Recently, I was asked by a friend whether it would be appropriate to put a particular movie in her “favorite movies” list on Facebook.
“Would it be a faux pas?” she wondered. “I’m just, worried, you know, about cultivating and stewarding my Facebook identity.” She proceeded to explain that what you like is “like 30% of you!” (The other 70%, naturally, being water.)
This strikes me as a rather common anxiety, and, if not entirely new to this era, certainly more of a problem now than in generations previous. Our grandparents may have worried about what books to display on their shelves, and our parents may have fretted over what records to leave faux-casually strewn across the floor in their college dorm rooms, but those were occasional experiences, not hourly struggles. There was, for most, no sense of being constantly on display. Even the most self- and status-conscious could count on a measure of privacy. Now, thanks to Facebook and its kin, millions have been prodded into a life lived on a virtual stage, perpetually engaged in the performance of attempting to be oneself—or at least what you imagine or hope to be the ideal of it.
Online profiles mean that everyone is now in an unending process of designing a brochure for themselves. The problems for people are the same as for corporations: what to include, what to exclude, what color choices and snappy headlines to employ. It must answer the question Who am I? in 250 words or less. Individuals, even non-famous ones, take on the qualities of brands, and the branding has become an acceptable, indeed, necessary component of social interaction. Advertising is a way of life; we live in the Age of Marketing.
This is the price we pay for Staying Connected. That’s not an indictment: It allows friends across the world, or even just the city, to mingle on your desktop; will anyone ever need to bring photos to their desks anymore? Those friendly little icons, passive and wordless, can now be replaced with digital photo albums, live chats, and endless piles of carefully arranged details: likes, dislikes, and other details, like the backs of old trading cards.
What will come of this? I couldn’t say. And anyway, I don’t have time to wonder—someone just IMed me, and my profile needs updating.