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  • Social Media and The Happiness Effect:Interview with Donna Freitas, August 22, 2019
  • Aleks Wansbrough (bio) and Donna Freitas (bio)
Aleks Wansbrough:

Thanks for joining us. One of your recent nonfiction books is called The Happiness Effect (2017). Could you outline for us what the happiness effect is?

Donna Freitas:

When I was researching the effects of social media on college students, I kept hearing students differentiate between having to appear happy online versus being happy. The students described witnessing this phrenetic happiness on social media. And they explored the dissonance between seeing all this happiness, which they knew wasn't real, and pretending to be happy. Indeed, such a situation where they were trying so hard to be happy or appear happy caused them to feel stressed, resentful and unhappy.


Often when people think about selfies they think about this sort of effortless and unconsidered narcissism where the young take photos of themselves without considering what others may think. What you describe contrasts with this idea that selfies are simply thoughtless exhibitionism. It sounds as though you are describing a situation where the young go to a great effort with their selfies.


Students who I talked to spoke about taking selfies like it was homework. They put a lot of thought and effort into the sort of image they wanted to create and project about themselves on social media. And I think they spent a lot of time noticing this pressure to upload this perfect image. [End Page 108]


One thing I found really interesting was that the students in your study referred to it as though selfies were work and not just homework. They sometimes referred to "likes" as currency. I was wondering whether you had given any thought to whether there was any relation to capitalism and the market.


I had students say outright that their name was their brand. I think the young adults of today are very aware that anything attached to their real name is a kind of brand that they are creating. The students are hyperaware, because their parents have made them hyperaware, because their teachers have made them hyperaware, that anything students do online can cost them their entire future. If they make one mistake or make one comment that gets taken out of context or one photo that they shouldn't have uploaded… then maybe it will go viral and they'll never get a job. In short, anything attached to their name is attached to their reputation, and the possibility of getting a job.

Indeed, they can even make money out of their social media representations. So, there is a way in which the students are aware that the image they create online of themselves is not just relevant to their future work, but could be work itself.

And, of course, Facebook and Instagram quite literally trade off of us. Although students are very aware of these dynamics, they often haven't necessarily spent much time reflecting on the implications. Many of the students I spoke with began to be have epiphanies about these issues during an interview. They talked, sometimes during, and sometimes afterward, about how they hadn't had a lot of time to reflect on the power of social media, emotionally or intellectually.


I was wondering how we could engage in that sort of conversation. How do you think the media could frame these activities in terms of ethics and selfies and anxieties linked to self-representation?


I just think that we have to open the door to the conversation. We have to decide as professors, as academics and teachers in general, that the effects of social media are worth analyzing and discussing.

In the U.S., we tend to diminish anything that is regarded as pop culture or anything that is regarded as business and marketing. And social media [End Page 109] consists of business and marketing at this point. This is how one can end up in a university today and somehow go through and graduate from the university without ever having a conversation about issues regarding social media in a classroom.


You are a fiction and nonfiction...


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pp. 108-113
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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