Are social media a zero-sum game?

Article by Alessia Petrucci | Illustration by Armadilly Comics

”Not everything that can be counted counts

and not everything that counts can be counted.”

(William Bruce Cameron)

I am not going to lie. Something that happened to a friend some days ago pushed me to write this article.

Long story short, she asked her friends to give her support on social media platforms – such as Facebook and Instagram – regarding something she really cared about. Turned out, not everyone was willing to.

She then texted me, asking me, why do social media look more and more like a zero sum game to late millennials?

This got me thinking. Therefore, I decided to do some research into it, questioning myself whether it was just a feeling or it was actually true.

Hence, I started surfing the internet looking for the answers I needed in support of my thesis. Turned out, again, nobody really has ever thought about it or wrote about it. This is why I decided to launch a survey myself, trying to understand what an average user thought. Some of the data in this article, are based on the 105 people that participated the survey – 93% of them are between 21 and 30 years old (if you are curious, you can find the results survey ). Let’s see what came out of it.

A zero sum game

To whom is not familiar with the game theories studies, it is important to define what a zero-sum game is.

Firstly, it is a mathematical representation of a situation in which each participant’s gain or loss of utility is exactly balanced by the losses or gains of the utility of the other participants. If the total gains of the participants are added up and the total losses are subtracted, they will sum to zero. An example could be the Cold War itself, where the United States or the URSS viewed the gain of the opponent as a loss.

Competitive behavior has a very long precedent in terms of accumulating wealth in any of its forms (material or otherwise). As human beings, we engage in competitive games in a social context, from board games, to sports and online gaming. For those of us old enough to remember pinball machines at the arcade, there might have been a fleeting sense of satisfaction in earning the top score. However, these were localized; today, with the ubiquity of social media and the proliferation of global leaderboards on multiplayer games, even the social succumbs to ruthless competition.

Why do we use social media?

If not everyone, a huge amount of the population uses social media nowadays (Facebook has more than 2,5 billion users for instance). Hence, the question is no longer if we use social media, but why. This is what Global Web Index looked into (data below).

It is interesting that, the top reasons are linked to what we call “passive networking” – meaning users come to social media to consume content rather than actively contributing to the stories.

To the question “On a scale from “never” to “always” how often do you support small initiatives, that you share values of, on social networks?” 26% of the partecipants to the survey I shared, replied “almost never”, while 44% replied “sometimes”.  

A question came naturally to my mind, why users do not support what they believe in on social media? I posed the question to a cognitive behavioral psycologist, Maria Teresa Restori.

She claimed what follows:

“Most of us prefer not to show their support to some initiatives of which they share values. This happens especially if it would let other users identify them and express a negative opinion on them. For instance, supporting initiatives that are easily reconductable to a specific religious or political orientation, exposes you to the “criticism” from those who have a different opinion, no matter how noble the initiative is”. She then continues, “of course this will represent a problem in the future. The fear of those who support what isn’t from the majority, triggers avoidant behaviors, leading to the risk of losing different individual beliefs.”

Is there a competition between users?

As the most of us will recall, back in July 2019, Instagram decided to hide the numbers of likes from every picture posted, leaving the ability to see this number only to the profile owner.

In an exclusive interview in October 2019 on NBC’s “Today” show, Mosseri, Instagram head, affirmed “The big idea is to try and make Instagram feel less pressurized, to make it less of a competition. So you can spend a little bit less time worrying about how many likes you have and a little bit more time connecting with people or things that inspire you.”

Regarding this idea, Restori also said “The idea of competition is very important and strictly connected both the fear of being judged and avoidant topic. However, rather than use the word competition I’d rather talk about defeat. This word is more suitable, as if I receive less likes, I feel wrong, not lovable and rejected.”

In the survey, I also asked, “Do you agree with the choice that Instagram made of hiding the number of likes?” 45% of the respondents stated to agree with it. Is it because they think it is right and moral not to base their thoughts on likes or is it because they fear to feel defeat themselves?

“The fear of receiving fewer likes and know everyone can see it, entails a distressing feeling that it is rather being avoided.” The psychologist affirmed. 

One would imagine the absurdity of the situation if we applied the idea of “likes” to our offline social interactions, where we would engage in a strange kind of jockeying for social points among our friends and family. The TV show Black Mirror gave us a sneak peek of it in the episode “Nosedive”


Somehow, we feel magically validated for posting more of the extraordinary (and mundane) moments of our lives. What is troubling is that this ruthless behavior to get more likes seems to undermine the social aspect of social media. Instead of truly being social, we are making it more of a competitive endeavor to accumulate more likes. Measuring the value of other human beings based on how high their “score” is on social media, seems less social and more like trying to “win” at social media in ways that resemble market capitalism.

Did social media fail their purpose?

Social media don’t tell the world who we are. They tell the world who we want to be. In this regard, they’re more aspirational, than generous and more egocentric rather than altruistic. Nevertheless, let’s say it, they’re not all bad. For starters, they can enable us to feel grounded in a chaotic and divisive world. They give us a voice and the chance to connect with others, deepening relationships and transcending geographical barriers.


To sum it up, social media as pretty much everything, has its negative and its positive sides. Use them like a condiment. Investing too much emotional capital on them will make you sick.

A teaspoon of mayonnaise on a turkey sandwich is delicious, but a meal of mayonnaise is toxic.

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