It’s the worst things about high school, neatly packaged and conveniently accessible: you’re worried about who’s more popular than you. You’re obsessed with projecting the right image. You’re judged on a completely superficial basis. You want to make sure you have the right “signifiers”: the right band poster in your locker, the right movie you just saw, the right book sticking out of your bag. Someone’s always waving down at you from their perch on the social food chain. (And the figures are right there for you to see, indisputable empirical evidence that someone is more popular than you.) You feel misunderstood, because no one knows the real you. Which is why hinting at who you are vis-à-vis the things that you like becomes that much more imperative.
Call it an exercise in post-post-modern paranoia, but Facebook and its fellow site MySpace are actively pushing a form of superficial cliquism into adulthood.
Here’s the catch: while you have to go to high school, and put on clothes and be seen and worry about who you’re having lunch with, you don’t have to go to Facebook. You’re voluntarily throwing yourself into a world in which you’re going to feel insecure. So why are you torturing yourself?
Judged by their covers
This past March, The New York Times Book Review (NYTBR) published a Back Page essay entitled “It’s Not You, It’s Your Books,” which discussed how literary deal breakers — say, listing a novel in your Favorite Books section that’s too high-brow, too cult-y, or not high-brow enough — can become serious dating obstacles. Recklessly name-checking the wrong title has caused people to pull the plug on a romantic relationship (or even prevent one from starting). Apparently, the easiest way to nip in the bud a crush harbored by a literary snob, serious reader, or a general lover of books is to list The Da Vinci Code or anything by Ayn Rand. Also, if the last book you added to your iRead application was The Corrections, be prepared: an affinity for Jonathan Franzen has been known both to create strong bonds and to breach immutable rifts.
“He said he loved The Corrections and The Royal Tenenbaums, so I gave him a shot,” one 26-year-old account manager confides to me of her fiancé, whom she met on match.com. “It’s funny, though,” she adds. “As soon as I accept a friend request, I go and look at my profile to remind myself what people will see. If I haven’t talked to someone in five years and they’re going to check me out, I wonder if my interests will surprise them or be pretty much in line with who I’ve always been.”
Rachel Donadio, a writer and editor at the NYTBR, and the author of the aforementioned essay, doesn’t have a profile on any of the sites that project the particular tastes of its members. “I personally have no patience for the whole thing,” she notes. “For now, I’m too protective of my privacy.” But, she says, the advent of sites like Facebook and MySpace have fostered a new kind of cultural tribalism. “In many ways, it creates a nefarious culture of marketing in which you are judged only by your tastes,” says Donadio. “This can be great, since people with quirky, obscure interests can find each other more easily — kind of like the online version of that old Ed Koren New Yorker cartoon in which two punked-out people spot each other across a cocktail party otherwise peopled by boring-looking suits.