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Me media and self-induced shallowness

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Thursday, May 11, 2006

I’ll try to be reasonable and measured in my rhetoric in this post, but frankly, the whole notion of Facebook.com—the site where college kids post profiles of themselves for fellow college students—turns my stomach. The objectifying name, first of all, puts me off—I don’t want my face in a book (I’d rather just have words in there, I suppose). The idea of being an image in a human catalog seems about as dehumanizing a condition as I can think of—and so what if that’s in fact what our condition is. (If I were Kenny Rogers, I would just drop in to see what condition my condition was in.) And the thought that by design, this catalog is full of, in the words of a Facebook VP, “the upper end of the socio-economic spectrum of the 18-to-24-year-old age group” doesn’t settle my queasiness any. Facebook has the pretensions of being the country club MySpace, where the lesser orders need not apply and you can be sure of mingling with only the right sort of people—just like on the campus at Princeton. Just what we need, a site for rich kids at privileged schools to flaunt their advantages and show off to each other while the national media looks on—this week The New Yorker has an article about the site.


But at least the article afforded a few details that made me believe the author was eager to stick the knife in to the preening kids of Facebook—the college students come across as vain, shallow, inane, conformist, pretentious, selfish and gullible all at the same time. One of Facebook’s flacks tells John Cassidy, the author of the piece, that if you aren’t on Facebook, “you don’t exist” and students seem to believe this. Says one: “I tried to hold out and go against the flow but so many of my friends were members that I finally gave in.” (How many friends would have to jump off the proverbial bridge before he would? How many would have to be stoning an embassy before he would join in? What kind of reasoning is this?)
Cassidy reports how some students feel helplessly addicted to the site, logging time on it “obsessively”. Eventually these sites will be able to measure exactly how much time you spend watching your own profile and grooming it, and that information will likely prove very useful to advertisers down the road. Already ads are targeted to users based on what interests they list, and some users join corporate-sponsored groups voluntarily. (Cassidy here affords himself the opportunity to point out the hypocrites who belong to anti-corporate groups like “Not a Corporate Whore” and to groups sponsored by Apple.) Another student describes “agonizing” over what bands to list as his current favorites “I’m a musician: what I play and listen to has always been an important part of my identity.” Though I’m always arguing that people define themselves via pop music, it’s still sad somehow to see it so baldly stated. Aren’t there better ways to make your mark on the world than by being known as a fan of Babyshambles and Lady Sovereign? (Though what a marketing coup for another band the student names, Marxy, who by being mentioned in this article just got the most prominent advertising they will ever get.) One hopes this kid discovers politics, and starts staking his sense of self in that instead. At least it seems to matter a bit more in the grand scheme of things.


Though more than anything else, I sympathize with this student. Reducing yourself to a profile is a totally humiliating experience; it’s like hollowing oneself out. I know I wouldn’t want any of my actual friends looking at my canned profile on one of these “Me Media” sites because they would immediately know what utter bullshit it is. How can it not be; none of us can live up to some ideal notion of ourselves in front of other people, especially people who like us and pay attention to what we do. Any actual friend would immediately be able to highlight all the phoniness, no matter how earnest my attempt at self-description might be. These profile pages offer an embarrassing glance at one’s daydreams and posturings, it renders you shallow to those who probably know you more deeply. The idea of having a life online seems ultimately reductive in just this way: for all the promise of interactivity, it still seems to reduce you to an array of items you display on your 1-gigabyte shelf. You sell yourself in search terms and provocative photos, and you use site meters to measure your significance, and you compete to amass the largest number of “friends” as though it means anything. You can only have meaningful friendships with so many people, studies have placed the number, if I remember right, at about eight. (How’s that for crack research? Plucked that number out of thin air. I think I read about the studies in an Economist article a few weeks ago and I can’t find it now.) It seems a shame that Facebook.com has people racing to compile thousands and thousands of fake friends while neglecting those eight people who actually matter. Though these sites are often called “social networking” platforms, Cassidy cites a sociologist who reveals the truth about them: “It doesn’t have anything to do with networking at all. It’s voyeurism and exhibitionism.” One user tells Cassidy, “It’s a way of maintaining a friendship without having to make any effort whatsoever”—you just add someone to a list and you have performed your duty as friend. You get to feel like you have a lot of friends, without having to go through all that troublesome business of getting to know them or giving a shit about what they are up to. Instead you can think of them only insofar as they are looking at you and making your profile page seem more impressive. What else are friends for?

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