The enormous success of Facebook shows that many of us want to connect with one another in a public way. It isn’t enough to just send private e-mails, make phone calls, and send zippy little text messages; we want to gather our friends in a semblance of a community and let them all know, all at once, how we’re feeling, what our children look like, what we look like, what games we’re playing online, what YouTube videos we like, what songs we like, what places we’re traveling to, what we think about recent political and other news events, what are our religious beliefs, and even what illnesses we’re going through.
Maybe you can argue that the Facebook stage is only semi-public, because all this communicating is only with people we choose to share info with—“friends,” “friends of friends,” and “everybody,” as we so choose. But it is a stage, of sorts, that draws attention to ourselves in a more public way than just a communication between individuals.
What is this need for public attention? I find it interesting. It’s a kind of narcissism, of course, but still—what is it? What compels us to have a publicly noticed voice?
As a person with my own narcissistic needs for attention, I admit I am a full participant. I joined Facebook after being invited to it by some classmates from an American high school I attended in Taiwan. It was a very interesting place to go to school, with students from a wide variety of cultures. I was curious to find out how going to that school may have affected life choices: Where did people live? What did they do for a living? What hobbies did they have? How might their lifestyle have been influenced by the opportunity to live in a non-U.S. country during some crucial, formative years? Maybe, through Facebook, they’d tell me.
I recently finally got around to posing these questions to my Facebook friends to see how they respond. It occurred to me that I had never seen anyone talk about it. There is surprisingly little discussion in my community about memories of the high school itself. There’s little reflection on what went on back then that maybe now we have more perspective on. It’s more like the high school community serves as a safe, convenient group to exchange thoughts and feelings with, leaning on the past without referring to it much.
My overall impression of public communications on my Facebook “Wall” is that most comments are friendly and positive. Photos get kudos. Vacation destinations are envied. Upbeat religious commentary gets plenty of play (along with some anti-religious commentary from me). Occasionally, there is an acerbic political statement. There are plenty of announcements about stages of play in various Facebook-related games, and there are some invitations to show support for a variety of causes by linking up to different groups via Facebook. Some people are happy to share their blow-by-blow of going through the day. Some (like me) are promoting their artistic creations.
One thing that strikes me as particularly interesting about Facebook is how most people, at least in my community, choose to include a photo of themselves. I haven’t participated in other public forums much, but my experience with Myspace.com and a few online music software-related forums has been that most people create a fanciful avatar to represent themselves, rather than show their true faces. So I was surprised to see otherwise on Facebook. For my community, I guess it is of great interest to see how people look now, as opposed to how they looked in high school. For myself, I stick with my fanciful avatar.
So what does participation in Facebook say about us as a culture? My thoughts:
• We want to be noticed.
• We want to be remembered.
• We want to brag, at least a little.
• We want to be liked.
We want an easy, convenient community: We want the easy freedom to opt in or opt out of our communications. It’s easy to make “friends,” with a click—and to disconnect from them, with another click. Communications can be had at any time of day or night. The “Wall” of community comments is there for reviewing at any time. And there’s instant messaging available with anyone who happens to be online at the time. And we can just disappear quite easily.
What do you think? If you participate in Facebook, what do you get out of it?
© Brother Greg 8/6/10