Wednesday, August 20, 2014

I Am Whoever Facebook Says I Am

Has social media ever made you feel less popular than you are in your real life?  It's done that to me.  Sure, I have the standard-issue many hundreds more Facebook associates than any human should really have and a decent Twitter following and more people with me on their Instagram feed than I have on my own, but I am confident that people don't like me on the internet.  Weird, eh?  Weird that I have come to this conclusion, that I have thought about it at all, that I have evidence, even, to back my statement up.  

Maybe what I mean is people don't necessarily publicly support me on social media.  I write a daily blog that involves some "audience participation," and maybe 20% of my viewing audience actually plays along. I know people are reading because, one, I can see the stats, and, two, people tell me they are and can prove it by being able to converse with me in person about it -- but these same people can't or won't take the two seconds required to click the "like" button on their Facebook newsfeed -- and I find it fascinating and mysterious and baffling all at once.  What makes someone take those two seconds -- what makes it worth it?  What makes it not worth it when it comes to me?  The only logical conclusion is, of course, that I am not very popular.  Either that or I just suck at Facebook.  

Kindly do cue the violins, please.

Or better yet, read on...  Recently, my friend Jenn posted an article called "I Quit Liking Things on Facebook for Two Weeks.  Here's How It Changed My View of Humanity."  The author did just as the title suggested and found it not only changed her entire Facebook experience but it changed her newsfeed as well.  She talks about feeling guilty at first for not clicking the "like" button -- as if she were withholding support -- but then found it more satisfying to post an actual comment about why she liked what she was seeing.  It "brought the humanity back to Facebook."  It also prevented the Mighty Facebook Algorithm from overrunning her newsfeed with stuff that wasn't interesting to her.  Goddamn if I don't LIKE the hell outta this!  Since reading the article, I have "liked" maybe three posts on Facebook and winced a moment later.  I need to do this challenge myself -- I need to take my newsfeed back!  What ARE my friends up to, anyway? 

Because, as we all know, every time we log in, Facebook asks the same question:  What's on your mind?  I guess this is what's on mine and has been for quite some time -- how and why and who and when?  How do people interpret this seemingly innocent question -- do people even think about it before they post an update or add a photo?  Why do people feel compelled to answer it -- who do they hope will see what they post and when do they decide it's time to answer this question, ever present and ever ready for whatever you want to throw at it.  I can answer these questions for myself -- I interpret the question as an easy prompt to get you to say anything at all (the brilliance is in its innocence and simplicity); I feel compelled to answer it when I want to "think out loud" and hope someone will hear it; I hope people who care about me will see it (which of the hundreds of you do?); I post when I want some validation, plain and simple.  Maybe you would answer these questions differently than me -- I'm sure Facebook knows there are an untold number of different answers, anything to spark the debate and keep the conversation flowing.  Maybe Facebook doesn't even have to care anymore, though, really, since we're our own self-fulfilling prophecy.  If you build it, they will come.  In droves.  Forever.

I am not a sociologist, but much in the same way George Costanza always looks for an excuse to pretend he's an architect, I boast of my affinity for the field of study and its relevance to, well, everything human.  Social media is a whole new and rapidly changing mode for humans to gather, to form groups, to include or exclude, to define.  To quote Jeff Goldblum's character Dr. Ian Malcolm in Jurassic Park, "Scientists were so busy figuring out if they could, they never stopped to think about if they should."  Builders of social networks are turning into the same sort of Dr. Frankenstein-brand mad scientists who have made the technology accessible to anyone with basic computer skills to manipulate in whatever way he or she sees fit.  That is an awesome (re: definition -- extremely impressive or daunting; inspiring great admiration, apprehension, or fear) responsibility for this "reality tv show" generation where we can be the heroes of our own story, written, directed, and produced by, well, ourselves.  In Facebook we trusted.

And we sure do -- look at how much Facebook dictates social agendas.  We "friend" people -- whether they're actual friends, romantic partners, co-workers, long lost others, relatives, or casual bystanders.  We use words like "Facebook Official" when it comes to life events -- romantic partnerings, pregnancies, births, marriages, new jobs, you name it.  With two different friends, I was involved in debates over when they should announce their pregnancies and engagements To The World -- make their news "FBO."  I have other friends who broke off their romantic relationship and they both stated the most difficult thing about the situation was not packing up and and moving out of their apartment but the night they got together to remove their "In a Relationship" status on Facebook.  This stuff is powerful -- its presence on our newsfeeds carries significant weight.  And that is an astounding truth.

I have almost 900 Facebook friends currently, and I can only use my experience with these individuals to shape my argument.  I have no doubt that your group of friends, be it larger or smaller or exactly the same, might be yielding a different experience for you, and that's cool.  As I've said, I am not a psychologist or sociologist or an -ist of any variety.  I have a BA in English Lit and an MFA in Creative Writing.  This is not a widely researched, scientific study of any kind.  This is an opinion-based piece using the empirical data of my life.  I would like to thank The Internet and Society for giving me permission to do so.  And I would like to thank you for reading.

That is all the disclaimer I will provide.

When I visit my Facebook newsfeed, I find three basic types of contributers:  the personal-over-sharers, the "shamless pluggers," and never sharers.  The "shameless pluggers" I'll come back to and the never sharers need no definition, I'd assume, while the personal-over-sharers are those people who show up repeatedly on my newsfeed -- three, four, eight, twelve times a day -- updating me about what they're having for lunch, what the guy on the train said to them, a selfie to capture how they felt about last night's Game of Thrones, where they're having a drink after work and with whom.  Within this category, they branch into The Comedians, The Illiterates, and The Debbie Downers.  The Comedians are always trying to out-witty themselves and everyone else with their clever puns and their over-the-top anecdotes.  They are funny motherfuckers and you know it because their Facebook wall proves it.  Ad nauseum.  Thought these are easily my favorite group of over-sharers.  The Illiterates can't spell worth shit and never seem to have learned basic grammar, which is insane because many of them I was in school with at some point or other and am fairly certain they took an English class or two.  "UR" does not spell anything, folks.  Stop using it. AND STOP USING ALL CAPS.  IT IS THE LITERARY EQUIVALENT OF SHOUTING AND IT FREAKS ME OUT.  And The Debbie Downers, of course, are always asking you to pray for them or their sick cat or other socially awkward things that are the equivalent of "I ask, 'How are you, Person-I-Barely-Know?' and you say, 'Well, Person-I-Also-Barely-Know, I got laid off and my dog died and my mother's in the hospital again and my kid has diarrhea.'"  Oh, um...  I'm sorry to hear that?  Not to say that these people shouldn't have the chance to express their concerns, but maybe not to all one thousand of your Facebook associates?  Maybe there are people close to you who should hear this and not the rest of us?  I know for a personal fact it's possible to be going through hell and keep it offline.  Airing your sad or dirty laundry to the masses probably isn't going to heal you the way you want.  At least I know it wouldn't heal me.  

I was chatting with my friend Elliott the other day about how I was writing this post and how when I was fairly young, my mother had warned me, pretty sternly, to be very very careful about what I chose to put in writing because you cannot take that back.  What you put in writing is forever.  You can say things in the heat of any moment and while those things can certainly have a lasting effect, the memory of how that shit went down will change over time until it completely fades or has distorted enough that its reliability isn't so grand anymore.  But the things you write down can be read over and over and over again.  And things you write on the internet?  There's no eraser big enough to destroy that evidence.  Think about that before you post.  This is your legacy.

When I first got involved in social media, it was MySpace and I was way late to the party.  Facebook was already in existence but just for college students, so we civilians were busy ranking our friends in order of favorite to least favorite and choosing songs for our profiles and all I could think about was how insanely glad I was that such a site didn't exist when I was a teenager.  I could picture all the drama of shifting your friends in and out of your "Top Ten" according to a childish whim and the whiplash of hurt or flood of joy it could cause, depending on whether you were in or out.  I actually remember one of my friends who would find out if he and his girlfriend had broken up (again) or not based on whether he was her #1 Friend or not in the ranks at all.  AND THESE WERE ADULTS.  Shit.  Kids wouldn't stand a chance if adults couldn't be mature about it.  I think by the end of my MySpace time, I only had local bands I liked as my "Top Friends" and by then it didn't matter because everyone had made the jump to The Facebook.

Yeah, I called it The Facebook.  Deal.

My friends Whitney and Tom laid the most pressure on me to make the switch and when I finally did, I was initially pretty underwhelmed by this social media promised land.  Of course, this was in 2008 and the Facebook landscape has changed drastically since then.  I did soon discover, however, that every single person I'd so much as gone to summer camp with was on this site -- and it was easy to find them because they used their real names instead of screen names like on MySpace (where I was "TheBigBad" for most of my tenure).  Before I knew it, I was reconnecting with people I hadn't seen since my childhood and there was a sense of delight about it.  It didn't take long for me to amass over 200 "friends" and then over four hundred and so on...  I think the maximum number of connections I had on MySpace was maybe 170 and I thought that was absurd -- "Who knows that many people?" I had huffed -- yet on Facebook my number climbed rapidly and easily -- and continues to do so to this day.  I am fairly liberal about who I add as a "friend" and whose friend requests I'll accept -- but that is because of the type of sharer I am -- the "shameless plugger."  I like my posts to benefit the greater good -- promoting a friend's band, an event that is local and awesome, my place of work, and, most recently, my own writing.  The Shameless Plug is meant to support something or someone that is near and dear to my heart.  And the bigger the audience, the more chances there are for people to click on the link or listen to the song or at least have heard of [insert name of personplaceorthing being plugged], and for me, that is the good of the media.  Malcolm Gladwell said it best in The Tipping Point:

"Simply by finding and reaching those few special people who hold so much social power, we can shape the course of social epidemics. In the end, Tipping Points are a reaffirmation of the potential for change and the power of intelligent action. Look at the world around you. It might seem like an immovable, implacable place. It is not. With the slightest push -- in just the right place -- it can be tipped."

Be that change you wish to see in the world.  Bring those hidden treasures to the masses.  Shine that light.  It's a grand and personal way to change a tide.  And for me, it's the ONLY reason for social media.

Which isn't to say I didn't also use it to post other things -- funny things that happened or photos I thought were pretty (especially sunsets -- y'all know...), all kinds of things.  But after the advent of the before-mentioned "like" option, I took the slow road to embitterment about what was happening on Facebook -- on my own page and on my newsfeed.  Suddenly the "like" became psychologically powerful and getting "likes" could literally affect moods and become part of the offline dialogue.  I can't tell you how irked I've gotten in the past when someone had said out loud to me, "Oh, I really liked that photo you posted earlier," and I've had to bite back the snarky reply of "Well, technically, you didn't 'like' it."  Shouldn't I be happier that someone has taken the time to speak to me in person about what they saw and share their admiration face-to-face than taken the time to click a button on the internet that essentially means nothing?  Well, yeah, I should, but I wasn't.  And I hated that about myself.  I hated that my reaction was to decide this person didn't want others to know he or she liked what I was posting -- where people could see the public approval -- and that I needed to get a fucking grip.  So this winter I all but stopped posting things on Facebook.  I kept posting The Untitled Blog's daily posts because this choose-your-own-adventure story's voting happened via The Book.  But all of my other posting stopped.

And it was interesting.

People started asking me what was wrong, why I wasn't going out anymore, if I was feeling OK.  At the start of each of these conversations, I was incredibly confused and then immediately understood -- I wasn't telling my Facebook audience what I was doing so they thought I'd gone into early retirement.  Nope.  I just wasn't publishing what I was doing anymore.  And the ironic part, friends, is because you weren't validating me enough to make it worth it.

How insane is that bag of apples?

Some people have no problem getting their every whim validated by the admiring hoard.  Anything they post immediately gets a host of likes and a long list of comments.  Some of these people are "local celebrities" of some variety (on the music scene, for example) and I don't really count them in the commentary to follow because the odds are decent that many of the interactors are looking to be noticed by a musician (etc) who they may never have actually even met.  I am talking about everyday folks that are as much a celebrity as I am.  I was out having drinks with my friends Anne and Leslie the other night and we were joking about this topic a bit and I was saying, "I could cure cancer and maybe twelve people would bother to 'like' it," to which Les quipped, "And then you'd write a book about your discovery..." to which I replied, "And that would get probably fourteen likes."  Yeah, OK, I know, I'm being overly dramatic about it.  But it's hard not to get sarcastic about it when I see statuses that are about as banal as you can get or out of focus photographs with a host of people interacting with them while I post something I think has some depths and it's radio silence.  No one.  I don't know much but I do know that there isn't a single person who posts something on Facebook and doesn't want someone to interact with it.  Anyone.  Hello, is this thing on??  Why post it otherwise?  There are plenty of articles I read or videos I watch that I don't post -- so if I'm posting it on my wall, I'm certainly looking for commentary or approval or, hell, even disapproval.  Something.  And it's only that much more frustrating when other people post things that don't seem to be very interesting yet they get a ton of response.  And it's even WORSE when the gross-overshares (we don't EVER need to hear about your burning bowel movements, chunky barf, picked scabs, or picked noses, thank you very very much) are positively reinforced.  YES PLEASE FILL MY NEWSFEED WITH ALL OF YOUR DISGUSTINGNESS AND IMMATURITY.  PLEASE AND THANK YOU.  Yeah, I'm sorry for your discomfort, but there is such a thing as too much information and we all need to be pals and accept those text messages, emails, and phone calls, but not those Facebook posts.  Make the world a better place.

And that is exactly what some people like you to believe they are doing.  I have two friends in particular who do this on the regular and I like both of them so much in person that I wish I had never met their Facebook personas.  Not surprisingly, these people are typically over-sharers, but there's a brand of them who do so in a sneaky and manipulative way.  They tag a lot of people in their posts (which practically guarantees at least that selected group of people will like it) and/or they use manipulative language designed to make the casual reader feel that they are certainly an asshole if they don't click the like button.  Usually, these posts are long and full of flowery language about changing the world or empowerment or being brave or self-sufficient -- and so on and so forth.  I see these posts, posted fifteen minutes ago and already with 25 likes, and all I really see is through them.  This person wants -- needs -- validation about this life decision, whether big or small, and they have learned how to get it from Facebook.  Buzzwords.  Because if you don't like that this person has achieved or overcome or reinvented, then you are certainly an asshole.  Yeah, OK, then I'm an asshole, because I believe you can reinvent and overcome and achieve, but not with the frequency these people do.  And how often are these people talkers and not doers?  Almost always.  Have these ideas and thoughts -- be empowered and brave and successful.  I like the hell out of all of these things.  But being this person solely on Facebook is sad and almost the opposite of all those strong words.  I've said it once and I'll say it again -- be the change.  Be it.

And maybe think a little before you post -- if your friend list looks anything like mine, then you've got an assortment of people close to you now who are likely the demographic you are intending as your audience.  But you probably also have older relatives or family friends or people you haven't seen since summer camp or maybe even younger kids -- teenagers, your friend's children.  My boss' two 'tweenage sons are on my list.  I try to keep profanity at a minimum and, in general, ask myself if I'm cool with EVERYONE on my list seeing this post. The same goes with commenting.  Give yourself that three seconds to consider if you really want to say what you're about to say.  And, for the love of all that is good and holy, if you are a parent, please think before you post about your children.  How would you feel if your parents, aunts, uncles, babysitters, anyone posted about your bowel movements or anything else that should be kept "in the family" -- these kids growing up today will never know what privacy is.  Their entire lives are already being played out for the entertainment of a largely unmonitored audience and I am thankful every day that such social media didn't exist when I was growing up.  It's hard enough being an adult and dealing with the repercussions of social media -- I don't know how in the heck teenagers are supposed to understand how to use it properly.  

Unless comedian Pete Holmes is right and The Government invented Facebook:

"I think the government made Facebook in an attempt to make privacy uncool. Think about that. I think that's true 'cause they don't have to tap our phones or survey us when we just yield to them everything, just on our own free will. Home address? It's a little weird, OK. Phone number? Call me. Photos? Photos of everyone I know? Here, let me tag those for you."

This is an age where everyone lives online -- Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, Pintrest, Tumblr, Twitter, blogs, websites, so on, so forth...  How you represent yourself carries weight -- it can prevent you from getting hired, it can get you fired.  I am linked to a number of business-related Facebook pages and I am strongly aware that anyone who follows those pages can easily find my personal page so I keep that in mind when I'm updating my cover photo or my profile picture.  I keep that in mind when I write my daily blog and when I accept friend requests.  I understand when and where privacy settings can and should be used -- they're always the first thing I explore when joining a new social medium.  I try to keep it positive and avoid passive-aggessiveness.  If I come across something that I think someone specific will like, I tend to post it directly on his or her page with a note about why it made me think of them instead of posting it on my page and hoping the intended audience checks it out.  It's a nice treat when someone posts on my wall -- it happens so rarely anymore -- so I like to give that tiny thinking-of-you nod to my friends whenever possible.

Facebook should be used for that kind of thing -- to connect with your actual friends and spark a conversation about something newsworthy or creative or celebratory or just plain silly.  It should be used to reconnect with people who you can no longer see in person because of time or distance or the other follies of life.  It's a great way to get quick advice and recommendations from a group of your peers.  One of the greatest things Facebook has done for me is remind me how many people out there remember and support my writing.  Readers, man, I can't love you more!  Every time I consider deactivating my account (which happens pretty regularly), I stop myself almost solely for my writing.  I enjoy sharing what I'm working on with whoever opts to read along -- which is another reason it's almost the only thing I ever post anymore.  

And then, of course, there's Facebook Events.  It's almost the only way you know anyone is playing a show or having a party or doing a thing of any kind -- ahh, look! You're invited.  I always RSVP to every event I am invited to because I know how important it is for the host to know who to expect -- but your yes-no-maybe-so reply is about as meaningless as it can get.  Maybe twenty people say they're coming, but seven people show up -- or maybe seven people say they're coming but twenty show up!  People have become so blissfully casual about simple politeness and etiquette when it comes to such things and I can't help but wonder if it's because so many invitations come by way of Facebook where some users could be inundated on a daily basis with people requesting the honor of their presence at any of a variety of venues.  And while it may not be super necessary to reply to every invitation with total sincerity, it's probably nice to do so when it will make a difference to the host.  I've even noticed that people are more casual about responding to such invitations even when sent via email these days -- is it The Facebook Effect or merely the malaise of a generation?

I often refer to Facebook as a "necessary evil."  It has a job to do, just like any tool we use on a regular basis.  If you're one of those people who don't use it, I don't understand you.  You're like a cash-only bar.  Huh?  What's the point of that?  If you have privacy concerns or issues, be aware of your privacy settings and remember you only have to provide information you want.  You can make yourself unsearchable.  You can control who is on your friend list and what each of those people can see or do on your wall.  If you're one of those "never sharers," you can never share as much as you want.  At least you'll still be able to see those adorable photos of your nieces that your sister is always posting -- at least you'll be in the loop, lurking away to your heart's content.   No one will ever know.  

And regardless of how frequent a poster you are, I am still curious about you -- what makes you want to comment or "like" something?  And on the other side of it, what makes you see something and not say something?  Why do people want to tell me what I've posted and not comment on it on Facebook?  I am endlessly curious and deeply fascinated by this entire virtual social world.  

Because in the immortal words of Marshall Mathers, "I am whatever you say I am.  If I wasn't, then why would you say I am?"  Our personas are shaped by our real lives, of course, but also by the quality of our experience online.  And even that is two-fold -- there's how I represent myself and there's how much you, my "friends," validate what I am saying by interacting with me.  Interactions tell me things -- that you see me, that I'm worth your time; what you "like" tells me what you are willing to admit that you "like" about me -- and I post on Facebook to know that.  And if that sounds crazy to you, ask yourself why you post anything you post.  Maybe there are some people who genuinely post without any hope or expectation that someone will get involved -- but also, I doubt that.  And if you are such a person, explain yourself.  I have so many questions.

And I am looking to have a continued conversation about Facebook and other social media and how you use it and why and when and what you are hoping to get out of it.  How much do you think about it?  How often does it sway your opinion and how do you feel about the power it holds over you or those around you?  What have I said that sounds right and what have I said that sounds opposite of your experience?  The beauty is there is no singular answer.

So go ahead.  Make my day.  Tell me -- what's on your mind?

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