Am I Better Than Facebook?

Facebook me is better than actual me. Smarter, wittier, funner, prettier. But does Facebook, as a platform, reduce the richness of my personhood? Absolutely.
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Facebook me is better than actual me. Smarter, wittier, funner, prettier. But does Facebook, as a platform, reduce the richness of my personhood? Strip me of my messiness, neuroses, fears and freak-outs? Absolutely. You can't be smarter, wittier, funner, prettier without cutting out some fat.

In the New York Review of Books, Zadie Smith skewers Facebook as "the wild west of the Internet tamed to fit the suburban fantasies of a suburban soul." Stuff White People Like slammed Facebook in similar terms two years ago, circa the Great Migration from Myspace, calling its advanced privacy settings and tidy graphics "analogous to an apartment or house with a security system/doorman, an alumni dinner, and a homeowners association that protects the aesthetics of the neighborhood."

There are in fact stark class and racial divisions between the two social networking sites, a deepening segregation that's been documented by Dana Boyd, a Social Media Researcher at Microsoft Research New England. Originating at Harvard, Facebook initially expanded only into other closed networks for cherry-picked .edus. Once the gates opened wide, the first newcomers to Facebook's hallowed halls were ambitious high-schoolers with friends or siblings at the chosen colleges. On Myspace, "only minorities and indie bands remain" scoffs SWPL -- in academic terms, the subaltern. The flashy visuals that the achieving (hegemonic) teens rejected as "gaudy" like hip hop bling remained the preferred networking interface for Latino/Hispanic and immigrant teens, geeks, freaks, punks and queers.

When Smith made her suburbia stab, she wasn't referring to the politics of online socializing, but simply the artifice of it all. Instead of grooming our flowerbeds, we manicure our Walls. Instead of the perfect Christmas lights and the appropriate lawn signs, we write the cleverest updates and list the right books, films, and music, getting our reward centers tickled by the comments and likes of our neighbors. Neighbors, in this case, being our 500 plus "friends."

To Smith, Facebook is social life filtered through the Sorkin-scripted psyche of founder Mark Zuckerberg: The alienated kid-prodigy who builds a new world where he is finally accepted, one that is manufactured, sterile, and seamless, and then crowns himself king.

The laws of the land are right there on Zuckerberg's profile. He lists "Minimalism," "Revolutions" and "Eliminating desire" among his interests. Minimalism we see in Facebook's clean interfaces, the chaotic personalizing of Myspace scrubbed up and out. 25% of Internet users are on Facebook? Liberté, égalité, fraternité! And eliminating desire? In that little nugget, Smith sees her chilling suburban dystopia: no desire, no guilt, no disappointment. Just raspberry red shutters and a basketball hoop.

So many digital immigrants, like Smith, make the same complaints about Facebook. 1000 friends? What kind of phony universe is this? In my day, friendship was a metaphysical union of two teeming interiors! Not splashing hundreds of minifeeds with a photo of your weird shaped bruise.

Digital natives know "friends" is a symbolic term in a symbolic universe. We have real friends. Metaphysical union friends. They're probably also our Facebook friends. But our network as a whole is simply a database of anyone we've ever minimally interacted with, the same "weak ties" we greet chirpily at a party and then maneuver away from after twenty minutes. These networks aren't just shallow time-killers. It's through contact with people outside our closest friends that we get new information and perspectives, find potential life-partners and better jobs. Facebook is a playground for upward mobility.

Floating online, we reembody ourselves according to the architecture of the software we're using. Like Smith, I believe the structures and norms of the platform can leak into real life, become invisible and, ultimately, reshape our world. But unlike Smith, I don't think Facebook is making us blander or more insincere.

Facebook reduces our humanity as much as a cocktail party does. Do cocktail parties strip me of my messiness, neuroses, fears and freak-outs? Absolutely, unless something very wrong happens. Do I still go home a messy, neurotic, fearful person who occasionally freaks-out? You bet. But even though I had to shower and put on my best dress, I'm sure glad I was invited.

The real dangerous reshaping work of Facebook, and other sites that reproduce race, class and ideological divides, is that it reinforces the real world's inequality and distrust. Peeling back the myth of the Internet as Ultimate Equalizer, we see discrete digital worlds where people from different backgrounds are separated by brick walls of code. The problem isn't that Facebook makes us white-washed, disingenuous, self-promoting nodes. It's that white-washed, disingenuous self-promotion translates, in our society, to success.

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