Welp, that was a good run.
I actually distinctly remember when I signed up for Facebook. I am naturally a skeptical person so it wasn’t until the end of my senior year of college (2005). I was sitting alone in the attic of the house I lived in Ithaca, New York. I don’t remember what finally got me to sign up. I do remember however, deciding on a profile picture that was of a friend covering my face with his hands. I thought that was awfully clever.
2005: “The Facebook” was only available to select networks, the News Feed didn’t exist. Users hopped between profiles like this one.
And there it began. I don’t remember ever being obsessed with Facebook during this time. I was finishing up my senior year of college. I had better things to obsess over. Like how I didn’t have a job lined up. Or a place to live after my lease ran up. Or what to do with my college boyfriend when college ended. More importantly I had a lot of drinking to do. Copious amounts. I had a lot of life to live at that time.
Fast forward 6 months later to when I receive my first, and last, email from Mark Zuckerberg. I am sitting in a friend’s bedroom, still in Ithaca, probably in my pajamas. I am realizing that the night before I had deleted my Facebook account in a drunk stupor. After I caught myself stalking my college boyfriend, who had smartly moved out of our college town, and I declared many beers in, with still no job (the open-all-night pizza place didn’t even hire me!) I was going to cut the Facebook cord.
Problem was, when I went to open a new Facebook account that morning I no longer had a college email address as I had graduated. And at that time you needed one because Facebook was still all about being elitist. My email correspondence with Mark Zuckerberg in 2005 went something like this:
Hi Mark, I just graduated from a college a few months ago and recently drunk deleted my account. (This must happen a lot right?!) I swear I’m a college graduate. But I no longer have a college email. Help!
Mark’s response was something like this:
Get an alumni email address.
And so I did. Not appreciating that Mark Zuckerberg, who would be a social icon in a quick matter of years, dropped me a note.
2006: Facebook launches the News Feed, now user profiles host mini-feeds that display their activities.
La de dah. I keep living my life. And Facebook is along for the ride. I decide, why get a job when I can join the Peace Corps? And so I go. I go far and for years. I remember during those years walking in flip-flops to the crummy internet shop down the lane where boys with big welted bug bites sit around me playing violent video games. I would sit on a red plastic stool by an old dial-up computer and (slowly) log into Facebook. I remember I didn’t do this that often because going on Facebook when you are alone in a foreign place with no end in sight is generally a not-that-fun idea. Generally it mostly just eludes waves of homesickness by scrolling through all that stuff. Stuff like my friends at bars. My friends eating dinner. My friends. Western ways of doing things that I missed. All of that.
And that was thing with Facebook at that point in time. In 2006 & 2007, Facebook was mostly just my friends. I was connected to people who I liked being connected to. The people who I missed. The people who I’d write an occasional letter to or make a long distance call. The people who understood my sense of humor because they knew me well. People who got the joke. It was a safe and friendly place and if it didn’t just remind me of how far away I was, it would have been a place I would have quite enjoyed being.
2007: While not a huge year for profile redesign, users begin to interact more with each other’s profiles. The focus begins to alter from static profile cards to a visible documentation of usage and interaction.
I am standing in a coffee shop down the street from New York University’s library where I have been planting myself on a daily basis. It is 2008. I am back in America, in New York City, in graduate school studying… er… “identity politics.” I need to figure out what I’m going to write my 80 page Master’s thesis on. And quickly! “As in yesterday,” my thesis adviser tells me. I chew on my pen cap.
“I am interested in how people articulate themselves into being who they are,” I am telling this to my father. On my cell phone, sitting in a corner of this coffee shop. My father isn’t impressed.
That’s when I have my light bulb moment. “I will write a thesis about how people articulate and create themselves on social network sites around the world- like Facebook and stuff,” I’m saying to my father now, I’m gaining momentum. “I’ll make this like a ‘new media’ thing. A ‘digital behavior’ thing.” My father is becoming a bit more receptive. “I think that could like, make me more of a job candidate. I think Facebook is becoming kind of a big thing.” My father is starting to agreeably grunt now, softly- at least to the degree that I am now assured he is at the very least still on the other end of the line.
2008: Facebook introduces the Publisher tool bar, which allows a user to publish a status update, photo or link to his profile. Users begin to update friends on what they are doing in real time. Application tabs are added to user’s profiles- Photo tab, About tab, “Bumper Sticker” tabs. Users begin to categorize their lives.
The thesis work begins. I have a year left in my MA program and the entire focus is meant to be on the creation of this thesis. That means that every class I decide to join, I am there considering the course through the perspective of my thesis. How and why do people choose to create their lives online? Are people’s online lives an expression of who they think they are or are they escaping to be somebody else? Or! are they escaping to be who they actually are? How is Facebook changing our lives?
As a result, I start to spend a lot more time on Facebook. And because I need to interview hundreds of Facebook users from around the world, I am talking to a lot of different people about Facebook. Like Arman from Bangladesh. Meeting Arman, and as a result having lively debates online about technology theory with him is really the beauty of everything I am seeking in my thesis work. Arman, a teenager on the other side of the world in a village in Bangladesh whom I met in a Facebook group dedicated to dannah boyd, brightly illustrates the connection and humanizing these online social networks inspire; they are allowing us to understand one another, they are allowing us to do what we’ve always wanted to do since the first fire circle, come together and be together.
2009-2010: It’s no longer just about friend to friend(s). A new kind of user profile, Pages launched in 2009. Users could “become a fan” of a Page (until 2010, when they could “like” a page) to see that individual’s or business’ updates in their news feed.
I was right. Studying Facebook had made me a “job candidate.” And now I had a job. Working with really large brands figuring out how they could be cool and casual and interesting–and worth people’s time– on Facebook. I’m not one who ever had any real desire to get into advertising. On the contrary actually, my college thesis was studying the adverse effects advertising had on gender roles.
What I liked about my job, about helping brands try to penetrate social media during this time in 2009 through 2011, is that mainly the work was required to be fairly grassroots. Brands had to be creative, real, useful, funny. They had to create a reason for being. If a brand did something that people didn’t like, if they were say, unethical, this would come out by angry fans on their Facebook page. And the only way the brand could get “positive fan sentiment” would be by fixing the problem, I would tell clients. By not being unethical. By changing your treatment of workers or animals or the environment- or whatever is what- and then telling people you made the change- on Facebook. If a brand cared about social media, and as the years passed brands began to really care about social media, a brand would have to be transparent.
2011: Facebook introduces Timeline & the Ticker, the new profile acts like a virtual scrapbook, featuring important milestones that have occurred since your time on Facebook. Compared to the evolution of the social network’s profile thus far, this redesign appears the most significant. Brands are also able to pay for their Facebook posts to be promoted as ads, or “sponsored stories.”
Around the time Facebook launched Open Graph in 2010, Mark Zuckerberg expressed his goal that when people enter the online space via mobile, tablets, desktops, whatever and whenever, they are online as their one Facebook self. That their Facebook self is their one true identity which can fluidly move between websites and apps and check ins and photos.
Nodding to the complexity that this notion creates, the idea that this suggests we then must be one person in front of many different people, from coworkers to family to friends to significant others to even brands who we just want a coupon from, Zuckerberg said: “You have one identity … The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly … Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.”
This statement is actually the exact opposite of what every sociology text I have ever read about social behavior says. Sociologists, like famed Erving Goffman, say we conform our behaviors, actions, motions based on the people we are interacting with. What Zuckerberg is saying will and should be a social norm, I have come to believe is actually humanely impossible.
But what does in fact happen is that though my Facebook self is by no means my one true self, the boundary of Facebook and real life deeply blurs. It blurs so completely that my Facebook newsfeed now, in 2012, has become actual life. The popular MIT technology writer, Sherry Turkel, wrote in the early 90’s all about the separation of the user’s online life and real life- where, how, and why this boundary exists. This boundary is gone now on Facebook.
But it’s not like there aren’t other popular social networks ballooning in user size all over the place. Instagram, Pinterest, Twitter, Foursquare etc. are becoming increasingly huge. However, the important difference between Facebook and these other social sites is that they aren’t aiming to be what Facebook is, which is your entire life, they are just aiming to fill specific needs, enhance specific parts of your life which for me, is exactly what I’m looking for.
2012: My parents join Facebook
“Monkey,” my mom says over the phone, “I saw that Uncle Grant said Happy Birthday on your Facebook, you have to say Thank You. Did you say Thank You?”
Facebook becomes my actual life, and you know what actual life can be like? It can be really, really annoying.
Facebook is my actual life complete with having to listen to people I don’t like or agree with and just nod along as to not be rude. Actual life complete with having to swat at advertisements and spam as I try to do the thing I’m actually trying to do. Actual life where my mom is nagging me and my aunt won’t stop playing that weird annoying game with fish and I’m being forced to look through all of your baby pictures. Actual life where people die but their ghosts haunt us. Actual life where what I do there can make me lose my job. Actual life where all of my actions are accountable. Actual life where I have to be really polite and nice and I have to Like stuff like, all of the time.
I miss the internet as a place to escape from actual life. I miss spending time in a place with people I love who I may not get to see as often as I like. I miss Facebook being, pardon the expression, my space.