Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Dissent within the United Republic of Facebook

According to recent measurements, Facebook now has more than 175 million members and is growing by an average of 600,000 new members per day. As marketing analyst Justin Smith points out, "if Facebook were a country, it would now be the 6th most populous in the world."

Now that we're country-sized, we should really think about getting a flag and an anthem. And we should seriously consider regulating the recent trend of Facebook members posting self-absorbed notes describing in excruciating detail some of the most boring things imaginable about themselves and then—and this is the part that kills me—tagging other Facebook friends so they'll read the whole gorram thing. I'm talking to you, 25 Things About Me. To you, My Top 5 Facebook Activities. You, The Soundtrack of My Life.

I suppose it's only natural that a social media application whose users are largely young (66% are under 35) and largely middle- and upper-class would find a way to use the application's resources as a platform for talking about themselves as an end goal, not as a means for building and maintaining relationships across time and distance. Is it natural, though? Or is Facebook designed for exactly this purpose, under the guise of social networking?

Carmen Joy King argues that Facebook is actually designed to highlight and enhance self-absorption; she quit Facebook abruptly when, in a search for new quotes for her profile page, she came upon this from Aristotle:"We are what we repeatedly do." This sent her into self-reflection mode, as she explains:

I became despondent. What, then, was I? If my time was spent changing my profile picture on Facebook, thinking of a clever status update for Facebook, checking my profile again to see if anyone had commented on my page, Is this what I am? A person who re-visits her own thoughts and images for hours each day? And so what do I amount to? An egotist? A voyeur?

Fair enough. Looked at another way, though, all this focus on self-presentation isn't significantly different from the kinds of identity work young people have always done, with all resources at their disposal. It's just that no previous generation was able to do it quite so publicly, or with a resource so explicitly designed for statements about identity as, for example, the status message: "Jenna is _______."

Developmental pyschologist Erik Erikson, taking up the issue of identity formation, argued that identity is "a unity of personal and cultural identity." For him, identify formation requires active management and reorganization of ideological commitments, identifications, and affiliations. Often, for adolescents and young adults especially, this happens stormily, with rapid reshufflings of value systems before the identity work evens out and "sense of self" becomes increasingly coherent. (Remember those three days you spent as a Communist when you were a college freshman, followed by a week of anarchism and a day or two of religious fanaticism?) Facebook and similar social networking sites have the potential to kind of blow apart this trajectory, especially if current trends continue—Facebook use is increasing most rapidly among women over 55.

I don't really want to regulate Facebook, of course; I'm kind of a closet libertarian at heart. Besides, a valuable feature of Facebook's design is that I don't have to participate in other people's self-making if I don't want to. Though my Facebook friends can tag me all they want, I don't have to read what they write. And I haven't, for the most part.

In other news, I've learned how to use Facebook as a platform for directing traffic to my blog. As of the end of last week, more of my readers have been referred to sleeping alone via Facebook than via any other single referral source. I'm excited that I've found such an effective way to leverage Facebook for this purpose.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'd like to know more about how this trajectory is blown apart. I find it interesting.

Let me think for a second...so, if we form identities as adolescents and young children, does this new way of identifying self cement a sense of self earlier? Also, with Facebook use increasing most rapidly among women over 55, and with the assumption that women over 55 have a more solid sense of self than adolescents, then does Facebook provide an avenue for re-evaluation? Perhaps--and I'm making a HUGE assumption--with divorce rates so high, many of the women over 55 are recent divorcees, trying something new, and most certainly going back to the basics and taking time to rediscover and re-examine the self.

So in this sense the trajectory is blown apart because it's sort of reversed... But I'd like to know more about what you think--how you would explain this trajectory.


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