I check Facebook far too much. This is my not-so-secret shame (once upon a time, maybe it would be a secret). I fear that if I were to ever keep a count of how many times I check that blasted thing in a day, I would find that I’m living in double-digit territory. Oh, how I’ve squandered so much time on Facebook chatting, checking photographs, seeing what old friends are up to, and feeding into the voyeuristic spirit that inhabits virtually every human being.
As 2010 winds down, it is becoming apparent that we can more readily accept representations of reality in place of actual reality, conducting our lives in virtual worlds. However, the internet serves as more than a mimesis of what the “real world” actually is; user-generated content like Facebook seemingly allows users to shape a new domain that is, on a surface level, much more their own, asserting a level of control that they could never attain in their “unwired” lives. The internet has become a place where billions of individuals attempt to assert their identities and gain a level of autonomy they do not normally have. This autonomy, though, isn’t what it seems. Facebook, a new totem of our internet world, demonstrates this.
I turn to Facebook only because it is so ubiquitous in the lives of my generation, the so-called “Millenials” or “Generation Y.” What Facebook gave to the masses after it existed in its initial phases of exclusivity—there was a time when Facebook was limited to only college students—was the third, fourth, fifth, and sixth eyes they had always wanted. Suddenly, you could conceivably know what that girl you liked from afar was up to. You could see what birthday party you were going to be invited to or where, thanks to a few photographs, a kid you barely knew spent his summer (in Alaska, it turns out.) Immediately, individuals could live the fantasy of the guilt-free voyeur. Everyone worth knowing was on this network and without fail they would be letting you know, intentionally or not, how their lives were progressing.
It became fascinating to see what knowledge I could accidentally amass about a person I hadn’t seen in years or even a person I had never met. One female, a current freshman at Stony Brook, friended me at the beginning of the school year (why, I do not know, but her 1,999 Facebook friends tell me that she makes friend requests quite indiscriminately) and proceeded to update her status roughly ten times each day, inundating my news feed. A news feed, if you are new to the world of Facebook, is Facebook’s homepage, a collection of short bursts of writing or links by my Facebook “friends.” It is the equivalent of a public gathering space for people to talk about what’s happening in their lives, minus the actual noise.
In a single news feed, you may see a girl denouncing a boyfriend, a link to a provocative (or inane) New York Times story, a link to a goofy YouTube clip, and so on. What the news feed creates is a world of virtual eyeballs that are able to capture the myriad currents in people’s lives. It is reality but it is also a new reality, a reality projected onto the screen. I can now “know” people without actually knowing them. I can render snap judgments from afar, crafting visions of others without even an inkling of personal contact. In addition, the news feed gives the Facebook user a platform, a place to self-servingly shout: pay attention to me, I’m here, I matter…I am not anonymous.
And of course, in the spirit of web 2.0, Facebook creates the illusion that the user can create their own identity and forge a unique presence on the web. Though Myspace, Facebook’s precursor, capitalized on integrating the word “my” into its name, Facebook seized upon this generation’s internet zeitgeist by creating a place where people believe they are uniquely expressing themselves. In an advanced technological age in which people can do more and less than ever, the existence of such a thing like Facebook is a mild opiate for the masses. As the writer Zadie Smith argues in The New York Review of Books, Facebook, a shining beacon of web 2.0, is not exactly the type of place where an individual can actually build a singular and unfiltered virtual identity. Rather, it is filtered through its wunderkind creator, Mark Zuckerberg. Smith writes:
“Shouldn’t we struggle against Facebook? Everything in it is reduced to the size of its founder. Blue, because it turns out Zuckerberg is red-green color-blind. “Blue is the richest color for me—I can see all of blue.” Poking, because that’s what shy boys do to girls they are scared to talk to. Preoccupied with personal trivia, because Mark Zuckerberg thinks the exchange of personal trivia is what “friendship” is. A Mark Zuckerberg Production indeed! We were going to live online. It was going to be extraordinary. Yet what kind of living is this? Step back from your Facebook Wall for a moment: Doesn’t it, suddenly, look a little ridiculous? Your life in this format?”
Smith is on point in this provocative essay (a review of the film The Social Network and Jaron Lanier’s book You Are Not A Gadget: A Manifesto). The new frontier of Facebook is one where the multitudes and complexities of a human being are scaled down, reconfigured, and squeezed into a framework designed by someone who views the world in a very specific way. The Facebook user can craft their virtual selves in a way that, upon a more detailed inspection, is quite superficial and limiting.
The dream of autonomy, which mankind has carried since atavistic times, is hatched again on the internet and it is there where it, like everywhere else, will falter. The “real” world and the “virtual” world each possess the limitations imposed by advanced civilization. User-generated content, as liberating as it may seem, is still consciously constrained by the framework of a program. As Smith writes, “When a human being becomes a set of data on a website like Facebook, he or she is reduced. Everything shrinks. Individual character. Friendships. Language. Sensibility.”
Life on the screen means reduction. It means interacting in a new way, a way that amplifies the often superficial nature of human contact. We are no less shallow in our “real world” interactions but once on the screen, new masks are assumed and new lies are propagated. We do not carve our own destinies in the world of web 2.0. The internet is brilliant yet it doesn’t mean freedom.