September 5, 2011

Our Facebook, Ourselves

Print More

Our generation’s comments have been put into boxes with four corners and a character limit. Maybe this is order.

Our generation’s comments can be precisely tailored to project the best possible image of the sender. We can create idealized aliases that appear interesting, cultured, wanted; individuals who appear to live lives of celebrities, drinking and partying 90% of their very documented lives. We can make the world see us for who we want to be. Maybe this is freedom.

But what does it cost to shield our vulnerabilities? What does it cost to make the perfect first impression? What must we sacrifice?

Jaron Lanier, author of You are Not a Gadget, thinks the ultimate cost of these aliases is a “reduction of self” through which we eliminate discrepancies between our Internet selves and our “actual” selves in an effort to make our Facebook profiles as accurate as possible. It seems that there are two ways to eliminate this discrepancy: change the way you live your life or change the way you document it. The latter, however, has become a non-option, due to Facebook’s limitations. With such a rigid social architecture, accurate documentation of ourselves — our subtle idiosyncrasies, our vulnerabilities — has become impossible. After all, it’s just 1s and 0s.

And so we shape ourselves. We square off our edges and categorize our interests. The social dynamic becomes compartmentalized. We become stunningly comprehensible to each other (‘this is the bio-major Alpha-Phi from Jersey that likes partying and softball and knows my friend the English-major from Chicago that plays baseball and also likes to party’). Our conversations with each other become informed and therefore very comfortable and non-judgmental: judgments having already been made. If we allow our interactions with each other to define us, we risk coming to understand ourselves in the same way we understand each other. Modernity prioritizes a socio/psycho-analytic construction of personal interactions within a social dynamic. Our interactions end up amounting to ‘their idea of me talking with my idea of them,’ and everyone gets sold short. Everyone becomes boundlessly agreeable and predictable, and our anticipatory capacity becomes so flawless, so reliable, that it feels as though we might as well be having this conversation with ourselves. It’s just so easy.

As for interactions on a pre-romantic level, these technologies can be particularly misleading. Romantics have always been prone to self-deception, but the ability to explore each other’s profiles, the ‘FB stalking’ phenomenon, can create a uniquely convincing illusion of familiarity. Consider: you’d never allow yourself to stare at that girl in bio-lab for more than three seconds or study her mannerisms to find out more about her because doing so would place the real you at real risk. However, you have no problem looking at her Facebook page for more than 30 minutes, studying her photo inventory (party photos of her post-vodka-shot grimace, photos of her exposed stomach on a Summer ’10 vacation to Cancun — all in an album entitled “Life”), memorizing her interests (wildly broad interests like “music” or “food” juxtaposed with wildly specific and ostentatious ones like “playing guitar on my porch during summer thunderstorms”) because doing so involves no risk to the real you and hardly any risk at all to the you that’s made up of 1s and 0s. But it all seems so real, so much more than the sum of its parts: those photos and interests and wall posts — dimensionless little squares combining to form a strikingly realistic mosaic. You feel like you know her. But what have you done? Research? Or something more? All this time, you’ve never left your mind (or, possibly, your seat), and yet you’ve gained a friend. Who is this person you know? Is she real? Or have you constructed another sterilized automaton to twirl around in your imagination, and fallen deeper and deeper into your own mind? The latter-est. But it’s lonely down there and you’ll long to be heard, to be known. And when, in a fit of machismo, you’ve pulled up her Facebook page, courageously edged your blinking chisel along that ivory block, scanned it and scanned it and scanned it again, and pressed the ‘enter’ key after a three-count, I think you’ll find that it wasn’t as hard as all of those romance novels made it out to be. As you lean back with your hands behind your head, exhale audibly, and re-read the now posted message, I think you’ll think she’ll like it. I think you have no idea.

But what do we do? How do we come to know each other? How do we make an impression and not just an impression? Delete our Facebooks? (Ha!)

There’s no plausible solution, it’s too late — the cycle has become vicious. As soon as we question the authenticity of experiences we were comfortable having, we expose ourselves to apparently different, but essentially identical issues — only this time they’re about the authenticity of our worries about authenticity. We’re running from context. The reader-author relationship of this very article is a recursive example of this phenomenon — as your eyes pass from word to word in this article, you lay down another layer. You’re waiting for a misstep. You’re looking for truth. You’re constructing and devouring me and I’m constructing and devouring you and down is up and we want to throw a punch but we’re worried we’re going to hit ourselves and we’re all so fucking tangled in the complexity of it all that even if we could stand on two solid legs and stop punching ourselves in the fists there’s no guarantee that the post-postmodern drain hole in the corner of the room will liberate us and we’re all just sooo goddamn tired. But we could manage another thought, right? We still got some fight in us! We could retrace our steps and pinpoint the demon and believe, truly believe that THIS IS THE MOMENT. This is the moment when we realize that the boxes we’ve filled with our photos and thoughts and lives are stacking up — dividing us like walls. This is the moment that we realize that this is not order, that this is not freedom, and that it all started with our high school physics teacher and that fragment of disintegrating white chalk as he scribbled out the definition and we scribbled along with him: entropy.

Original Author: Nathan Tailleur