Not long ago, I spent almost as much time in agony over how to change my Relationship Status on Facebook as I did over the actual “We’re on a break” conversation that led to it. I couldn’t just leave that defining tag alone: it tormented me when I saw it in the mornings after logging in. I blamed Mark Zuckerberg, the founder and CEO of Facebook, for not having the forethought to create a Relationship Status alternative that suited my needs. (How come “I Don’t Know and I’m a Mess” isn’t an option?) “Single” was too finite for what we were now. “It’s Complicated” sounded ruthlessly unaffected. And “In a Relationship” made me feel terrible, like I was lying to myself.
I sat in my puddle of sad, imagining how each person in my network of real friends, faux friends, and legitimate frenemies would check their daily News Feeds and find a tiny picture of a broken heart, with the words “Sharon is no longer in a relationship” and then — dagger! — the nausea-inducing “Sharon is single.” It added a whole other level of complication and hurt to something that already felt like the worst thing in the world. After several hours-long nail-biting sessions at my laptop, I set my privacy level to “high” and took down my Relationship Status altogether. There was immediate relief, followed by a paralyzing fear that someone I hadn’t spoken with since high school would message me, boldly inquiring what prompted my sudden take-back of information.
Nobody did. Still, over the past few months, that dulled sense of social-networking-related panic has bled out and manifested itself offline in countless ways, both in my own life and in what I’ve observed in others. I’ve found myself discussing things I’ve discovered about people on Facebook the way the characters of TV’s Gossip Girl talk about the anonymous webmistress, whose rumor-spreading site chronicles the details of their social lives.
Facebook, like that show’s own gossip vortex, is an insidious, addictive force. To an extent, that’s always been the case. It’s just that now, it’s worse than ever before. Since it was created in 2004 by Harvard drop-out Zuckerberg, Facebook has played second-fiddle to MySpace, its elder by five years. This past May, that changed: Facebook drew 125 million unique visitors, versus MySpace’s 115 million. In 2007, it grew by 162 percent, compared with MySpace’s paltry 5 percent. Everyone from your emo little sister to your straight-laced boss has crafted profiles and mass-added hundreds of friends on the site, even if they never had joined a social-networking site before.
So it’s safe to say that Facebook is now an omniscient, all-powerful tool that, in some way, traffics in dirt on nearly everyone you know. Which is part of its appeal — that is, until you’re the one trying to stop some unwelcome personal facts from getting out. No matter how closely you guard your information or meticulously you edit your profile, after all, there’s no accounting for what someone chooses to extract from his or her read-between-the-lines snap-judgment social-networking fervor.
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.