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My Life’s an Open (Face)Book

Written By: Usree Bhattacharya on July 27, 2008 No Comment

4,158,720 seconds have transpired since my last Facebook post, and I am guessing at least a few hundred thousand of those have been spent in the networked realm of Facebooking. When I penned (or rather, typed) the previous post, it was when the madness of finals season had just recently come to a close; the sun was shining through brilliant, cloudless skies; and life was happily filled with the promise of an extended break. I could finally, I thought, get my Facebook fix guilt-free. School was out, and I was anticipating indulging in long hours posting links; dedicating songs/videos; uploading, tagging, and sometimes untagging (unfortunate) pictures; commenting on notes (“It’s not catching, is it?”), photos, or status updates (“Hope it’s not life-threatening…”); Superpoking (where else could I have a cow, a sheep, AND a cheesecake “thrown” at me?); sending Cosmos, Mai Tais and Absinthes in a virtual world where IDs need never be flashed; and sending and happily receiving a wide range of Gifts ranging from rats (yes, rats), to plaid micro-mini’s; and, last but not least, spending leisurely time poring over my Newsfeed in serious deference to my voyeuristic needs. I could, finally, “get my Facebook on.” And I did.

Is my case really unusual? I doubt it; Facebook users range from a wide spectrum:

1. Level 1 users: People whose profiles have only the most basic information about themselves (avoiding information like Relationship Status, Political Views), between one and one dozen profile pictures (most of them tagged by “Others”), a mostly bare Wall with rather “mundane” posts (mostly “Hey! How have you been?”). Level 1 users generally have few applications, if any. They don’t send you Green Patch requests, and won’t be virtually “mooning” you any time soon. They rarely use the Status Updates.
2. Level 2 users: People whose profiles contain a good deal of information about what kinds of movies they love, what books they’ve read, and what they like to do in their spare time (that is, that which is not consumed by Facebooking). You might find out they’re in a relationship, but not know with whom. Their political/religious views are tantalizingly “Other.” They have about a couple of hundred Wall posts (some of which might be racy or obnoxious), and check in on Facebook about once a day, but not really “do” anything on it personally. They use and are active on several applications (and will be sending you requests to try things like Texas HoldEm Poker or Who Has The Biggest Brain?).
3. Level 3 users: People whose profiles contain vast amounts of information about their lives (almost from the time of conception), and hundreds of (sometimes only mildly interesting) photographs documenting every flash-filled second of their lives. They have almost every application known to man, and will send you requests to take quizzes on your sex life, or how well you know all the Friends characters, or to buy virtual Louis Vuitton bags). They have thousands of Wall posts, most of which render their personal lives not that “personal”. Their Facebook profiles could have posts or comments in a variety of languages, and be connected across dozens and dozens different Networks.

I am somewhere between Level 2 and Level 3; and between these levels, two aspects of Facebook usage become salient: privacy and networking addiction.

The very point of Facebooking is social networking; therefore, in entering that world, one automatically forfeits at least a level of privacy. Regardless of how stringently one applies the Privacy Controls afforded by Facebook, there is a part of you-the self- and other-constructed-that is publicly available and accessible, even if it is merely the fact that your name appears in Facebook searches (the fact that you are on the site, for example, says something about who you are). The “you” created through socially-networked multi-modal literacy is inherently commentable. In addition, there’s the whole question of privacy when you have unlimited access to someone’s profile. A heterosexual friend of mine, new to Facebook, didn’t understand the question “Interested in?” which is meant to get at sexual orientation. For a few days everyone thought he’d “come out” on Facebook, when his response was listed as “men.” Another friend didn’t realize that he added a singles dating application by mistake, which temporarily traumatized his girlfriend, who saw it on her Newsfeed. Relationship break-ups or hook-ups are also announced publicly on Facebook through the Newsfeed updates, such as “Unluckyinlove is no longer listed as in a relationship.” One no longer hears things like that through the grapevine; it’s more often through the Facebook Newsfeed. What you put out there in writing, and through images, can come back to haunt you, but that hardly seems to serve as a deterrent to most Facebook users. Privacy is no longer at a premium; visibility is.

As far as Facebook addiction goes, I am only one of millions of habitual Facebook users who visit the site daily or even hourly. It is hard to figure out what it is about social networking sites that makes them so addictive…Is it the ease with which one may invent or reinvent the self? The power to create a self which is “networked,” rather than one that is “merely” social? Is it the voyeur in us which must feed on others’ personal lives? Or the need to know that our lives are important, important to document so very painstakingly, document for others, and document for ourselves? Perhaps it is that the Facebooked self is always in conversation with a larger community of Facebook selves, and in societies marked with alienation and fragmentation, this affords a sense of belonging, a sense of interconnected “communityness” no longer (or only inadequately) afforded by traditional networks?

At the end of the day, I think we haven’t developed a meaningful scholarly vocabulary for discussing what it means to develop and manage our “selves” online, or explain why self-construction through networking sites is so attractive…I don’t think we do justice to its nuances by trying to map on old identity/self categories…Hmm…I think I’ll start on that research…on Facebook. 🙂

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