February 2, 2016

SUSSER | The Fall of the Wall

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In middle school, Facebook was a novel concept. A cyber-venue, not to be confused with MySpace, where one was compelled to maintain a certain minimal level of social acuity. Most importantly for me at the time, it was a platform to join friends in fiercely juvenile exhibitions of hand-eye-coordination through games such as “Helicopter” and all derivative variations (if you anticipate a wistful, Buzzfeed style walk down memory lane, I apologize in advance).

Looking back, I could easily envision those games as a hook-and-bait strategy to lure teenagers to the social media website. Unlike the buoyant and cheerfully colorful media of Miniclip — Bubble Trouble — the competitive Facebook atmosphere likely had ulterior motives. No, I don’t picture the originators as some devious board room Martin Shkreli-types, plotting the demise of society. I know Mark Zuckerberg cares about the world now that he has a kid. But, I do think they knew a thing or two about marketing their product.

A 1980s superhero movie — Superman II — that shamelessly incorporates Marlboro product placement into an action-packed scene is a similar example of such manipulation. If kids get hooked young,  they’ll become lifelong consumers, Facebook must have rationalized. I seriously doubt Zuckerberg’s original target demographic was computer-illiterate senior citizens. “Ruth, should I like Nancy’s new profile picture?!” was likely questioned in a Boca Roton condo at the very moment Snapchat became cooler than Facebook.

Regardless of how we welcomed Facebook into our lives, each new user brought more pressure to join, until the whole planet was connected. What we, as college students, are left with is a bread-crumb trail of our coming-of-age, which for better or worse, is actively curated by the site that was embraced as a vulnerable teen. Even though we may not always be consciously aware of the exact implications of our personal histories, they are important and extremely consequential — just ask any fraternity member or HR rep.

While most started using Facebook in a similar hyperactive and giddy manner, individual life courses have interestingly led to divergent approaches. And as the social media conversation has evolved into a disapproving commentary on a disconnected, yet connected generation, a rift in usage materialized.

Today, Facebook does not have the same stronghold as it once had on our personal lives. Compulsively checking one’s newsfeed is more of a practiced, comfortable ritual than a deleterious social crutch. And the act of “friending” is more of a formality to recognize another individuals’ existence. While there are surely other forms of technological media that are beginning to subvert normal social practices — dating, getting groceries, ordering a taxi — the infallible Facebook fell by the wayside. That is not to say that Facebook is still a thriving website. In 2014, 71 percent of all online adults used the site. But, people have adapted and changed their style of usage over the years.

There is now a vague mistrust in any form of public expression through Facebook. What was before an all-you-can-eat buffet of wall-to-wall posts is now a sparsely stocked bodega of political articles and profile pictures. Maybe what we are witnessing is the virtual maturation of our peers. No longer do we focus on publicizing the trivial and mundane. It seems out-of-touch and frivolous. To publicly post about a deliciously prepared, microwavable Easy-Mac, while funny, seems wrongly placed beside a stream of commentary on the Democratic debate.

The manner of current Facebook usage reflects its context and history. There is a visceral mistrust in anything that grows to become too powerful. That’s why Jeb Bush won’t become president and why every Republican presidential candidate jumps on any opportunity to comment on their father’s career as a mailman. When we realized that Facebook became too powerful in our lives, we wholeheartedly disassociated from its grasp on social life and adapted. The new approach became more utilitarian and practical. How can I let people know about my birthday party? How do I stay in touch with friends halfway around the world?

The draining act of keeping tabs on one’s Facebook profile is thankfully less common today. But, part of what was lost through such intimate, personal expression on Facebook is gained through avenues such as Snapchat and Instagram (owned by Facebook). Given capability for such connectivity, we may always be seeking trustworthy methods of public expression. They are signs of individuality and create a tightly knit web of social support. There will always be demand for such a platform; it’s just a matter of who provides it in the most discrete manner.

Philip Susser is a senior in the College of Human Ecology. He can be reached at pss226@cornell.edu. An Ithaca State of Mind appears on alternate Wednesdays this semester.

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