Playing the Workaholic on Social Media

"Public displays of working" are part humblebrag, part cry for help.

Pascal Pochard-Casabianca / AFP / Getty

Though the sentiment “fuck my life,” expressed in some form or another, has existed as long as life has been terrible, the abbreviation “FML” is entirely an invention of the internet’s social age. While it’s hard to know from where it originally sprung, it was popularized via the website-or-blog-or-bulletin was created in 2008 by Maxime Valette, Guillaume Passaglia, and Didier Guedjas as an English adaptation of their French Though the site began just as a work in translation, it quickly gained its own rightful traction and tons of submissions in English. It also set the grammatical terms of use for “FML” more generally. depended on sharing and thrived on an economy of bad feelings: Users submitted their best (worst) tales of woe—always beginning with “Today,” always ending on “FML.” Other users then evaluated the stories by clicking either “I agree, your life sucks” or “You totally deserve it.”

After a whirlwind of a year in 2009, which included a book deal and release, fizzled into relative internet obscurity. The site still exists, of course, and its design has been upgraded since its debut seven years ago. Though votes still total in the thousands, those numbers seem paltry compared to classic posts, which could crack 20,000 to 40,000 easily. It’s notable that faded just as Twitter gained steam, closely followed by Instagram, and as Facebook evolved from collegiate playground to the vast network we know today.

Many researchers seem pretty convinced that these apps make us sad, mainly because everyone on social media looks too happy. In these critical characterizations, social media is a fantasyland populated by everyone’s best selves: Facebook, where everybody is achieving; Instagram, where everybody is beautiful; Snapchat, where everybody is having fun.

The standing consensus asserts that an ability to edit and control—to an extent—one’s life narrative in public leads to an overrepresentation of good times and happiness, or at least the experiences that are supposed to signal these things. Bad feelings on the other hand, are not put on public display, instead relegated to life moments undocumented. “I guess people are just cropping out all the sadness,” says Carrie Brownstein in Portlandia.

But FML persists visibly, as a hashtag, a song, a movie-(ish), as punctuation, as the underlying affect of popular memes. i-D dubbed 2015 the year of “sad girls and sad boys”; 2015 “marked a turning point in pop culture’s acceptance of melancholy,” agrees Pacific Standard’s Laura Barcella. Others have noticed the rise of so-dubbed “Sad Girls,” typified if not pioneered by the rise of poet Melissa Broder’s formerly anonymous Twitter account @sosadtoday. Twitter and Tumblr are conspicuously underrepresented depictions of social media perfection, perhaps because tragicomic humor has become a mainstay of these sites. On these platforms connections are more inclined to be based in personal commonalities and psychical affiliation over regional or familial associations, which leaves more room for feelings. The meme “Me on Facebook vs. Me on Twitter” captures this succinctly; the latter is depicted as a self without inhibitions. If perceived perfection can accrue heaps of followers, sadness has a virality all its own.

Even Snapchat, a haven for showboating in real time, is available for relating the unadorned minutiae of daily life. Amongst people I know, Snapchat has evolved to a certain ordinariness. Between punctuated moments of greatness—concerts, home-cooking, fitness achievements, ragers, and vacations—I’m just as likely to see someone’s sad microwaved meal or squishy hungover face. Whereas snapbragging rides a fine line in terms of etiquette, these unglamorous moments are well-received—they seem more relatable, just slices of ordinary life. But just as perfection can be performed, so too can imperfection. In the workplace, FML and anxieties over productivity combine forces in a behavior I can only describe as Public Displays of Working—PDW.

PDW is a snap sent at 8:30 p.m. of an all-but-empty office, or the first mug of coffee at 5:25 a.m. Selfies from the stacks on a Friday evening. Screenshots of work e-mails on a Sunday afternoon, posted to a private groupchat where hungover friends can see (also, er, confidentiality much?). Declined happy-hour invitations with the sneaky implication that if you have the energy to drink on Friday at 6 p.m., your week couldn’t have been that rough. Like a mutation of, it’s as if, graduated and solidly employed, some of us are in competition to prove just who has the FML-est vocation of them all.

The impulse is reasonable. Intimacy on social networks is often forged by an ability to connect over life’s banalities. The corporate millennial may have started out sharing agonies like an upcoming test or late shift at the local watering hole, on Facebook, or, to reach way back, on Xanga or in their AIM away message. As they’ve matured, their complaints are now about mid-week work travel or seething clients. These shared grievances are not only indicative of a certain evolution of usage, but a distinctly “Millennial reality,” as Daniel Wenger describes in the New Yorker, one that includes “grinding hours, relatively low salaries and potentially valueless equity packages, the gutting of human-resource departments,” and, pointedly, “loose vacation-time policies that discourage employees from being the suckers who actually take any.”

But context is everything. Someone who sends a weekend snap of an empty office to a partying peer might want sympathy, but could come across as humblebragging. PDW can be an occasion to demonstrate or prove productivity against the person resting on their laurels. While in one sense posting about how hard you’re working could be seen as a cry for help against workplaces that unabashedly dip into the emotional stores of millennials while paying less, the practice of PDW only reinforces an insidious ethic that suggests productivity—not leisure—is a prize. If social media is a place to display our best selves, and we live in a culture that values extreme productivity, then our exhausted, burnt-out selves can perversely become the “best” selves we want to display. Posts about how tired we are, how hard we’re working, and self-deprecating jokes centered on “the grind” serve as evidence of goodness. Griping becomes capital in the economy of bad feeling.

Additionally, there is privilege obscured in certain semi-public displays of angst. Despite the higher prevalence and risk of depression and poverty amongst people of color, black people especially—PDW posts display an overrepresentation of whiteness and relative affluence. Complaining about work, or humblebragging about being overworked, is a more common practice amongst those whose employment isn’t tenuous, who work positions within the bounds of respectability, who can fit more straightforward forms of social media braggadocio—vacations, fancy meals—in their feeds alongside their workplace angst. Both are in the service of representing an aspirant social position: I have these good things; I work this important job.

Meanwhile hourly-wage earners, undocumented workers, service workers, etc., likely have as many or more reasons to catalogue being overworked, but the social capital of PDW is not available to them. Their position, professionally and personally, is more tenuous. Using social media on the job carries a higher penalty. Anonymity might be crucial. And the “brag” part of the PDW humblebrag requires not only that you show how much you’re killing yourself for your job, but how much you’re killing yourself for an “important,” “cool,” high-status job. The question of who can comfortably capitalize on bad feelings remains an important one, even while we acknowledge that depression and anxiety, or just plain old discontent isn’t proprietary to any one demographic.

Just like overdone PDA can be a way of concealing cracks in a relationship, PDW shows people’s insecurities with where they fit in a capitalist society. The necessities it celebrates are unhealthy. An “Edisonian asceticism” is embedded in American working practices, as The Atlantic’s Olga Khazan wrote—Edison’s radical disdain for sleep fused with a general entrepreneurial spirit that considers downtime superfluous. In a Washington Post article titled, “Stop touting the crazy hours you work. It helps no one,” Jena Mcgregor is in part interrogating PDW behavior, especially coming from “success stories” like Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer who boast extreme hours as necessary to thriving (and managers are all ears). In turn, Americans in general have a habit of reciting their working time as a point of pride, normalizing a work-life imbalance that is unsustainable—or at least unhealthy.

There’s nothing wrong with reaching for solidarity. But the performance of overwork begets more such performances, creating pressure to live up to this standard, rather than the empathy people seek. It is worth considering other ways to engage that don’t add up to shouts into an echo chamber. A more reciprocal connection, that invites as much as it shares. Checking in beats showing off. What that gesture looks like in a concrete sense, how to mold empathy onto digital forms primed for performance, remains for users to suss out. It’s possible, and social media is capable of facilitating it. It never hurts to start with a question: “How are you holding up?”