February 6, 2012

Facebook’s Ascent, Our Downfall

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To call Facebook a success would be an understatement. Though its only existed for eight years, Facebook has completely replaced the social backbone of our generation and transformed the way we identify ourselves.

But if we were to take the site at face value — as just another social networking tool that gives us a brief glimpse into other people’s lives — then its quick rise to fame should have been a long shot. After all, the idea of an online social hub is nothing new. Yet Facebook has somehow avoided landing into that heap of disappointments that is now Myspace, Xanga, Friendster and, if you probably give it some time, Google+.

But how could a tool, whose purpose is to tell us the most mundane details of our friends’ lives, reach an expected value of nearly $100 billion when it goes public later this year? After all, even a cursory glance at your newsfeed reveals nothing more significant than photo albums of a parties thrown last weekend by distant high school acquaintances or a status update describing a classmate’s lunch.

Why are these people — and make no mistake, we all do it as well — so compelled to share these irrelevant personal facts and why are we, the audience, so interested?

Because Facebook has grown to be much more than a social networking service. It has become a guilty indulgence that has tapped into one of our most basic human instincts: our unfailing urge to show off. We are a generation of performers, and Mark Zuckerberg has found a clever way to capitalize on our narcissism.

It’s an instinct that can be traced all the way back to our evolutionary ancestors, for whom finding a mate meant displaying your extravagance to the opposite sex. A few thousand years later, we’ve only streamlined the procedure by going online.

And that’s the secret to Facebook’s longevity and universal popularity. And it is what has propelled the formerly humble start-up company to its present self — a social media mammoth that has made its mark on nearly every commercial, advertisement and website.

So it makes sense that our generation is addicted to Facebook. We use it not to connect with people, but to perform for them. The carefully tailored portraits that we proudly publish on our Facebook pages aren’t us — they are our more attractive, smarter and more popular doppelgangers. The people in our profile pictures portray who we want to be.

We have created our own fan pages that are topped with glamour pictures at angles and lighting that make us look skinny and fit and show us laughing with perfectly white teeth, surrounded by a circle of friends.

But this heavy dependence also means that we’ve lost a critical part of our identity. Before the dawn of Zuckerberg’s creation, we were confident in our self-impressions. We didn’t rely on others for self-affirmation because we had faith in our own feedback. But now our internal feedback has been supplanted by the newsfeed, and confidence in our decisions relies on the opinions of the few hundred strangers on our friend lists.

Anything we do no longer suffices by itself. Our generation must update our profile statuses and create a photo album for others to see and give their approval. And much to our delight, there is no “dislike” button.

Facebook may tell us that we have 678 friends, but what it really means is that we have 678 members in the audience, eagerly waiting to critique the lives that we so happily display on the digital stage.

Got a new job offer? It won’t truly be an accomplishment until your Facebook friends congratulate you.

Wore a new dress last Friday night? It won’t be as fashionable as you think it is until your online audience “likes” the photos of you wearing it.

Just returned from a trip abroad? It won’t be as interesting unless your friends say so on your wall.

We joined social media movement for the purpose of socializing and networking. It was to let others know more about ourselves. But unfortunately, the opposite is now true: It is the social media platforms that are defining us.

Steven Zhang is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at szhang2@cornellsun.com. The Bigger Picture appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.

Original Author: Steven Zhang