Shaddup your Facebook
The social networking site for twentysomethings is churning out a generation of navel-gazing pseudo-celebs.
In terms of health and wealth, there has never been a better time to be 23 and British (1). In economic terms, my generation lives in an age of prosperity, opportunity and freedom. And yet our social lives are another matter altogether. We seem, mostly, a little unsure of our place in the world, and nervous about our duty to the public sphere and to each other.
Consider the Facebook phenomenon. A swelling minority amongst my peers seems intent on using one of modernity’s greatest gifts – the internet – to replicate the worst features of contemporary public life in Britain. Today’s degrading tendencies towards the prostitution of privacy, the search for instant celebrity and the endorsement of virtual over real relationships now find their highest expression in the online activities of a growing band of twentysomethings. Supporters of the Facebook phenomenon have a lot to answer for.
Facebook.com started as a social network for American college students. Launched in February 2004 by Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg, it allows members of over 30,000 schools, colleges, universities and registered companies across English-speaking nations to ‘network socially’. Membership of registered organisations is a prerequisite. Once you become a member, you create a homepage containing personal information and a profile, which is usually constructed as a virtual window into your soul. The page will usually list a name, contact details, occupation and date of birth (which suggest the beginnings of a CV), and also allows for lengthy descriptions of activities, interests, hobbies, preferred taste in music, literature and so on (which suggests the latter stages of a CV).
Each user subscribes to a group. In doing so, he allows other members of that group to view not only his profile but – and herein lies the motivation for the name ‘Facebook’ – photos that he has posted under his homepage. There are limits placed on accessibility, so that users can allow some people to view their profiles, but not others. When allowed, members ‘tag’ photos of themselves under other people’s profiles, so that in an instant other members of the group have direct access to all the tagged pictures of that person within the group – of which there could be anything up to several thousand. More photos (around 2.3million) are uploaded onto Facebook.com each day than any other website in the world. And with at least 18million users worldwide – second only to MySpace.com – it is rumoured that Zuckerberg has already rejected offers of $2.3billion from Google, which comes in the wake of Google’s acquisition of YouTube for $1.65billion last November, and Rupert Murdoch’s purchase of MySpace for $580million in July 2005 (2).
This looks like a major new form of socialisation. Facebook, in particular, is clearly targeted at young people. In America, every university and high school is represented on the site. In the UK, over 30 universities have signed up for membership, and the grip on Oxford and Cambridge is so tight that, according to the last authoritative estimate (conducted in 2005), at least 60 per cent of Oxford students alone are thought to be registered users (3). That number is likely to have increased over the past two years.
Facebook and MySpace differ from YouTube, whose motto is ‘Broadcast Yourself’ and whose aim is to allow users to upload, view and share video clips free of charge. Much of the content found on YouTube is actually a replication of video footage commonly available elsewhere. Users tend not to take up the invitation to broadcast themselves specifically, but rather spend most of their time broadcasting other people. In this sense, YouTube tends not to be an exercise in self-promotion (though, of course, some people do use it for that end).
MySpace does precisely what it says on the label: it gives a homepage, a ‘space’, to subscribers, who use that space to showcase their interests and activities, including by uploading photographs. Facebook does much the same thing, only it doesn’t allow you to play music on your homepage. But Facebook goes a step further than MySpace is that it makes a pretence at replacing social life rather than merely replenishing it. Many users seem to employ the site not as a supplement to social engagement, but as a substitute for it – and in this sense, Facebook captures much that is bad in cultural life today.
The most striking fact about Facebook is that, for those who find their faces on it, everyone is a celebrity. The 15 minutes of fame you were brought up to expect could now last a lifetime. Most of the people who see your profile have never met you and never will. Your profile page, meant as an advertisement to the world, comes with a profile photo – and the aim of this single image is to capture the very essence of your character. The challenge of finding a single photo to summarise the whole of your essence is evidently too much for some Facebook users, who tend to change their pictures regularly.
In satiating a seeming lust for fame, Facebook creates public identities that attempt to be all-encompassing, but which instead struggle constantly against the insurmountable insufficiency of their descriptions of each member. Such public identities can never be anything other than hollow and temporary; indeed, their flippancy is exposed in the regularity with which they are updated. There was a time when the identities young people projected into the public sphere correlated to moral values or allegiances of other kinds, whether political, religious or sporting. Now our public identities are about dodgy snaps from last Friday night.
Of course, each member valiantly strives to display his or her merit by listing umpteen high-brow novels under ‘Favourite Books’, or making a stream of obscure references under ‘Favourite Quotes’. But the constant updating of personal profiles often looks more like a sign of desperation, a plea for the attention of people from whom members are desirous of affection – as if from this or that single new piece of information or photo, other members could glean deeper insights into the souls of people they do not know.
The popularity of Facebook and its sister websites speaks to today’s voyeuristic impulse. The impulse towards consuming magazines like heat, OK! and Hello! is not so different from what drives the Facebook user – the only distinction being that on Facebook, those upon whom you spy are not quite A-List. More like Z-list. Each member, competing with friends and non-acquaintances alike, is converted into a prying, spying and striving pseudo-celebrity. Browsing the site, you can get an impression of rather embarrassing personal insecurity on the part of users, rather than anything like a new engaged sociality.
The most effective way to assert the value of your public identity on Facebook is to put up photos of yourself doing snazzy things. Why not be pictured in front of the Eiffel Tower, or looking your best reading Montaigne? These snaps will tell the world that you are cultured and clever. The logic is unstoppable: the more you want people to really understand your inner self, the more photos you have to display, so that each and every last character trait is exposed for consumption. If you’re into cooking, be pictured in an apron! If sport’s your thing, wack on some shin pads!
The result is that members end up trying to fill a bottomless pit, forever adding new photos so that fellow members can come a little closer. In choosing which photos they want to put up for public display, members endorse the idea that one’s identity in the public sphere should be based on the predicted reaction of a thousand strangers to images that titillate only because they ought really to remain private. And yet the viewer – the voyeur – gorging on photos of distant acquaintances, is reduced to the status of a sad twit, getting his or her kicks out of a breach of privacy.
In truth, no amount of photographs can tell me what a man or woman believes in, or who they really are. Uploading a new set of photos is hardly the same thing as real self-betterment; mostly, it comes across as the squeal of a needy individual.
People like me who are not members of Facebook have absolutely no control over photos of ourselves posted on the site. In my view, this represents a major disempowering of my control over the public perception of who I am, and what I stand for (or more to the point, how I look after I’ve had a few too many). Through the uploading itches of other people, I become alienated from my public identity. My real character and my public identity thus risk becoming divorced from each other. This is a basic tenet of celebrity culture – and it is the guiding principle of Facebook.
Presenting themselves as new avenues for social networking, Facebook and its sister websites actually seem to be accelerating the atomisation of our society. There’s no doubt that Facebook can be a useful tool for arranging a party or contacting someone with whom you’ve lost touch. But the ideas and trends underlying this phenomenon are symptoms of a wider decay in our shared lives. Filling the public sphere with private gossip is no good to anyone, least of all over-cooked celebrities and virtual-life voyeurs fresh out of university. And no amount of random images can ever represent a coherent identity, because photos are, well, just photos. Surely my generation needs to recapture a belief that subscription to ideas and ideologies will, in the long run, help you lead a more fulfilled life than mere virtual titillation.
If this means abandoning our Facebook memberships, then so be it. I’d rather have dignity in private than be just another idiot celeb on the web.
Amol Rajan works on The Wright Stuff on Channel Five.
(1) See, amongst others, The Economist, 3 February 2007: ‘You’ve never had it so good’, and The Improving State of the World, Indur Goklany, Cato 2007
(2) First YouTube, Now Facebook? Rumors Circulate, by Jason Miller
(3) Innovations: Facebook.com, Guardian, 24 November 2005