Thursday, October 11, 2012

Facebook over-over-analyzed

-A Twitter correspondant of a writer I met on the Internet before in person (how's that for bloggy?) interpreted my post about Facebook-unique neurosis to mean that people "struggle" from the pain of seeing near-strangers hanging out without them, after calling it a "sad predicament." The trouble with all writing, bloggy included, is that often one means one thing, but is read as meaning something else. What I'd intended as a light-hearted observation about how social media changes our interpretation of our social circles was read as something like a cry for help. I was kind of stunned that it was read this way, especially given the paragraph at the end about the be-a-grown-up approach to these feelings, but it was.

So, to be absolutely, abundantly clear, to readers with and without a self-deprecating bent, what I'm referring to isn't crippling depression or full-on deluded narcissism. Rather, I'm talking about the more everyday experience of feeling as though you've just hung out with someone you last saw six years prior because you've been getting updates about them, from them, continuously for years. If you don't experience this, more power to you, but if you do, I suspect in most cases, you'll be just fine.

-I think I've figured out, thanks to Miss Self-Important's comments, where it is that Amber and I disagree re: whether it is (says Amber) or is not (says WWPD) awful for women to put photos of their babies up as profile pics on Facebook. And it ultimately has nothing to do with feminism. Basically, if I see that someone only uses Facebook to highlight one aspect of their identity, I don't assume that they have, in life, shed everything else. Or, rather, I might assume this, but I know intellectually that this assumption is probably incorrect, and that this is an impulse I should reject.

This is, however, yet another way social media distort experience. If - and this gets at MSI's point - someone has a blog entirely devoted to an interest, professional or amateur, readers don't assume this is the person. Whereas with Facebook, yup, people do feel as though what they're getting the full story. One can have a blog about something. But a Facebook profile is about you.

But some of us don't fill out our entire profiles, don't use the site for every possible purpose (friend-updates, family-updates, interesting-article-links, professional-networking, romantic-pursuit...), either because we can't be bothered or because we don't want whichever information online. We shouldn't assume that someone who doesn't list or mention hobbies doesn't have any, that someone who doesn't list favorite books is a philistine, that someone with no relationship listed is or is not single, and so on.

So, back to the babies. Someone with a baby might feel as if they owe family and friends updates/photos, but may not have the time (b/c busy with baby, or just generally busy) or inclination to update about whatever else may still be going on in their lives. Obviously it's something else if - as Caryatis's acquaintance did - someone turns an entire profile into an OMG-I'm-a-mom extravaganza. But that, I think, would be the exception.


Miss Self-Important said...

I think previous post ate my comment too, but I will restate: I agree with this. I was struck by Amber's comment about well-roundedness in the previous post - she seems to expect that everyone use Facebook to convey their full, authentic selfhood, and baby-photo posting violates this expectation and thereby demonstrates some character deformity on the part of the violator. And even those who were pro-baby photo assumed this, and wanted to argue that full selfhood-as-mom is legitimate. This does not seem like a good view to have either way. It's certainly reasonable to judge people based on what they post or write under their own names, online or off, but it's probably not a good idea to assume that every emission of words or photos is intended to be viewed as a holistic image of themselves.

Amber said...

There's a reason one of the taglines for my blog is "a caricature of Goffmanian anxiety." Identity is performative. If someone chooses to only put baby photos (or dog photos, or droning analyses of Supreme Court cases) on a site which purports to be a venue for performance of one's total identity, then that person is making a statement about the kind of identity they wish to convey to their Facebook friends. In the realm of Facebook, one can only interact with what someone else puts out there to interact with. I can only judge the performance I see. If you're saying with your every action that you are interested in nothing but babies---that your personal identity revolves around being a parent---then I will assume that identity reflects what you want me to think. (Apparently you want me to think that you are boring.)

It's not deformity in the sense of being the result of preexisting character; the conveyance of one sole identity, to the exclusion of and abandonment of all else, is itself the process by which your previous identity is deformed. I assume this deformation is a deliberate choice, or at least the product of unconscious choices driven by your values.

i said...

I have a bit of a split reaction to this phenomenon. Theoretically, I find it awful -- I swore I would never do it before I had a kid, and in fact quit facebook soon after getting married and did not post any pictures of *that* online either. Don't know why, the obviousness of that narrative -- even if it's a narrative I happen to have followed to the letter in the past few years -- grates on me.

In practice, the people I know who have replaced their profile pics with those of their kids (and mind, this is a few years back) are either men, or women whom I know to be tough as balls, so I don't worry so much. I mean, if Hillary Clinton had a picture of Chelsea up on her FB profile for a while, I wouldn't worry too much about it.

Plus the babies are cute.

Now that I'm actually a parent, I have a closed Picasa site I update with pictures of the kid. I send the link out to any friends who ask for pictures, but I do not email people when it is updated. They can check if they're interested. I would never put the baby pic as my profile pic. But it's still so hard to live up to my pre-baby, STFUparents-reading standards. For example: the hubby is totally into privacy, even more so than I am, and so refuses to allow me to put any videos of our kid on YouTube, despite my newfound conviction that the baby's ridiculous adorableness will go viral.

(It took about half a year, but whatever those hormones are that make mothers think their babies are God's gift to humankind have finally hit me. I'm starting to think that whole Jesus in a Manger story is a myth for the ultimate maternal fantasy: finally the world bows down and recognizes your kid as the most amazing thing that has ever happened on the planet.)

CW said...

I do choose how to portray myself on facebook, but it is choice I've made in response to the feedback I receive (likes and comments). I have a lot of relatives, and they go nuts for a picture of the kids or cute anectdote about them. Some people also appreciate it if I post something about politics with which they agree. Posts or pictures related to other topics or aspects of my life don't get much, if any, of a response (though my mom is a pretty reliable commenter). In person, people may be interested in talking about books we've read, places we've gone, how work is going, etc., but on facebook they want me to post kid pics, jabs at Romney, and posts in favor of gay marriage (in my state, we have to vote on that this fall). So, that's mostly what they get.

If identity is performative, I am responding to my audience. People can blog all they want about how terrible parents are for making facebook all about their children, but nothing gets a positive response like a cute picture of a kid. If you want mothers to share other aspects of their identities, you have to reward them for displaying that aspect of their identities.

i said...

CW, thank you for that.... I had actually never thought of that aspect of things. It kind of hit at me, since in the past week, I've probably hit "like" or commented on all three of those post categories.

And that makes me think of another aspect of things. Yeah, lots of people dislike preening parents, and some are downright uncomfortable with it because of their own choices, nagging parents, inability to conceive, etc. But as long as the kid is not shit-smeared (alas, sometimes the case), at least you get a pic of a cute kid.

When I was still on FB with a personal profile, and doing the high-school reunion performance that wound up so annoying me, I posted versions of "look how exotic my life is" or "look how hard I am working." And I've seen plenty of others do the same. But, you know, there's really only so much you can say to the person who is posting that they're in some airport lounge going to a conference. (I have both done this and been annoyed when others do it.) There's not even a cute photo to go with it.

Hmmm.... can we all at least agree on kittens and sneezing pandas?

PG said...

Phoebe said...


Everything's performative, but what's interesting here is that a Facebook audience doesn't necessarily encourage/discourage the same behavior as does a real-life one. An absence of "likes" can mean 399 of your 400 Facebook friends are horrified by something you posted, or that it just didn't hit a nerve, b/c there's no dislike button.


As someone not anti-cat but plenty allergic, by all means kitten photos.



CW said...


Yes, the feedback mechanism really does work differently on facebook, and I find it does shape my behavior.

I think if 399 friends are horrified, there's a decent chance that at least one of them will say something. And most folks aren't confrontational enough to use a dislike button to express milder disagreement. So, I don't think the lack of the dislike button itself is the key. In real life, however, people can use tone of voice, body language, and social behavior to convey boredom, mild annoyance, and other forms of mild disapproval. If I go to a party and spend all my time talking about my kids and showing pictures of them, people will look bored and find excuses to leave my presence. I will either catch on or become that boring guy who is alone in the corner. On facebook, I'm only aware of the legions of aunts who love the baby pictures. I can't see my old college friends edging away from me.


Yes, the baby and kitten pictures do seem more bearable than the status updates in which one tries to make one's life seem exotic. It was the work trip to Rochester, NY in January that did me in. I couldn't find a way to spin that one.