Last night on The Colbert Report, writer Aaron Sorkin succinctly articulated a phenomenon that has interested me ever since I went over to the “dark side” and signed up for Facebook in 2008. When asked by Colbert why he wasn’t on Facebook (a fact that many consider odd, since he wrote the screenplay for the recently released film “The Social Network”) Sorkin responded “socializing is to socializing on the Internet as reality is to reality TV.” In essence, Facebook is a performance (rather than a reality) that many of us willingly participate in daily. Of course, one could argue (as Colbert did last night and I did in this post) that we are constantly performing (in our jobs, in front of our friends, etc.). However, Facebook takes this to a new and more intense level for several reasons.
1. A wider audience. It is both thrilling and daunting to think that anything we put on Facebook (or anything that is written about us on Facebook) is available in some cases not only to our “friends,” but to millions of viewers. I was recently contacted by a journalist from the Star Tribune. She was requesting a quote regarding a Facebook page for which I was one of 20 administrators. Since I make most of my living by writing online, she was able to quickly locate my contact information and left me messages at various emails and my Facebook account. We don’t always have control (in fact, we have less than we may believe) over who views our performances. They are, for better or for worse, in the public sphere.
2. Time lapse allows for more control when crafting one’s image. Since one has to physically type something on Facebook for the message to appear, one’s “performance” can be carefully planned out or edited if need be. (Of course, those who are partial to drunk Facebooking willingly relinquish this control, which could also be part of their intentional “Facebook identity”). I’m not trying to suggest that every Facebooker thinks like a marketing MBA, crafting his or her message with razor-like precision and consistently defining him/herself throughout his/her page. However, we are all aware of how we want to appear to our “audience.” A certain level of pre-meditation goes in to planning and articulating one’s Facebook status updates and posts. The online buffer allows one time and space to define (or redefine) oneself.
On a related note, I have friends who experience performance anxiety when it comes to updating their statuses. Because they can be planned (and not just blurted out), they feel like each status has to be an ode, a stand-up comedy routine, or witty publicity statement in 420 characters. This pressure to perform is overwhelming, and keeps many of them from updating their statuses on a regular basis. The flip side of this, of course, is your “TMI” friends who share every single move (yet another version of performance).
3. More opportunities to advertise your “status.” Keeping up with the [insert names of friends who bring out your inner competitor] has never been easier than with Facebook. For most of us, the social status anxiety felt by our parents’ generation has given way to a variety of ways to define success (and anxieties to accompany each one). Whether your source of pride is your children, marriage, worldliness, job, athletic achievements, etc. for many, the “status update” has become the new “status symbol.”
I’m sure there are many more categories for analysis that I haven’t covered here, but I’m out of time… it’s already 11:05am and I haven’t updated my Facebook status yet.