Facebook is a cruel, unyielding mistress. Its power to suck you in, steal hours of your time, and leave you with little to show for it other than a new Sex and the City quotation on your profile wall and the knowledge that your ex-boyfriend has joined the Peace Corps, is legendary. Among people of “a certain age” (pre-teens to late 20’s), it is so ubiquitous, it can be hard to avoid. And it’s catching on among the parental set as well, as this Jezebel item discusses. I’ve seen more than one friend cancel their account and attempt to move on with their lives, only to come crawling back with a look of quiet desperation and resignation in their eyes. As I’ve watched the phenomenon that is Facebook expand and transform over the past several years (since I joined in 2004), I’ve been interested in the ever-changing etiquette, the politics and rules, spoken and unspoken, which dictate this space.
Facebook is a strange beast–it’s a place where interactions can seem simultaneously real and also entirely fake. In the same way that back in my days of AIM (AOL Instant Messenger) use, I became aware that there were things I felt able to say into a little box on a computer screen which I never would have said in person or even on the phone, in the same way that, similarly, a text message versus a phone call provides a particular, unique mode of expression, Facebook provides a different forum, one in which our interactions with others may be very different than those we engage in in the real world.
I’m sure most Facebook users have some funny or awkward story stemming from some aspect of this tension between reality and non-reality when it comes to Facebook. As for me, I literally walked up to someone several months ago, sure I knew him, only to realize that I had never met him–he had dated a distant friend and I had seen photographs of them together on Facebook…as you can imagine, that conversation ended rather quickly and left me appearing like much more of a stalker than I would have preferred.
In one of my classes last semester, we briefly discussed the funny way in which there is a certain kind of distancing that happens between Facebook and reality, a distancing which seems in many ways purposeful. For instance, I’m sure many Facebook users have experienced, as I know I have, the way that when two people, particularly people who may not know each other extremely well, “friend” each other on Facebook, reference to it is often studiously avoided in real world interactions. Similarly, references to seeing something written on someone’s Facebook wall or to some piece of personal information gleaned from the perusal of someone’s profile in face to face conversation often seems to cast a momentary pall over the conversation. This is not a hard and fast rule by any means, but somehow what goes on in the universe of Facebook seems slightly embarrassing and uncomfortable for many of us when brought up in the realm of the real world. And often, there is an unspoken, awkwardness when someone becomes Facebook friends with a person they don’t know incredibly well in real life. I suppose this results to a large extent from the fact that this person now knows much more about you than they did the last time you saw them, more, often, than they would be likely to know at that stage of familiarity in your relationship otherwise.
I brought up some of these ideas in my post, “Virtual In-Vanity” some time ago about the boy who committed suicide on his webcam before a live internet audience. In that post, I discussed a quality of Facebook that I believe is central to its appeal and also central to the politics that have developed within this space–the exhibitionism that lies at its very core. Sure, Facebook is a great resource for reconnecting with long-lost friends and acquaintances, keeping track of people’s contact information, and conducting brief, impersonal correspondence. But at least as much as this, I think for many people, Facebook is a forum for presenting ourselves to the world, shaping our profiles in ways that reflect who we think we are, who we want to be and how we want to be seen by others. The information a person chooses to include or exclude, whether comprehensive or minimal, the level of attention, the seriousness or silliness with which a person approaches the upkeep of the profile, the kind of photograph they select to represent themselves (Are they drunk? Trying to look hot? Being silly? Pretending not to care?), all of these things and many more factors reflect complex maps of personal meaning and self-construction. Central, then, to the appeal of Facebook is the narcissism of wanting one’s profile to be viewed, to present one’s self through an ever-evolving map of meaning constructed of photographs, biographical tidbits, notes, status updates, inter-wall dialogue, membership in groups, number of friends, etc., and the related voyeurism of wanting to view other’s profiles as well. Maybe that’s partially responsible for the sort of sheepishness or mild embarrassment that characterizes so much discussion of Facebook in the “real” world. The anonymity or unreality allowed by the space somehow allows us to ignore some of the norms that usually shape our behavior. Things that in “real” life would seem unacceptably self-absorbed, trivial, or deviant in one way or another, have become acceptable, even accepted parts of the Facebook landscape. When the disparities between these two increasingly different sets of values are highlighted , brought un-ignorably to our attention, it makes sense that the experience would unsettle and embarrass us.