The Mask of Social Media
Facebook, Twitter, and other social networks have transformed the way we interact, but how real are the virtual selves that we create online?
Unlike any other time in history, the average citizen is getting a taste of the world of celebrity. With little more than a laptop and a user account, we now have the power to create an “image” comprised of photo albums, status updates, and tweets. And we can reap tremendous social praise for our glam-shot photos, humor, and popularity as measured by our quantity of “friends” or “followers.”
But this new era we have knowingly entered, as with any era, will have its repercussions, many still unknown. Though social networking is passionately embraced among those eager to communicate, collaborate, and make money globally, perhaps the world of celebrity offers the best hints as to where this new culture of artificial reality could lead if we’re not careful.
Ten years ago, it would have been absurd for your sister to tell you she was getting married through an email. Just this week, my coworker found out that her sister, who she lives with, was engaged through a Facebook status. In her sister’s defense, it is much more efficient to write a Facebook status, where all of your friends and family can be alerted to an important announcement at once, rather than making separate phone calls. But it is this quest for immediacy, and the pressure to keep up with the times, that ironically will de-socialize our social-centric society. Despite this revelation, the machine cannot be stopped. Critics will become hypocrites; I am no exception as I type this “revelation” on my iPhone while having lunch with a friend.
Celebrities are being forced to become more “real,” via outlets like Twitter, in order to synergize with the new self-made celebrities of social networks and reality television. A Facebook or Twitter profile is seen as a more accurate portrayal of an individual, because it offers the full spectrum of life — personal, professional, and emotional — and it is often less censored than their public persona. What we are discovering is that relatable and local characters are more compelling than super-sensationalized celebrities. Ironically, this encourages the average, “real” citizen to create a more sensationalized version of their own public persona.
By now, both critics and enthusiasts have acknowledged the “Facebook Effect,” but back when the quiet storm was still developing in Silicon Valley, no one could have predicted the power of its impact. This freedom that social networks provide has facilitated political movements, the most recent being the protests in Tunisia and Egypt, which were driven, in part, by messages on Facebook.
While people are starting to realize the power of “image” on social networks, be it real or false, Internet-image security is quickly becoming a powerful new industry, as the world is made smaller and people are forced to submit to the social machine. For example, a new application called uProtect.it was recently introduced on Facebook, to protect comments, status updates, and even prevent Facebook from accessing them. Michael Fertig, CEO of Reputation.com, the company that created the app, highlights its social and political implications: “You want to help the guys in Tunisia? Here’s your tool.”
These concerns spark paranoia, not only for citizens of oppressive nations but also among average citizens right here in the United States who not want their bosses finding out what they did on their “sick day.”
So why can’t we stop sharing our personal business on the Internet? Is it therapeutic, or have we become so self-obsessed that we truly believe the world cares about our every rant and rave?
Movies about the future have all offered commentary on where they think the world is headed socially, and it has always been toward an apathetic, narcissistic society. Although the insights are typically guided by humor, the writers are clearly on to something. The Pixar film Wall-E (2008), for instance, depicted a future where careless humans consumed all the Earth’s resources and were forced to live on a space shuttle. The humans are obese, mobile only with the assistance of flying La-Z-Boy-style chairs. They have no face-to-face interaction; they speak to each other on video chat screens, usually around a pool that they never swim in. The film suggests not only that the trend of ever-greater convenience will eventually lead to chronic laziness, but also that our technology will one day reshape our reality.
A false and perverted reality is also the theme of the 2009 film Surrogates, starring Bruce Willis. This film takes place in a future world where people never leave their home, but interact through surrogate robots that go into the world as more polished versions of themselves. The surrogates are physically and cosmetically superior to their owners. Although this may be extreme, social networks in many ways serve a similar function. We present ourselves in a manner that we feel is more attractive and appealing, and ultimately many of us prefer sharing and interacting that way over connecting in person because of the control we have to carefully manage our image.
It’s obvious that social networking is changing the psychology of our culture. We love being constantly “plugged in.” We crave the immediacy of communication and the instant gratification of seeing friends respond to our random thoughts and observations. We also love the way it has helped us improve our sense of self. Thanks to social media, we now have the opportunity to create an artificial version of ourselves that makes us look good to our friends and followers. But in our enthusiasm to connect, are we in danger of trading truth for virtual reality?