Instagram and Survivorship Bias

Welcome to the Spring 2014 semester – I’m happy to be blogging again!

I was linked by a friend to this critique of the photo-sharing site Instagram – or, to be more accurate, a critique of a frequent pitfall in how some people interpret the photos of those they follow.

Much like the users of other social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, Instagram users who follow the activities of others run into a common problem: a feeling of inadequacy, disappointment, or lack of confidence by observing everything everyone else is doing (precisely when this user is at home NOT out doing something). There is a collective impact, when scrolling through the photos of others, that they are off “living” as represented by their photos of the hike they are on, the concert they went to, or their gatherings with friends. “Why aren’t I out doing this stuff like everyone else? What’s wrong with me?”

The critique linked above combats this creeping tendency toward Insta-jealousy with a simple fact: even if the photos themselves are real (and maybe artistically filtered to paint otherwise mundane activities in a more optimistic light), the photos that are shared on Instagram are just not wholly representative of the user’s life. Naturally, the photos chosen to be shared by the user are the highlights, the best, most shareable moments that the user gets to witness. After all, why photograph every little uninteresting tidbit of my day?

But this is precisely the point! When we mistake an Instagram feed for a fair representation of this person’s life, we’re neglecting to consider all of the moments not photographed. We only see the survivors. Behavioral economists often discuss the impacts on decision making of just this idea, known as survivorship bias.

Suppose I want to start a pet grooming business, and I notice there are four pet groomers already in town. I may be tempted to say “It must be easy to succeed in the pet grooming business, considering there are 4 pet groomers in town.” So where’s the gap in my line of thought? It is in my failure to consider all of the pet grooming businesses that have failed! By definition, I don’t see them around town. It’s likely I am overestimating the success rate if I am only basing my guess on the surviving businesses.

So, the next time you are tempted to think you aren’t living “fully enough” because of what you read about others online, remember that you are only seeing the survivors.

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4 comments

  1. Nick Brody · · Reply

    Interesting post! Seems to parallel the idea of impression management/”strategic self-presentation”. We want others to see us in the most positive light possible, so we tend to highlight our positive traits and hide our negative ones. This often manifests in our online behavior (e.g., carefully choosing a Facebook profile picture, untagging ourselves in unflattering pictures, etc.) Ultimately, this can result in inflated online perceptions (see Walther’s hyperpersonal perspective, work by Erwin Goffman, etc.)

  2. Neat stuff. Sounds like you’re describing something more strategic/intentional on the part of the poster. Perhaps the intent is more for others (“what do I want others to see me as?”) versus the intent for myself (“what do I like?” or “what do I want to see myself as?”). But maybe the line is far too blurry to tell the difference.

    1. Nick Brody · · Reply

      Goffman (Erving, not Erwin as I mistakenly wrote in my first post) would argue that even your sharing of items that interest you is strategic to some extent. I personally think the line between conscious and unconscious self-presentation is too hazy to distinguish on a case-by-case basis (as both you and Cara hint at in your response). Even the process of choosing to NOT take a photo (or deciding not to post one) is an act of impression management.

      I really like the idea of applying the survivorship bias to online behavior, btw. Future study? Haha.

  3. and this is where the photographer and instagram user has to weigh in: i’d argue that Andrew’s distinction is not much of one and that you are both saying the same thing. most instagram users are taking photos for their audience, not for themselves. a larger question is, why does one take a photo? and obviously the answer is different from person to person, and even day to day for the same person. or maybe i’m missing your point, Andrew. i do see that you are trying to highlight/illustrate a specific economics principle that is not the same as Nick’s communications principle, but as for the photo sharing, it is all the same idea.

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