The Psychology of Facebook

Of Facebook’s 800 million active users, the group that far and away uses it best—and when I say best, I mean Mark Zuckerburg-defined best––is college students. No need to catalogue why and how; you know what I’m talking about. You realize that the life of a 20 year old without Facebook, although it may be endurable, certainly isn’t the life of a college student. Nor could it be the life of a college student if some portion of it weren’t spent complaining about Facebook experiences in one of two ways. It’s either (and these are the hopeless individuals): “Why in the world did Facebook change their format again? What the hell, Facebook?” or the complaint that you’ll hear from those who don’t yet think of Facebook as an extension of the self: “Why did I waste two hours last night browsing my friends’ profile pictures?”

What a select few of the second group will often be more reticent about expressing are the hours spent un-tagging and re-tagging their own photos while attempting to convey the proper variety of facial expressions and participation in social events, a variety that ensures that they don’t come across as too bland, too weird, and above all, not so concerned with their Facebook image that it seems like they spend hours un-tagging and re-tagging their photos. With alternatives like these, I’m hoping for the emergence of a third group of complainers, whose focus I envision as more directed by the negative impact Facebook has on us and/or the negative qualities of ours that it exposes. (I think it’s impossible to separate one from the other. It’s a chicken-or-egg phenomenon if there ever was one.) Such a group would provide our generation with some much-needed self-awareness.

The main thing the third group would object to is the relationship between Facebook and vanity. In terms of perpetuation of vanity, I imagine the difference between life with Facebook and life without as the difference between every classroom, dorm room, and dining hall on campus being equipped with wall-to-wall mirrors and the way things are now. It’s no secret that Facebook offers you as much information about yourself as you would like—all of which has been filtered by yourself and others in order to paint you in the best of lights—and that it always gives you the opportunity to add to the extant information in order to present yourself even more positively. Of course there will be a mild form of cognitive dissonance associated with your Facebook profile (you can’t really think that your profile represents you), and this fact has its own implications, but even if the representation were accurate, wouldn’t your initial inclination be that it’s just too much of yourself? That maybe it would be preferable to be somewhat shielded from so effortlessly dwelling on your image?

Think about the options you have on Facebook: you can post a status; you can post pictures; you can write something to a friend; you can like something. I think we often fail to recognize that there is a monumental distinction between engaging in any of these activities on Facebook and partaking in its real-life analogue. In life, there’s nothing objectionable or undignified about telling your friend personal details about yourself. If you’re sick, your friend should probably know that. If you just bought a new car, that’s good news for both of you. When this information is presented for public consumption, however, which is what happens when you post a status to your hundreds or thousands of Facebook friends, the standards are—and very well should be—entirely different. Your personal impressions are transformed into entertainment, which is why we don’t like statuses like “So sick I can’t get out of bed—uuuuuuggggggghhhhh” and “Bought an ’04 Jetta today from the nicest couple. I can’t wait to hit the road!” These impressions may be good enough to communicate to a friend, but they aren’t sufficiently entertaining for Facebook. The sophisticated Facebook user recognizes this when he presents nothing but his most outstanding, insightful, and interesting thoughts. We don’t support the sophisticated user’s Facebook persona though. It’s not quite real enough; when we’ve caught him in actual human-to-human interactions, he doesn’t produce the constant stream of witticisms Facebook makes us believe he’s capable of. Enter then the super-sophisticate: funny, smart, charming, but not with every single comment.

It would be reasonable to bristle at the suggestion that there’s something problematic about the existence of the Facebook super-sophisticate; doesn’t the successful Facebook strategy only differ from the “successful personality” by a few degrees of separation? Undeniably, yes; the gulf is not so great. However, there is a relevant and important difference which lies in the purposes of dispensing information in either case. In conversation, doing something particularly well—being funny, pleasant, friendly, etc.—represents a gain for all involved parties. The funnier you are, the better, because there is a sense in which you are funny in relation to someone else, or funny for someone else. With Facebook, the relation to a specific person disappears, and your relationship becomes one with the users, one might say, in the Facebook audience. The audience can be conceived of in no other form than as an abstraction. To whom are you addressing your status updates? Hundreds of people, maybe thousands, but certainly no one in particular. Why do you write to your friend on her wall? Why not message her? There can be no reason other than the fact that you’re showcasing your relationship with this person to an invisible audience. Your exchange with the friend still constitutes communication, but a large part of its purpose becomes impressing other people on Facebook, or else you would contact her through a different method.

If we are to consider Facebook activity as a reflection of college students’ priorities, I think we’ll find ourselves disappointed. If you’re spending a good portion of your time on Facebook pontificating about the world of politics or explaining why you’re really happy about the weather today or anything in between, you’re simultaneously telling your audience that your impressions on these affairs are important. This is just as true for wall posts as it is for statuses; both are equally public. Presumably, if you’re telling the abstract “audience” that your feelings here are important to them—important not only to your closest friends, but also to your cousins in New York and 40 of your friends whom you’ve never actually talked to—you must think they’re incredibly important in general. That’s what you’re saying when you do something, without compensation, in order to entertain an identity-less group. You’re acting, not because you’re getting paid, not because you want to contribute to a greater cause, not because you want to share a thought with a friend, but because you believe your sentiments matter tremendously. When this description comes closer and closer to epitomizing the mindset of a generation, one can’t help but cringe. One can’t help but think that the commercialization and aggrandizement of the self, carried out on so massive a scale, is a bad thing.

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