In today’s age where access to our “personal billboards” is at the mercy of a few taps, there has never been a better opportunity to build a persona but not live it out. As I scroll away on my social media feed of choice, it is sometimes hard to ignore the exaggerated nature of the content that meets my eyes. This raises an interesting incentive problem: you can appear to act a certain way, but not have any real incentive to follow through in reality.  

In a sense, such an incentive structure creates a natural gap between what is shared on social media and what is emulated in the actions of an individual. You can write paragraphs, make reels and share videos on a multitude of ideas but be devoid of incorporating them practically. We have all experienced this personally to some extent. Content of a certain kind is posted by someone who you know has shown no practical application of those same ideas, talking an empty talk. This is not to point out certain types of people, but to reason as to why it occurs in the first place. The reward structure existing presently in society is designed to reinforce only that which is seen publicly. Posting or sharing content that allows the user to be viewed positively within their audience generates positive emotion for the user. No one obviously has the physical capability to corroborate whether all this content is visibly implemented in the poster’s life and this lack of accountability is what leads to the gap between action and speaking about action. 

The more I think about it, the more generally I see social media as a selection bias machine. The only personal content anyone would willingly share has to be positive. Essentially, every user feed is a carefully curated gallery of perfection. Who would willingly share the less than perfect moments of life and open the door to potential negative interpretations that come with that? Even on LinkedIn, there are dedicated features to share skill and endorsements, but none for weaknesses. The weaknesses are reserved as an interview question because all companies know that skills alone are insufficient in encompassing what a candidate brings. If they were not important or meaningful, why ask the question in the first place? Reading a human based on their social media accounts is inaccurate at best and often misleading at worst. Yet this is exactly what we all do and are often disappointed or pleasantly surprised upon being physically present with the same people. 

Perhaps the most important implications of these ideas pertain to future generations, who will grow up from birth to adulthood in such an environment. It would be quite a tragedy to implicitly teach a generation to feign virtue rather than live virtuously. The difficulty lies in realizing that embodying good values and principles is an often thankless task. There is no audience to cheer you on through the ups and downs of it all, but it is a noble endeavor nonetheless. It is not hard to imagine how young adults of the future, who often act in order to please, will see no attraction in following a thankless route to virtue. Despite the somber outlook, I think the solution is quite simple and creates reason for optimism. Younger generations closely follow their parents and other older role models who can impart this wisdom not only through words but by living  in the same vein.

Nassim Taleb sums it up accurately, “Virtue is what you do when nobody is looking. The rest is marketing.”

Sayyed Haider Hassan is a junior in Morse College. Reach out to him at