Tuesday, February 01, 2011


Self-portrayal on the Internet, even before Facebook took over, has long been very best-foot-forward. We hear about professional and social successes, not unfortunate pimples or disinvitations, exclusions or rejections. We hear about a love of Proust, not the three pages of Proust read for every ten hours of "Two and a Half Men" watched. It's not that people don't behave this way in life, but failings are harder to hide in person, and self-deprecation is more complicated to convey in text, and so isn't bothered with so much online, or if it is, it's in a way that can't possibly be misconstrued as admitting to failures.

The capacity of Facebook to make everyone feel like an unaccomplished hermit has inspired academic research, which in turn inspired Slate to inspire its readers to spontaneously, using the Twitter function I don't entirely understand of pressing the pound key and thus tagging posts, "submit" times when Facebook ("#sadbook") made them sad. (Somehow it makes sense that Facebook would be worst offender here, given that part of its appeal originally was that everyone on it seemed to go to a more elite school than one's self.)

So it's funny to see that the examples Twitter-submitted in to Slate, or the ones they picked, are not only, as they admit, poor examples of the phenomenon ostensibly being discussed, but also examples of the senders making themselves look good. "It should be said that many of the #sadbooks have nothing to do with social networking comparisonitis; they’re commentaries on bad spelling, on the boneheaded ways people treat each other online, and on the pathos you can often glimpse in the cracks of our networked lives." Gar! People simply cannot portray themselves negatively or even neutrally online, even if the point of the exercise is to portray one's self negatively online.

Onto the list:

When your 70-year-old dad shows up as "someone you might know."

Yes, it's weird when Facebook and family meet, unsettling for the young that the not-so-young know how to use computers, amusing, but not upsetting, when it's suggested a parent is Someone You Might Know. A better "Someone You Might Know" complaint would have been the tendency of that feature to attempt to reintroduce exes, friends of exes, and acquaintances one has felt snubbed by socially or professionally. This example reveals smugness about one's relative youth, and that one finds one's father cute-in-a-spry-old-relative-way. If the issue was that he's estranged, that, and not his age, would be mentioned.

Not sending friend requests to people from high school who were popular just in case they still think they're too good for me.

Acceptable. Someone, somewhere, understood the exercise. Extra points for feeling bad about one's self in a way that harkens back to adolescent misery.

Photo albums consisting of nothing but selfshots taken in the bathroom.

Yes, it's long been socially unacceptable to take a bathroom-mirror (and yes, my own Twitter photo is in intentional disregard for this rule), whether because it implies one does not have anyone to take one's picture (although cameras can have timer functions) or because it's a cliché. Either way, the person made "sad" by seeing such an album is actually feeling smug that his own albums depict a life more social and/or original.

When the whole of the "friendship" is a repeated "Let's meet for coffee sometime."

This is a way that Facebook directly mimics off-line life - the "let's do lunch" acquaintances with whom it is mutually agreed one will never get lunch. Such encounters are if anything part of a vibrant social or professional life - both parties agree that they are too busy for the other. Slight caveat: the acquaintance/casual friend who gets in touch after a lag that was based on mutual apathy, who profusely apologizes for having been so busy, who offers a list of the fabulous ways in which he's been occupied, who promises to make it up, who feels so so bad, is maybe just playing a variant of let's-do-lunch played among those close enough, but just, to occasionally get lunch, but is mostly just setting things up, #sadbook-style, as though the other party has been waiting by the phone the whole time. So perhaps "let's do lunch" on Facebook, under certain conditions, can be insulting, but in general, it's if anything a sign that one's socializing and/or networking is normal as can be.

Noticing that one person in a group photo isn't tagged makes me sad. Who are they? Why won't anyone tag them?

Also smug (because who but an always-tagged who's interpreting having been tagged as some kind of social affirmation would object?) but mostly just odd. Maybe the person untagged himself? Maybe you, the viewer, are not among the set selected by the "untagged" individual to view his photos? Indeed, this might have been spun as an excellent #sadbook if the viewer wondered neurotically why he didn't make it past this acquaintance's privacy filter.

An entire generation is going to grow up totally unaware that an ellipsis is only 3 periods ... not 16.

Where curmudgeonly meets smug.

People who announce their divorce by changing their relationship status to "single."

Not even sure what this one means. Maybe someone told those close to them that their marriage wasn't working out years prior, but you the casual acquaintance are only finding out now? Maybe people who are single wish to make that fact known to potential dates, and the only thing weird about it is that they're coming out of a marriage and not a three-week-long fling, which for those of us who got to know Facebook as college students might seem like a misuse of the site. At any rate, this particular complaint reads as though it comes from someone Bridget Jones would call a "smug married," or at the very least someone smug in whatever relationship status they have in life and, if they put one, on Facebook................ or perhaps just smug in having not been so crass as to put that information on the site.

The song that my close friend has referenced in his status update is by Nickelback.

Not a band I'd ever heard of, but I'm assuming from the context that this falls under the category of smug ('I have musical taste') with a hint of made-for-the-Internet self-deprecation ('can you believe I'm friends with someone like that?')

This is such a missed opportunity. Keeping the examples to those relevant to my own milieu and age group, the possibilities are endless. Grad students gaze longingly at the lives of Real Job-havers, while those with real jobs get to hear about grad students' semesters spent dunking croissants (does one dunk croissants?) in Paris. Or a romantic-issues example - one of my Facebook friends just posted something about how the ads she gets on the site are for wedding caterers, because she is after all a grown woman In a Relationship with a man. So true! Meanwhile, those who are getting married or have recently can (as Flavia pointed out) look at all the fun singles are having. Or they can just feel bad about themselves by looking at the wedding albums of friends of friends, whose loving families, rich or good-looking new spouses, or 500 adoring best friends will play into whichever insecurities fit. But no. This would require copping to insecurity online, which is unacceptable.


kei said...

Wow, you might count yourself lucky to have never heard of Nickelback.

I understand how it might be kind of interesting to read about some study of how we underestimate ourselves and overestimate others with respect to social identities, but isn't this Slate article just more "Facebook has a superficial quality to it" news that's kind of old? Not to knock at your post, which I would tag as #realtalk. You're right--it's hard to tweet bad-puppy things, partially because I'm not inclined to be like, "Hey everyone, Mitsu just peed on the floor!" but also because it's hard to capture such bad moments on camera. I'm going to think about this some more, because Mitsu can have her shining bad moments. (Not dead-puppy moments though--that reference was weird. Dead dog posts happen and , but dead puppy?! Wth?!)

But I guess in the end, the Slate piece stuff and I are maybe on the same page. I stopped checking Facebook last year, and I have to say that I think I feel better as a result. I've been trying to stop being so hateful and judgmental online, and Facebook was responsible for at least 75% of that kind of online negativity I'd happily engage in. I was also creeped out by how much I knew about people I didn't really care for. I understand you can "hide" certain people's updates, but I didn't understand the point of doing this *manually!* if the only people you cared about made up like, less than 15% of your "friends" list. Shouldn't there be an app for this?! (Maybe there is and I just missed the boat.) Anyway, Facebook was all replaced by cable TV, fantasy baseball, and Twitter. Of course, none of these new things is anything to be writing home about, like working hard towards a dissertation or something. But I do recommend avoiding Facebook for whatever negative reasons--being judgmental (an asshole, smug, etc.), being competitive, being depressed, and so on--and just replacing it with something positive, even if it's something seemingly frivolous like another (but somehow less hate-inducing?) social networking site or online shopping. It's not just about not being sad, either in smug or depressing ways, but also about not getting riled up in some wasteful way for no apparently good reasons.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


Please, please post puppy photos! They make me, at least, happy - your puppy seems fantastic, and is inspiration for me in my own puppy search (on hiatus, of course, what with Paris). And I was also disturbed by the mention of puppy mortality! Not right!

I think the initial Slate article, like others at the time, were about a study about how sites like Facebook make people feel bad about themselves. Which I do think is a different point from Facebook being shallow. I mean, blogs are not always shallow, but when I first noticed the online self-presentation-as-fabulous phenomenon, it was as it manifested itself on serious-ish blogs. It's worse with Facebook, but the fact that we're not getting deeper into people's real selves, that wall posts are a poor replacement for real conversation or even email, isn't the source of the problem. The issue as I see it is more that the Internet in general... it's not that it doesn't allow insecurity, I suppose, but that we get either a completely sanitized, everything-going-great version of people's lives, or we get the pathetic overshare. There's no expression of people being just OK with how their lives are going. I can't articulate why this is a problem, but if nothing else, it's strange.

The second Slate piece, on the other hand, gets closer to the experience of Facebook, the fact that one also feels a sense of superiority, or hate, negativity, "getting riled up," etc., when confronted with a lot of what's posted. I did finally figure out the update-blocking, but I suppose when I do sign on, it's out of habit, as one of the sites I just kind of go to, but then I arrive and am not sure what I'd find interesting, kind of like an old email account one is phasing out. The excitement over all this information, all those pictures has long since waned, so I stay on basically to have a list of my friends and acquaintances, an interactive address book.

So basically, yes, I agree that the negativity is not limited to, as a commenter I think at Slate put it, comparing one's own inner self to the projected self of others. I also agree that the answer's not to sign on so much, and to find better wastes of time. But #sadbook in its initial incarnation taps into something real and if not newly discovered, newish, which is why I was disappointed ("sad" would be a stretch) that the exercise ended up being about how stupid we all think others seem on the site - precisely the opposite of the intended response. I think it's easier to tune out the site if your main objection to it is how stupid most people seem on it, than if your response is one of envy, and that most people react with a mix of both.