Facebook was something I resisted at first. Once I gave in, I became a bit of an addict. Suddenly, I was connecting with friends, family, classmates, and colleagues who I hadn’t spoken to or seen in years. I loved getting in touch and finding out how they were and what they were doing. The world seemed smaller, and my past, a bit more present. Recently, though, I’ve been struggling with my own motivations for clicking on Facebook, skimming status updates, and learning about my Facebook friends from their profiles.
I’m curious about other people. Most of us are. It’s human nature. But my question is—what does Facebook really tell us about each other? When I created my account, I made careful choices about the information I wanted to share. When I write status updates or upload photos, I think about what they say about me. In other words, what I present to others is tailored to a particular audience (albeit, a wide audience). I do consciously construct a certain image of myself, as I imagine, others do.
Of course, you may say, this is what we do all the time in person. Who I am when I’m with my closest friends is a more open version of myself than who I am when I’m teaching a class. I edit my identity, so to speak, given a particular audience. I think this is natural; we all do it to a certain degree. The difference between connecting on Facebook and connecting in person is that interacting with someone in the flesh allows our identities to be mutable, changing in subtle ways from moment to moment.
For instance, let’s say, I’m teaching a poem that’s very close to my heart. Although I don’t explain the importance of this poem to me, a perceptive student hones in on my enthusiasm—he intuits that this isn’t just any poem to me—and says: “I guess you like this poem a whole lot, Mr. Copenhaver.” At that point, I say, “Yes, my dad used to read it to me. He died when I was young.” I hadn’t intended on sharing this, but in the moment, it came out. Suddenly, I’ve allowed my identity—that strictly professional persona—to slip a little. I’ve become a more complex person to my students, which often can be a good thing.
My point is, Facebook doesn’t allow for this slippage. It’s all manufactured image. I’ll be the first to admit that I love the control it provides, and that it’s a fantastic tool for advertising oneself, or one’s blog, or one’s novel—and all these things are important to me, believe me! But identity is always in flux, and we’re the most human when we’re least in control. Who we are on a social network can’t possibly replace who we are in person.
That being said, I still remain curious about what my Facebook friends choose to share about themselves—and I hope they’re curious about me—but I can’t help wanting to see them in person, so that we can engage in a richer, more human experience.