In less than a decade, there will be an entire generation of people who have never lived without Facebook.
If that does not terrify you, it should.
Facebook users in our generation, which is nearly all of us, are increasingly using the Web site not as a networking tool, but as a means to recreate ourselves.
Consider what your friends publish on their profile, their statuses, through their picture and even in their listed ‘likes’ and interests. If you know them in the real world, are those things indicative of who they actually are or how they want to be perceived?
If we are pictured drunk at a party, we appear more popular and social. If we list Neil Gaiman’s work under our favorite books, we appear cultured and well-read. If we announce we’re in a relationship people will talk about us and, for that little bit of time, we are the center of attention.
Are any of these actually indicative of who we are?
To some extent they are, but in an age when people can control their own image with an upload or a deletion, who we actually are is becoming less and less important.
In the real world, we assume we know other people based on a few observations. We fancy ourselves to be very keen about picking up characteristics.
If someone gives a weak handshake, we think them timid. If they trip, we suppose that they are clumsy. Whether or not these are valid, we take these perceptions, extrapolate them out for the entirety of their personality, and assume we have a good understanding of the person.
With the ability to control how we are perceived virtually, to present exactly the clues we want, we take on a role, hoping that people perceive us the way we want.
On Facebook, we are simply playing our favorite character, and are proud of ourselves for being as confident, popular and interesting as we wish we were in real life.
The problem arises from the dissonance between our two selves. Another way of saying “playing a role” is “living a lie.” While it might only be a white lie, it reveals how insecure total candidness makes us.
By putting our lives on Facebook, we leave ourselves completely vulnerable to the judgments of others. And so the cycle is self-perpetuating: we look at others’ profiles, we judge them, and we hope that people don’t judge us as harshly.
So we pick our profile picture carefully, our wording on posts carefully and our friends carefully, then watch as the rest of the world’s view of us is slightly altered.
Whereas the Internet initially offered total anonymity, now the opposite is true.
We use our Facebook identities to control the rest of the world’s perception. Facebook has become another place where we must constantly be in character because of the innate fear of revealing too much about who we really are.
So at the end of the day, who are we?
Are we actually Shakespeare fans, or did we just put up lines from A Midsummer Night’s Dream that we thought sounded cool? Are we the compilation of all the pictures in which we are tagged? Is there more to our lives than what we report in our statuses?
While that might seem hyperbolic, the problem is that we aren’t exactly sure where our digital selves end and our real selves begin.