[It could be your news feed or it could be mine. Google’s ad for the Pixel 2 runs through a slideshow of people who seem like they have it all together. They don’t.
After a series of photos with people surrounded by friends, family, dogs and delicious food, the narrator reveals that they all have something in common – they’ve called the Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
“Not every picture tells the whole story,” the narrator says. “Question your lens.”
With that tagline, we’re meant to look deeper, and we should. I see an ad that reminded me that even though depression can be an isolated and isolating experience, it’s a common one. It also reminded me why Facebook can feel like such a dark hole.
[In social media, a platform’s users play the contentious roles of consumer and product. Buried in that irony are the things we sacrifice to be part of online communities like Facebook – our privacy, our anonymity and maybe even a piece of our happiness.
About a month before Facebook announced a revised algorithm that would foster “more meaningful social interactions,” a former executive for the company, Chamath Palihapitiya, spoke critically of his former employer and social media in general, saying that “the short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops we’ve created are destroying how society works.” Other former Facebook leaders have expressed similar sentiments, including Sean Parker, who said that Facebook “(exploits) a vulnerability in human psychology.”
A study described in this episode of the sociology podcast Hidden Brain found that over time, people who used Facebook became less happy than people who weren’t using the site. According to the researchers, part of what was happening was that Facebook spurs people to compare their own worth and happiness to that of the people on their timelines. The study claims that Facebook users weren’t losing happiness to thoughts that others were happier or more successful than them, but because they were questioning themselves and their decisions.
“Comparing yourself to others doesn’t just steal happiness because you discover that other people seem happier than you are,” Hidden Brain host Shankar Vedantam said. “Comparing yourself to others steals happiness because the very act of comparison takes you out of the life you’re living. It takes you out of the moment.”
For the episode, Vedantam spoke with Rachel Leonard, a woman whose life was falling apart as she was posting picture after picture of an ideal marriage in an ideal town with a beautiful child, husband and house.
“You’re kind of curating your life, just these very specific moments – the best of the best – that you’re putting up there with no context,” she said.
We’ve all been in Rachel’s position from both sides. We look at others’ posts and know in our hearts we just don’t measure up. But for a decade or longer, we’ve been posting excerpts from the best versions of our lives, while people we love or just know casually are looking on, knowing they don’t measure up, either.
[Not every picture tells the whole story. Question your lens.
On New Year’s Eve, YouTuber Logan Paul posted a video in which he encountered the body of a suicide victim in a forest at the base of Mount Fiji that has a reputation for the large number of people who have taken their lives there. Knowing, or perhaps not knowing, how common the tragedy is in the Aokigahara forest, Paul and his friends set out to film the “haunted” woods.
Paul, who boasts a YouTube following of 15 million, chose to upload the video. I didn’t watch it at the time, but various articles describe his behavior, which sounded disrespectful to the individual victim, whose body appeared in the video, as well as to suicide victims and their survivors, as well. Maybe he joked because he was uncomfortable in the situation, but he made a choice to hike through the forest and he made a choice to post a video making light of the death of someone who in life had undoubtedly been in an untold amount of pain.
It’s a good time to mention that Google owns YouTube. How did the tech giant handle the video?
YouTube users flagged Paul’s video, bringing it to the attention of YouTube staff who review content that may violate its rules. YouTube staff reviewed it and gave the video the green light.
A day after posting the video and facing growing pressure from the public, Paul took the video down and apologized, saying he planned to suspend his channel to “take time to reflect.” The next day, and two days after its own staff had okayed the video, YouTube said it had broken its rules for content.
People still remember the video, which disturbingly inspired an app where a cartoon Paul runs through a forest full of nooses to collect coins. (Google deleted that app today.)
Still, 22-year-old Paul hasn’t been kicked off YouTube. Instead, the company kicked his channel off Google Preferred, an advertising program geared toward 18 to 34-year-old viewers. He will no longer appear on the web series “Foursome,” either.
Paul wasn’t booted from YouTube, and he still is on the site’s regular (though less lucrative) advertising network. Five days ago, Paul posted a video called “Suicide: Be Here Tomorrow,” which spent 30 seconds or so acknowledging the video he posted last month. “It’s time to learn from the past as I get better and grow as a human being,” he said.
In one conversation, he admitted he “was shocked to discover just how big this is,” with “this” being the tragedy of suicide. He mentioned he’s learning to be more compassionate, then glided through the steps to prevent suicide. At the end of the video, he announced he’s donating $1 million to suicide prevention organizations, with $250,000 going specifically to the Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Two days later, Google posted its ad for the Pixel 2, which also plugs the hotline.
Ethical quandaries from technology are nothing new. But at the rate we’re going, when social media has the power to affect our very happiness, it’s worth asking if pandering videos and ad campaigns are enough to address the mistakes that Paul and YouTube made with his Aokigahara video.
In the meantime, don’t be surprised if you bump into Google’s ad. Like me, you may even find it on one of the social media platforms that give so many of us the blues.