I signed up for Facebook in tenth grade, the day the website became available to non-college students. There were a lot of reasons for this: I wanted to keep in touch with college friends who were using Facebook, I saw its “clean” look as a welcome change from MySpace, and it was very skewed towards the ability-to-form-complete-sentences demographic. But most of all, I think I joined Facebook—and then began to spend unreasonable amounts of time logged into it—because of the news feed.
I’ve always had a stalker instinct, but Facebook is the best way I’ve ever encountered to privately observe what someone chooses to make publicly available about him- or herself. My obsession with the news feed allows me to comment on the notes full of in-jokes that my friends post, or to be privately bitchy about the inane and unsuccessful lives of my old enemies. And when I meet someone in a class or at a party, and subsequently look them up on Facebook, praying that they’ve made their profile public to the Princeton network, what that relative stranger has chosen to put on his or her profile instantly shapes my first impressions. The profile picture, the favorite books and movies, how many and what kinds of applications—all these things help me to fit that new acquaintance into my life, and I often feel as if I get to know very well someone I’ve only met once or twice in real life simply by following what shows up in the news feed.
Whatever our individual levels of obsession with Facebook, though (and I’m sure there are some folks out there who are just as fixated as I am), I think we all must realize that someone’s profile can only give a very limited impression of who they really are. As we, the college-educated youth who make up Facebook’s primary demographic, seek to define ourselves and shape our public identity through the pieces of our profiles Facebook lets us fill in, we’re constrained by what it considers important or relevant information. And so our first impressions of people we friend—whether they be new acquaintances, or old classmates we haven’t seen since elementary school, or distant relatives—are so often determined by those first few fields in the Facebook profile: “Interested in.” “Looking for.” “Relationship Status.” “Political Views.” “Religious Views.” Mark Zuckerberg determined the makeup of our vital statistics, and these in combination with our profile pictures become the sum of our identities.
But while a lot of folks, I think, are relieved by the way that Facebook allowed them to divorce themselves from the sense-bombarding world of MySpace bad HTML, just as many feel constrained by the limits of these Zuckerberg-assigned markers of identity. Just look at the campaign that was waged a couple of years ago in a series of groups and petitions that successfully opened up the “Political Views” field to more options than simply a spectrum of five discrete values, ranging from “Very Liberal” to “Very Conservative.” Somehow, an open box makes encapsulating one’s political or religious philosophy in a few words so much easier, and it certainly serves to mollify those folks who, whether their profile now declares them to be “socialist” or “libertarian,” see their political identity as falling outside a liberal-conservative spectrum. The fact that one can now choose from a much wider set of options, including established political parties from a variety of countries, or type anything one wants into the box, creates at least the illusion of freedom, the ability for teenagers and young adults to pick exactly the right words with exactly the right connotations to declare themselves to other people, shaping strangers’ perceptions in exactly the right way.
Another labeling war that still continues—and, one could argue, is being lost by those seeking more freedom in self-identification—is the sex/gender/orientation war. Here Facebook’s reliance on discrete quantities is unyieldingly absolute: one is strongly encouraged to select one’s “Sex” as “male” or “female,” to check either or both of the “men” and “women” boxes under “Interested in,” and to thus publicly shape one’s sexual identity as a totally binary one. This is not at all surprising, in a society that reinforces the strict absolutes of male and female or gay and straight, but it’s as constricting—if not more so—than the limited political options ever were.
And yet, unlike the expansion of the political spectrum, Facebook has if anything become more binary, more gender-essentialist. Just last summer, a message popped up on everyone’s Facebook homepage, asking them to pick a pronoun: would you, dear user, prefer to show up on other folks’ news feeds as “he” or “she”? It was a pretty weighty question, and when it was asked of me, even I, who have never used anything but female pronouns, found myself hesitating. What a huge decision, regardless of one’s own identity, one’s own labels, to have to determine which set of cultural stereotypes one wishes to align oneself with—and on Facebook, of all things, where the design of one’s profile is so fraught with presenting oneself exactly as one wants to be perceived. I chose “she” in the end, as I’d known I would, but the answer wasn’t so easy for some transgender and genderqueer folks I know, whose identity is in effect ignored by the man-woman dichotomy that Facebook’s labels enforce.
Facebook, of course, is a reflection of our society, with regard to both the people who designed and maintain it and the people who use it. Politics got diversified where sexual and gender identities didn’t, because, demographically speaking, far more people desire to label themselves as “socialist” or “libertarian” than desire to label themselves, say, “genderqueer” or “pansexual.” I don’t need to do a scientific study to declare that for the majority of Facebook users, choosing between “male” and “female” or picking a pronoun simply doesn’t lead to major philosophical conundra. And so the minority for whom this is an enormous deal find themselves relegated to user-created applications such as “SGO” (which stands for “sex/gender/orientation,” and provides more options than Facebook’s own fields) or “Relationships+” (which allows non-monogamous folks more choices than the familiar “single”/”in a relationship”/”it’s complicated” drop-down box can provide). They find themselves unable to sustain the critical mass, or to impress upon Facebook’s staff the importance of their cause, to properly effect the change they want to see. And that’s not too different, retrograde though it may be, from the fact that same-sex marriage is illegal in most states, or from the difficulty transgender folks have getting their identification documents to reflect their correct gender.
But Facebook has a unique hold over undergraduates nationwide—particularly, I think, here in the Ivy League, where it began—and so it’s as much a shaping agent of our cultural norms and expectations as it is a reflection of them. Most folks, I think, don’t question the nature of the fields as they fill them in, and so Facebook subconsciously encourages one to choose from the available options, to come up with something to put in that box, instead of seeking out a different label or deciding to reject labels altogether. Indeed, until I started thinking about writing this article, it didn’t occur to me to wonder about what Facebook and its creators think to be most important: why are someone’s religious and political views listed above their favorite books or movies? Why are education and work history what you have to scroll down to see? And why, exactly, are we listening to what some Westchester County-born, Exeter- and Harvard-educated billionaire wunderkind thinks should be the most important pieces of someone’s identity? Why are we letting him break us down into discrete quantities so that we can fill out a social-networking profile?
It is the prerogative of the teenager or young adult—the college kid—to seek definitions and labels, to form an adult identity by exploring what one is and what one is not, and to ally oneself with different groups, ideals, and stereotypes. At Princeton (or so it seems to this freshman), one forms one’s identity on the basis of a collection of facts: things like major, hometown, extracurricular activities, and eating club membership. And perhaps that’s why the profiles of adults of our parents’ generation who have recently begun to join Facebook are so very different from ours. Many of them don’t seem to know what to do with the boxes Facebook expects them to type in—trying to force the text fields to accommodate more fluid prose, or not writing anything at all. By doing so, they are quite evidently using Facebook for a very different purpose than I and a lot of other 18-to-25-year-olds are. To generalize, they seek to communicate on a personal level—to keep in touch with old college friends, or post pictures of their vacations and their children. We, by contrast, seek to broadcast, to declare, to pontificate, to make some statement about who we are and what we value. Interpersonal communication is secondary. We are all about one-to-many, not one-to-one.
It would be easy to cast this contrast as a generation gap, something that is unique to Generation Y in the Age of the Internet. But instead, I think it’s definitional of young people as a whole, the need to label, to box, to pigeonhole—and to broadcast. It’s identifiable in youth politics, popular culture, and all the facets of collegiate, adolescent life since the 20th century made the concept of youth culture identifiable.
As much as it’s deplorable to me that a majority view of what is essential to a social-networking profile means that minority identities go ignored, all this is what’s so alluring to me about Facebook, and why I reflexively load its homepage every time I open my browser. Yes, Facebook makes a personal appeal to my stalker instinct, and allows me to fulfill my petty desire to compare myself favorably to the folks I went to school with. But I think that I created a profile back in tenth grade because I was desperately eager to shape a picture of myself that I could share with the world. I wanted to break down all my wants and needs and desires, all my inner confusion, all my crises of self-identification, into easily-explained quantities that I could share with the world and exchange with others. It has never been easier to proclaim my cultural allegiances or to define myself by what I’m not—and the nature of the entire phenomenon of youth identities has never been more disconcertingly apparent.