October 27, 2010

You Know What’s Cool?

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I made the mistake of seeing The Social Network in Harvard Square. Long story short, there were a lot of Harvard kids giggling like schoolgirls at every minor Cambridge detail and Vard inside joke. It kind of ruined the movie, well, that and Justin Timberlake trying and failing to act like he wasn’t Justin Timberlake.

But despite these distractions (and the uncalled for “Beat Cornell” reference. For serious, Harvard? We beat you by like 60 million points in hoops last year, stay humble.), the movie raised some crucial questions about the nature and ultimate function of Facebook.

Much of the discussion on the value of Facebook centers on issues of privacy: the website provides corporations with our personal information; it allows prospective employers to sneak a peek at our personal lives; it never truly erases our profiles. But these discussions rarely come around to the more pertinent questions of what Facebook is and how Facebook is used. It’s one thing to criticize the site for its flimsy privacy protection policies; it’s quite another to sift through the popular explanations for Facebook’s nature and function to find the core principles that account for its status as one of the defining institutions of our lives.

One way to begin this discussion is to talk about Facemash, young Mark Zuckerberg’s short-lived Facebook predecessor that asked readers to choose between a series of two Harvard girls based on hotness. The movie depicts Facemash as Zuckerberg’s first foray into hyper-popular social media — the flawed and underdeveloped species that would evolve and grow into the networking giant that we all know and love in Act Two of the film.

While it’d be shortsighted to declare Facebook nothing more than a sanitized, fully-realized version of Facemash, the relationship between the two websites goes beyond the fact that they were both made by the same dude. Both Facebook and Facemash are structured around providing users with an arena to satisfy one core human impulse — the desire to cast judgment.

Facebook extends Facemash’s use of judgment beyond attractiveness and into all areas of one’s social life. The site gives us the right to use pictures, wall posts, biographical info, group memberships, likes, dislikes and a bevy of other social indicators to construct a notion of another person’s life. Then we begin the real fun of Facebook, and the source of its massive power — we pick apart these constructions of each other (sometimes consciously and sometimes unconsciously), defining what is cool and what is uncool, what is normal and what is weird, what behaviors we long to replicate and what behaviors we take pleasure in ridiculing.

As children we are taught not to judge, and as college students we are members of a social network centered on our persistent, non-stop intent on casting judgment, all from the privacy of our own Internets.

Yes, Facebook is a way for us to communicate with one another and form communities of like-minded people. Yes, it is a tool for raising awareness of social issues. Yes, it is a way to track down old friends and meet new ones. But all of these definitions miss the point, and all of these uses are only made possible by the widespread popularity resulting from Facebook’s status as the ultimate source for those itching to judge and be judged.

I imagine the results of this are so far-reaching that they are hard to define. After all, Facebook, at least for college kids, is starting to rival television as the activity we engage in the most besides sleep.

But one thing to consider is the effect this culture of online judgment has on the formation of identity.

In one sense, individual identity has always been at least partially subject to the judgments and inclinations of other people. So Facebook doesn’t really offer anything new in the way of externally dictated identity. But in the past, this identity was at least based on some sort of dynamic face-to-face interaction. Facebook renders this interaction unnecessary. In the Facebook era, other people can define who you are, in their minds, based on a static and insufficient pile of profile information, not actual interaction.

Considering that we take these online-conceived identities into our actual, face-to-face interactions with each other, Facebook has actually pushed us further away from truly getting to know each other. Our expectations for who we expect each other to be are baseless, yet they function as if they were conceived out of real human interaction, thus complicating our ability to know each other.

I realize this 800-word gloss on the value and meaning of Facebook is a bit insufficient (I’m guessing there’s more than a handful of seniors scratching out theses on this very topic). But considering the massive commercial success of Timberlake’s tour-de-suckiness, it’s time we expand the discourse on Facebook beyond issues of privacy and try to figure out what it is and how it affects the way we live.

Tony Manfred is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences and the Associate Editor of The Sun. He may be reached at tmanfred@cornellsun.com. The Absurdity Exhibition appears periodically this semester.

Original Author: Tony Manfred