First person: With Facebook, you can be all that you care to be

Read on

“The Social Network” has everyone talking about the birth of Facebook, and that has inpired much discussion about what it has grown up to be.

When I look at my Facebook profile (as I did before, will soon after, and will certainly a few times before finishing this piece), I don’t necessarily like what I see. And that’s frustrating, seeing as I created this image of myself, an image that more people will view than I ever care to know.

Facebook is our consumer medium for self-actualization. It’s the wonder product on the 3 a.m. infomercial that we simply can’t live without.

It forces us — the more than 500 million Facebook users worldwide — to define ourselves by breaking down our existence into words, images, videos and hyperlinks. But defining ourselves was never meant to be that easy. This thing, this virtual organism meant to simplify our identity and bring us closer to our friends and family, usually leaves us with more questions than answers.

No matter how current and hip and sexy I make my tastes in music, film, news and politics, there will always be that photo with a sleepy- drunk eye, or the flushed cheeks, or the potbelly there to remind me how imperfect I really am; how awkward I really am. Even if I remove my name from that photo (or video, or story), it still exists in more than a few places throughout the Facebook universe. Forever.

And still, I devote hours upon hours of my life to this site, this accessory, this invisible appendage that makes me cringe with embarrassment more often than not.

Facebook is an ever-growing library of my bad yearbook pictures. And I have an inexplicable need to go back and look at them. Moreover, I have a need to post visual and written proof of my weekend away, of my cool friends, of the breathtaking landscapes and visceral moments that can’t (and shouldn’t) be captured. My allegiance to Facebook has made me want to trap them.

Six years ago, I don’t know what I did with this unoccupied portion of my daily life.

I joined Facebook in June 2006, just over two years after it left Mark Zuckerberg’s Harvard dorm room and sprouted in hundreds of high schools and colleges. I was about to begin a summer program at Penn State and had heard that this was “the big college thing.” I remember sending one of my first friend requests to Dan, my would-be summer roommate.

Dan was from the other side of the state and liked professional wrestling, 50 Cent, hunting and tailgating in the back of his Ford pickup. In his profile picture at the time, Dan was leaning back in a folding chair around a campfire, wearing a bright Polo shirt and flip flops. He held a beer in one hand and made the “shocker” symbol (a reference to a sexual act) with the other. Dan was 18.

My perception of Dan on Facebook increased my anxiety about having a new roommate, as I’m sure it did his.

Through the glare of his own screen, Dan saw a shy, pale-faced, lanky teenager posing in front of his drum set with a feigned smile. More important, Dan, the Facebook veteran for months prior, saw a kid with only a handful of “friends.”

Dan saw a loser.

Back then, I was aloof to the subtleties of exposing myself with the right finesse on Facebook. I was still transitioning into a world where letting your personal guard down online was, for the most part, what people did.

I remember when Mrs. Crowley, my Catholic elementary-school principal, introduced “network computers” in an assembly on the first day of third grade. I remember nudging my friend Andrew in the arm and asking, “Does ‘network’ mean the same thing as ‘Internet’?” He didn’t know.

A few years later we learned about user names and passwords. We were taught — in hyperbolic Catholic-school absolutes — the importance of keeping our identity private in any and all dealings with a computer. Login names, screen names and e-mail addresses were to be as coded and cryptic as possible for our own safety. We were warned to treat the computer as a tool that should never be fully trusted, and warned that its teenage cousin, the Internet, was full of hackers and pedophiles on the prowl for our real names and home addresses.

Fifteen years later, this overly simplistic approach is a relic of modern times. In current Facebook culture, many users choose to share their full daily schedules, or, frighteningly, their exact GPS coordinates through the Facebook Places application or Foursquare.

When I look back on the hardships of my life that have transpired through ethernet cables and across Wi-Fi, I often wish I had been more careful.

As a sophomore in high school, xXtennisgirlXx broke my heart in an AOL Instant Message. Remember those? The real-time e-mail conversations in small pop-up windows? In those days (pre-Facebook chat, pre-Google chat), I’d spend hours waxing high- school philosophic with various members of my 200- friend buddy list. I’ve had a stutter all my life and have never been much for phone conversation. So, naturally, AIM was my thing, my equalizer, my chance to be smooth and cool and charming without the elephant in the room.

Between middle school and high school, I held entire relationships online. There were many nights, long after everyone else had gone to bed, where I sat hunched over the glowing screen in our family computer room telling xXtennisgirlXx about the amazing and creative dates we would one day have. I felt more intimacy and attachment to her within a chat bubble than when we hung out in person once or twice a month at the movies.

After all, Jhoops06 was a far better charmer than I was.

When she told me about this “other guy” one night, I knew that I’d never look at her pink typeface with the same adoration again. It was her alias, her cutesy feminine font, her flirty emoticons and her keyboard-created heart shapes that would stick in my mind; not her voice or her hair or her smile.

If Jhoops06 could get dumped, what did that mean for me?

While AIM screen names are now jokes of the past, digital aliases are more widespread than ever. We’re just using our real names, now.

These days, my Facebook profile is better than I am, cooler than I am, wittier than I am.

After that first shaky summer, I learned Facebook quick. Really quick. Facebook was AIM on steroids. And now it was me, really me, minus most of the real-life flaws. I learned the art of the witty status update, of the comment and wall post trade, how to make my interests seem interesting.

When I officially changed my relationship status from “Single” to “In a Relationship” midway through my freshman year of college, I was glad that a few hundred people knew. The complete lack of anonymity on Facebook was suddenly the best thing that had ever happened to me. For, I was literally, and, more important, virtually, in a relationship with a “real” person. She had a real name, real pictures, real interests and a real boyfriend on her page, too. And it was real, mostly, because we decided to make it so on the Internet.

When things fizzled out a year and a half later, more than anything, I dreaded the thought of manually changing my status back to “Single.” I never did. It was hard for her, too (she said), and we agreed to simply remove the relationship option from our respective profiles rather than declare our autonomy. To this day, as less serious relationships have come and gone, mine remains blank. I haven’t looked at hers in a while.

Much of my life on Facebook feels trivial, but there are moments that equally humble and horrify me on a weekly basis.

When I was driving cross- country and looking for a couch to crash on in Chicago, I found it in a Facebook friend, a friend whose phone number and e-mail address I never bothered to take down. When Lindsay, the chatterbox from my eighth-grade class died tragically in a car accident this past spring, I learned about it through Facebook. Recently, I learned of Rutgers freshman Tyler Clementi’s Facebook-induced suicide through a news article posted on, ironically, Facebook.

As my socially networked life increasingly concerns more than drunken photos and Farmville, I start to wonder if the benefits really outweigh the costs.

Six years ago, I had my heart broken in the privacy of a chat window that disappeared forever the moment I logged off. Now, old wounds and mistakes are permanently coded within the HTML of my real name, age, birthday, location and image on one of the most-visited websites on the Internet. Sure, at any moment I please, I can simply stop using Facebook and the threat will disappear.

But that, of course, would be too hard.