A visual representation of hate-following someone online
Finally, science has proven that all those dumb-dumbs you're friends with on Facebook have a purpose. That high school acquaintance who's always inviting you to play a social media game based off of Storage Wars, that miserable couple who now mostly spend their statuses bitching about the price of ammo at Walmart, that one girl who's inexplicably just qualified as a nurse, even though you remember, vividly, her sitting on a sofa at college bemoaning her period, saying, "Honestly, Joel, it’s like a tap," which makes you think she should be seeking urgent medical help rather than providing it.
All these people have a function. And that function is making you feel better about your own dumb-dumb awful life. Because this month, an Ohio State University study into social networks found that when people are in a bad mood, they're more likely to linger on the social media profiles of people who are worse off than them: the poor, the damaged, the trainee nurses with unconventional vaginal discharges.
They found this by taking a group of 168 students, dividing them into two, putting one group in a bad mood (they asked them to do a test and then told them all they did "terribly") and one lot in a good mood (ditto, but said they did "excellently"—who knew mood manipulation was so easy?) then asked them to look at some fake social media profiles they'd made up on a thing called "SocialLink."
A selection of profiles on "SocialLink"
I love shit like this. I love that grocery-store brands of soda all have names like "Arnold's Good Cola." I love on sitcoms when the characters go to the bar and say, "I'll have a brew, please," because they’re not allowed to say brand names. This is what this is: academics, clearly not allowed to use actual Facebook profiles for actual academic reasons, having to invent an entire social network just for the purpose of their study.
And it’s a ridiculous one: "SocialLink" has names like "Raymond Doty" and "Phillip Mulkey," with pixilated-like-the-dude-in-Doom user profiles and a five-point rating for wealth (signified by a dollar sign) and hotness (signified by a heart). I like to imagine the design meeting for that: "Yo, can we make this mangled face slightly less hot? Make those—no, Brian, you’re not listening—make those distorted pixels look a bit sloppier."
But the point is the findings of the study, which were as follows: Overall, people spent more time on the profiles of those rated richer and more attractive, but those in the negative mood group spent more time wallowing on the profiles of the poor and the ugly. In conclusion, as the study’s co-author Benjamin Johnson says, “Generally, most of us look for the positive on social media sites. But if you’re feeling vulnerable, you’ll look for people on Facebook who are having a bad day or who aren’t as good at presenting themselves positively, just to make yourself feel better.”
This is brilliant, because it fully endorses my own not-proven-by-a-fake-social-media-platform-and-a-university-study theory—that following someone on social media just because you hate them is important for the heart, soul, and everything in between. There is, of course, a whole gamut of emotions between pity and hate, and looking at the profile of someone who's desperately trying to sell a race-car bed on the Facebook group page for his alma mater ("$40 only!! Mattress barely soiled!!!") is completely different from poring over the tweets of someone you hate from afar. But I think they scratch the same itch. I think they tingle the same knot of synapses in the brain that only light up at the social-media wailing of others. Digital schadenfreude, if you want.
Tiny impulses of delight garnered from social media is a definite Thing. Earlier this year, a Frontiers of Human Neuroscience study found that gaining Facebook "likes" or Instagram "likes" or retweets, or whatever—getting those #numbers, basically—lit up the reward center in your brain. Scientists from Berlin's Freie Universitat scanned the brains of 31 Facebook users as they looked at pictures of themselves accompanied by positive captions—and yeah, essentially we’re all big dumb parakeets enamored with our phones instead of tiny mirrors.
But it proves social media has the ability to alter our mood and our well-being. And it works the other way: When I see someone publicly sounding off about an airline mis-booking them on a 5 AM flight, I'm delighted. When I see someone sincerely say the words, “Really, Twitter?” I get mad in a way that gives me energy. And god, when I see someone doing a manual retweet of that picture of some-pigeons-about-to-drop-the-most-fire-album and adding "BRILLIANT" or "TWEET OF THE DAY," I feel a foot taller, like I can shoot fire from my very fingertips. Everyone is awful and it’s brilliant to watch.
I’m not alone; I can’t be alone. I know someone who has an entire alternate Twitter account, locked down like Alcatraz, which they use to follow purely the people who infuriate them with their bad opinions. I know several other people who check in on people they don’t follow just to see if they are still being wrong. "Yes," they will say, in email or over WhatsApp, linking me to a deeply buried tweet of theirs, a screenshotted glimmer of someone else’s outrage. "They are still being wrong."
So there it is: A bit of hate (or at least "aggressively enjoying the fact that you are not someone else") can be good for you.
Follow Joel Golby on Twitter.