all doing this in front of the virtual mirror.’

However, on his quest to find the reason why Facebook makes Generation Y unhappy, Damhuis forgets one important thing: to look at Facebook itself. New media critic Lev Manovich believes that an analysis cannot be complete until we consider the software layer. ‘All disciplines which deal with contemporary society and culture – architecture, design, art criticism, sociology, political science, humanities, science and technology studies, and so on – need to account for the role of software and its effects in whatever subjects they investigate’ (Manovich, 2008). Software is still invisible to most academics and the use of software studies in combination with sociology is not applied often. Yet, the implementation of software studies in Damhuis’ research would have provided a more complete image. For example, how does Facebook’s software encourage the self-promoting machine? And how exactly do users construct themselves in a perfect way on Facebook?

Despite this, Damhuis does, as a sociologist, know how to correctly grasp the current issue with Generation Y and the performance society. As part of Generation Y, I recognize myself in the stereotype he describes: one who is never satisfied and continually sharing content on Facebook. I share the idea that the standards of being successful are extremely high and that these are increased by Facebook because of the active use of impression management. From a sociological dramaturgic perspective Facebook can be seen as a stage on which we play our best part in front of the audience (friends). To be able to compete with perfect looking Facebook friends, we have all turned into self-promoting machines.

While Damhuis stops at this point, Geert Lovink tries to find an underlying reason for why we have turned into self-promoters. In his new book Networks Without a Cause, he gives three approaches to dismantle the consumer desire that drives the self-promoting machine. ‘One way is to disrupt it’s self-evidence. Talking about the dark side of positive thinking is a first step to recover from the mass delusion of smile or die’ (Lovink, 2011). On Facebook we are acting as if we play ourselves, even in front of our own friends. However, according to Lovink there is no one Self, our identities are more complex. He believes social networking is not about affirming something as truth, but more about making truth through endless clicking. The second way is to look at the self-promoting machine as primarily powered by the fast consumption of objects external to us, the unstoppable drive to collect more and more. Could it be that we are suffering form ‘affluenza’; the plenty that makes you sick? Third, Lovink revisits the notion of anonymity in today’s context. We have to re-imagine anonymity as a form of metamorphosis instead of seeing it as an attainable categorical state. It is the desire to become someone else. Yet, in the political sphere, we are told we do not have a right to perfect anonymity at all anymore.

Instead of having different identities, the current society wants us to find the ‘true, authentic self’. On Facebook you can only have one identity, so we are wearing this singular mask. But how can Facebook function as a mirror when everybody is wearing a mask? Damhuis claims that Facebook looks a lot like Fakebook. In that sense, wouldn’t Facebook function as a funhouse mirror instead of a virtual mirror?

However, are we really wearing masks? In my research I have found out that we are not pretending to be someone else on Facebook. We are selectively only showing our positive side on Facebook, with use of impression management, and hiding our negative and bad side. This means that we are not fake, but showing an incomplete authentic self to the audience (friends) on Facebook. Hence, one can ask the question if Facebook can still make us unhappy when everybody knows Facebook users are selectively constructing a positive identity. And if Facebook can make us unhappy, how can it make us happy again? Should we all befriend unsuccessful and ugly people? And what about turning the mirror around and looking at the way society is reflecting social media? I believe the mirror can work in both directions: both social media and society are influencing each other.

I am looking forward to a book that will study this subject form a sociological and media studies perspective. Damhuis describes the current society, Generation Y and the influence of Facebook on our level of happiness in an interesting way; he knows how to grasp the time we are living in. But for me, the exact reason how and why Facebook makes us unhappy and how to prevent this stays unclear.

Damhuis, Koen. De Virtuele Spiegel; Waarom Facebook ons Ongelukkig Maakt. Arbeiderspers, 2012.
Lovink, Geert. Networks Without a Cause; a Critique of Social Media. Polity Press, 2011.
Manovich, Lev. Software Takes Commend. 2008
Westra, Serena. Performing the Self: Identity on Facebook. BA thesis, 2011.