The Epistemology of Social Media

social media, epistemology

Is a picture really worth a thousand words? I’m not so sure anymore. Consider this: I post a photo of myself or my family on social media.

That photo literally represents about 1/30 of a second of my life. We look so happy, right? Believe me, we wrangled, bribed, and threatened our kids to strike this pose. The smiles? Mostly forced. I’m not even sure the dog was having a good time. Ordinarily, they say facial expressions and body language do 93% of the work in communication (though some dispute this figure). But when it comes to social media, I think we have a special reason to be skeptical of what we see. Aside from the fact that we’re seeing 1/30 of a second, people intentionally put on their best faces for social media. And among the “best face” pics available, we select the very best of those! This is not truly representative of a person’s life.

The truth of this really hit me when I read Maddi Fielike’s insightful blog post, “I’m Not A Liar, But Facebook Sure Is.” In her post, she isn’t criticizing social media; I think she’s pointing out its epistemic limitations. (‘Epistemic’ refers to how we know the truth about things.) I think she’s put her finger on a special case of hasty generalization, a common informal fallacy of reasoning. (Check out my related video post about “anecdotal evidence.”) A hasty generalization happens when we form a conclusion based on inadequate evidence, or a “bad sample.”

Sample Size

burger, social media

We’ve all made this mistake–hundreds of times. For example, I visited a local restaurant for the first time to “sample” their cuisine, and they burned my burger. Without much thought, I found myself forming the belief, “This is a bad restaurant.” The error here lies in relying on a sample size that is too small. A “sample size” is just the number of things in a certain group that I have examined to learn about that group. In this case, I had examined one sample out of hundreds of meals served by the restaurant. A better conclusion could be obtained after a few dozen meal reviews. 

Judging a person’s life based on a few snap shots commits the same fallacy. Would you want to be judged based on one second of your life? I guess it depends on the second. Catch me in a really good moment, and that sounds good. But how many of us have been unfairly judged by others based on one experience? Like that trig test I failed in high school. If only I had known about sample size then! “You should let me take the test at least 10 times, Ms. Smith, just to get a decent sample size.”

Sample Bias

cheifs, social media

The epistemic problems of social media go even deeper. Not only is the sample size (1/30 of a second) too small, but it is a biased sample. A good sample is one that represents the diversity of the set. For instance, if I wanted to know how many Americans are fans of the Kansas City Chiefs, I could take a poll. Now, I want to avoid having a too-small sample, so I’ll poll 100,000 people. Seems like a good size. But if I only interview people who live within 100 miles of Kansas City, I’ll bias my sample. This is because I will predictably find a very high percentage of Chiefs fans in that geographic circle. My sample needs to represent the diversity of the set–it should include people from all 50 states.

Pics on Instagram or Facebook portray us with the same kind of bias. We pick and choose which images to post, rather than just putting up a random sampling of all our photos. Not only that, but even a random sampling of pics from my iPhone would not give you an unbiased look at my life. We don’t even take pictures of things we would not want others to see, like the time times I yelled at my kids for no good reason, or the time times I felt completely overwhelmed by life.

As Maddi Fielicke points out, we don’t always intend to deceive. We’re just posting (our best) pics, often to let family and friends know what’s going on in our lives. Neither are we setting out to make a raw documentary about the good, the bad, and the ugly of our existence. But when we sit at the other side of these displays, scrolling through other people’s Facebook or Instagram feeds, our minds automatically take these photos and try to construct a story. “These people are really happy and having an amazing time.” “This family always smiles and loves each other.” “She takes the greatest vacations ever!” “His kids are perfectly adjusted and successful!” We instinctively misinterpret their posts as a narrative of their lives.

Using Social Media Responsibly

marathon, social media

Knowing the epistemic limitations of social media, should we be more thoughtful in our use of it? Think of what we post. Social media is littered with posts like, “Hey, here’s a pic of me finishing a marathon,” or “Here I am helping underprivileged children in a third world country,” or “Here’s my kid winning first place in everything.” Of course, there’s nothing wrong with celebrating our families or sharing our happiest experiences with friends. But I know that many people will automatically misinterpret my “happy” photos to mean that my life is perfect. And I know that social media contributes to depression and loneliness for this very reason. So should I rethink how I post? Should I try to give a more realistic, representative picture of my life? I admit I don’t have the answer. 

Now, what about the way we consume social media? Rather than simply avoid or ban social media, the best thing to do is install a new filter. But this filter isn’t on our phone or on our computer. It’s in our minds. What we need is to process all these happy, beautiful photos differently. When we see happy, shiny people on social media, we can resist the automatic tendency to construct that Disneyland narrative in our minds, imagining their lives to be fairy tales. We can stop our minds from slipping into comparison mode (their life/job/kid is so much better than mine). Instead, we can take a deep breath and remind ourselves that their life is a lot like ours–filled with good and bad parts. We can reflect on our own happy, shiny moments, and imagine the person in the photo as being a real human with real struggles–struggles invisible to the camera eye.