It’s a peculiar fact of life that we love to call things the opposite of what they actually are. Why else would we park in driveways and drive on parkways? Sometimes, we give things one name, even though in practice they are the opposite. For example, Facebook (as well as its counterparts) is called a “social-networking” tool. At first glance, this appears to be true. In theory, Facebook resembles a sort of 21st-century coffee shop, a hangout spot for the computer age. In practice, it is anything but.
Traditional “social networking,” known to most as hanging out, is frequently more about others than it is about yourself: when you hang out with people for any extended period of time, you’re generally able to get a feel for what they’re actually like. After all, given some time and relaxation with friends, most people will act like themselves. There is a great opportunity to establish real emotional connections and friendships, where you can take pleasure in the company of others while they hopefully take pleasure in yours.
Facebook, on the other hand, is all about you and the image you create for yourself. Through digital smoke and mirrors, it serves as an emotional comfort in two main ways.
First is the image itself. On Facebook, you only show others your idealized version of your self. You can fill your profile with witty things (that you would never actually say) so everyone can admire how clever you are. You have hundreds of friends (not that you really know any of them) so you must be very popular. And don’t forget the picture. Blemish-hiding photos were the thing to do in high school. Now you have a quasi-artistic digitally edited photograph, so everyone knows you feel the sad glee of something very sixties. Haven’t seen Across The Universe yet? Then maybe your picture shows you being a goofball: that way everyone knows how totally whimsical and spontaneous you are!
The other comfort Facebook provides is that of reassurance. As a generation, we are characterized by such chronic insecurity that we now resort to posting photos of every minute detail of our activities, clinging to the desperate hope that documenting our lives will make everything we do that much more real. When’s the last time you went to a party that didn’t feel like a series of poses for Facebook? Can’t remember? I can’t either. Rather than enjoying the company of others and actually enjoying life, we spend all of our time ensuring that we look happy. That way, after we utterly fail to enjoy the world around us, we can log onto Facebook and say, “See, look at me smiling – look how happy I am!” And for this generation, that reassurance is enough to wash, rinse, and repeat.
Not only is this new “social networking” not social, but it is also dangerous. Every day our generation gets further and further disconnected from the world around us. We live as if we were the stars of some movie or TV show, focusing on skin-deep appearances and the images that we pretend to have. On an emotional level, we become the summation of our wall posts and comments, lacking faith in ourselves unless we are soothed by the attention of others. In the end, this false person we display can’t replace the real thing. And we wonder why we aren’t happier.
Don’t think you’re part of it? Try this. Think of some of your close friends, of what their faces look like. The images of their faces that just popped into your head: are they from memories of your friends, or from pictures on Facebook?
Adam Baginski is a U2 Civil Engineering student. Don’t social network with him at firstname.lastname@example.org.