Carli Cosenza: Facebook’s “pushy” push notifications

Monday, February 5, 2018 - 1:14pm

The other day, I logged into my Facebook account and noticed a notification on my timeline. It was a message from Facebook itself, urging me to update my profile picture. The exact message — or rather, command — was written in bold font across my screen: “It’s been a while since you updated your profile picture. Choose a recent photo of yourself so people can find you easily.” I was taken aback. What was wrong with my current profile picture? And furthermore, I had last updated it in March. That’s only about eight months; I really don’t look any different now.

Despite Facebook’s ever-enticing recommendation, I did not change my profile picture. I am perfectly content with my profile picture the way it is. However, I am still troubled by the entire situation. The fact that Facebook can now directly encourage users to make changes to their appearance and claim that it is for the satisfaction of other users is deeply alarming. It reflects the dangerous vanity that has become a core value in not only the social media sphere, but in our society in general. It encourages the validation of oneself through the approval of others in the form of receiving virtual “likes.” Moreover, because we are able to edit the photos that we share, we are able to get rid of whatever we don’t want our audiences to see. In this way, we are creating a culture of deception of others and ourselves.

Every day, over 350 million Facebook photos are shared. That’s a lot of posting, and a lot of opportunities for users to get a peek into the lives of others. This is where the damage can occur. Research suggests that appearance comparisons — common in social media — is doing an exceptional job of making us feel bad about ourselves. This makes perfect sense. It’s because social media presents the perfect paradox: It allows you to display to others how great and exciting your life is. However, it allows for you to see how great and exciting everyone else’s life is, so you can’t help but compare yourself to them.

This leads to the internalization of cultural ideals about beauty, body image and lifestyle, which can make us feel eternally dissatisfied. For example, approximately 68 percent of women report being dissatisfied with their bodies. In my case, after I received orders to change my profile picture, I wondered: If Facebook isn’t even satisfied with my profile picture, then should I be? At that moment, even my own satisfaction was subject to the judgment of social media.

This leads us to the issue of self-validation through the approval of others, which is a field that I believe Facebook particularly excels in. Let’s re-examine the line: “Choose a recent photo of yourself so people can find you more easily.” To me, this is pretty remarkable. If a person does not know what I look like enough to find me based on my current profile picture, then we probably aren’t close friends in real life. Furthermore, it reinforces a constant pressure to maintain an image, whatever it may be. Frequently, how we construct this image is based on validation that we get from our followers in the form of “likes” and comments. In fact, researchers say that millennials, who comprise the largest age group on Facebook, are now more than ever craving external validation because they have become so accustomed to receiving praise online. This is a phenomenon referred to as the “generation validation” effect, which is rooted in social media.

As social media has evolved, so has a key component in receiving validation: editing. Through editing applications such as VSCO or FaceTune, users can retouch essentially any component of a photo. Whether you want to edit out a photobomb or whiten your teeth, you have the ability to alter reality. Editing has become a big part of social media; for example, the photo editing app Camera 360 has over 800 million users around the world.

FaceTune allows you to make drastic changes to yourself, such as widening smiles, concealing wrinkles and even changing eye color. This is a perfect example of the danger of photo editing: It allows users to choose which aspects of themselves they want to enhance, reduce or alter. We no longer accept ourselves, but instead put out an enhanced image of what we think we should look like. And apparently, the secret lies in the face: Research shows that Instagram photos that feature faces get 38 percent more likes than those without. Suddenly, FaceTune’s teeth-whitening feature sounds appealing, doesn’t it?

If we follow Facebook’s advice and post to attract attention from followers, then, of course, we are going to be encouraged to use photo-editing apps to ensure that we look the very best. However, what happens when our virtual selves don’t match reality?

In 2014, the term “catfish” officially made it into the Merriam-Webster online dictionary. It is defined as “A person who sets up a false personal profile on a social networking site for fraudulent or deceptive purposes.” The catfishing phenomenon started with the documentary Catfish, which then inspired MTV’s Nev Schulman and Max Joseph, whose TV series documents actual cases of fraudulent online relationships. In almost every episode, the relationship starts on Facebook, and almost always the perpetrator uses a fake profile picture to deceive the other person. While photo editing isn’t as extreme as “catfishing,” one thing is clear: It is very easy to deceive people online. Facebook can’t check the authenticity of a profile, and sometimes the only proof we have is in the pictures. With the accessibility of photo-editing applications, we have the ability to seem like a completely different person online, which can present a problem when things don’t quite match up in reality.

Furthermore, there are the consequences that photo editing has on the perpetuation of unrealistic beauty and body image expectations placed particularly on women in our society. Now we really have no excuse to not look perfect in every picture. By using editing software to change the way we naturally look, aren’t we just giving into the unrealistic expectations placed upon us by society that we constantly fight against? We must be wary of how much of ourselves we seek to change.

To me, self-satisfaction comes from internal self-acceptance, not from the critical reception of my profile picture. After all, the instant gratification that social media rewards us with is not tangible or enduring; instead, it is short-lived and superficial. It is dangerous when social networking sites such as Facebook attempt to interfere with how we view ourselves. I like my profile picture, and I will change it when I am ready to, not when Facebook tells me to. We should strive to be content with who we are as individuals, rather than worry about the pressures of our virtual image. At the end of the day, I think that face-to-face interactions are more valuable and I believe there are too many other things in the world to worry about than my “outdated” Facebook profile picture.

Carli Cosenza can be reached at carlic@umich.edu.