Darn it. Facebook has made a lot of sweeping changes in its 6-years, but these changes that are presently happening, which were announced at last week’s F8 conference, I just realized, will mark the end of everything I once found interesting about Facebook. Which is a shame because I have sort of made my career in finding Facebook interesting.
Let me rewind a year back. I am finishing my Master’s thesis, which I have been working on for a total of 1.5 years. The gist of it is to consider sociologist, Erving Goffman’s 1959 study: The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, specifically his definition of “dramaturigical perspective,” which explains that human actions and social interactions are dependent upon time, place and audience. Through this lens I consider the act–or performance, if you will– of creating and maintaining a social network profile to a largely invisible audience. For this paper’s purpose, lets stick with the social networking site, Facebook.
Like Goffman, I believe that a lot of people’s presentation of identity is based, or at least is rooted from, some sort of performance. But twist! Facebook forces users to grapple with a mostly invisible audience and engage in acts of impression management even when users have no idea how or if their performances are being seen. This, and the idea that Facebook asks users to create an identity in the form of a profile, as opposed to performing an identity in relation to time, place and audience, is a difficult task to negotiate and one that is unique to our times.
danah boyd highlighted a good example of this struggle: “While Allie’s MySpace profile is filled with information about who she is, the very creation of this profile is a social oddity, in the sense that hers is the first generation to have to publicly articulate itself, to have to write itself into being as a precondition of social participation” (2008: 120-2).
I also believe that each social networking platform is important–and therefore, how these platforms change has the ripple effect of disturbing the ways users engage within the platforms (and with one another) and then ultimately, alter our social norms. Similarly to how the creation of malls and public parks have altered our social behavior and changed the ways different social groups and demographics interact, as well as altering what is or is not seen as socially acceptable, so have the creation–and continued transformations– of social networking sites, like Facebook, in people’s everyday lives.
I’m going to stop digressing in one minute. But the reason I found any of this interesting was because, years and years ago, I wrote my high school senior paper examining the bedroom walls of teenage adolescent girls. What posters girls chose to display, how they chose to create their space, I realized, was how they were trying to present themselves to the world. This was before social networking sites were popular. But this is the kernel of interest, the performance and display of identity, that has led me to where I am now.
Up until the F8 conference, I still considered my Facebook profile as a display of how I wanted to be seen. Becoming “adult-like” the information I chose to extract was as deliberate as when I was younger, the information I choose to express. Deleting Music and Movie interests to only highlight Work and Education info was an act to display myself as an adult, as a professional. For the most part, the “Groups” I was part of also was deliberate, in the fact that I thought less is more. This idea that older teens and young adults display minimalist profiles while their younger counterparts are quick to list a plethora of bands isn’t new.
Media studies scholar, Sonya Livingstone notes trends of pre-teens who clutter their profiles with as much information, photographs and designs as possible while many older teens choose to instead display minimal information on their SNS profiles. “Livingstone sites Zieche who pushes the issue of self-reflexivity, where “life styles are an expression of an orientation pressure which has turned inwards. The new questions are ‘what do I actually want?’ and ‘what matters to me?’ [resulting in] an everyday semantic of self-observation and self assessment” (2008: 402, citing Zieche 1994: 11-12). Livingstone moves on to discuss how young people’s SNS profiles are a representation of self ruled by “highly coded cultural conventions (here including technological interfaces) and social preferences (here embedded in the norms of consumer culture)” (2008: 402).” AKA younger kids make up for lack of real world experiences by cluttering their profiles with “experiences” in the forms of music interests and the like, while older kids’ (or 27-year olds) deliberate acts to display less reversely shows off their “real world” experiences.
Either way. Now bring in the idea of Mark Zuckerburg’s “Personalize Web Experience,” announced at the F8 conference. In order to optimize your personalized web, or say, your NYTimes.com page, you need to be truthful in your “likes” clicking. In order to optimize your Pandora.com page, you need to be truthful in your music interests. What if you don’t like your ironic band music interest? What if you actually never really liked Grizzly Bear at all, you really listen to Celine Dion? What if you actually don’t find Technology NYTimes articles interesting, you like reading the wedding announcements? (I swear I’m not completely talking about myself.)
To optimize your page you need to click “Like,” and all those Likes are recorded on your Facebook wall. In order for users to optimize their online experience, which Facebook is allowing them to do, the creation and presentation of one’s identity–as it once was–is over. The reason we are constructing our “digital bodies” or Facebook profiles, has changed. Instead of creating a presentation of self we are creating a way to optimize experiences on the web– and to do that, we must be truthful. The difference is we are now admitting what we really like to read, what we really like to listen to, what we really want to buy, instead of presenting an image of who we really want to be.
Community Pages. Or what I like to call, When what was once an act of individual creation is now a social collective. Or something. Take the example of my friend, free loving David. David is the sort of friend who if it wasn’t for Facebook I would have certainly lost track of him after working together one summer three years ago in the woods of Oregon. But thanks to Facebook, I now know he just got over the stomach flu in Bogata, Colombia. I also know that one of his “Interests” is “shakin my ass.”
Enter the birth of Community Pages. Now suddenly “shakin my ass,” is no longer an individual statement. No longer is it firstly reflective of who David is or who he is presenting himself to be, but suddenly it has become first and foremost a collective force or movement. Click his new “shakin my ass” hyperlink and you are connected to four other strangers who have also listed “shakin my ass” as an interest. The “Global Wall Post” streams real-time status updates with the phrase “shakin my ass.” None of which allude to the particular irony David was trying to capture in his original list of Interest which are: “Shakin My Ass, Writhering, Schadenfreude, Defenstration.”
Fundamentally, the Community Pages have transformed a very individual experience of “writing one self into being,” as danah boyd has coined, into connecting yourself collectively to one another through keywords within coma breaks. An individual experience is made collective.
In Marshall McLuhan’s 1964 text, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, he discusses new media as new tools invented by man or woman and accepts that “we become what we behold.” We create our tools and then our tools recreate us. The “bedroom” of our Facebook profile has changed in such a way that instead of listing “Pink Floyd” as your music interest, an act I imagined similarly to a teenager hanging a poster on their bedroom wall. For now, this is who I am trying to be. We are instead creating an act of direct connection. An individual statement has become a collective expression.
boyd, danah. 2008.“Taken Out of Context: American Teen Sociality in Network Publics.” Dissertation. Diss. University of Berkley.” http://www.danah.org/papers/TakenOutOfContext.pdf
Goffman, Erving. 1959. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. New York: Anchor Books.
Livingstone, Sonia. 2008. “Taking Risky Opportunities in Youthful Content Creation: Teenagers’ use of social networking sites for intimacy, privacy and self-expression.” New Media and Society. Vol 10(3): 393-411.