Until recently, I thought the reason I was so reluctant to get laid or poked (a cute way of getting your friend’s attention when you are both online, which I have actually yet to experience) was that I was afraid of commitment.
But what I now realize is that the true source of my ambivalence isn’t fear of obligation to others, but of commitment to a consistent version of myself. Which brings me to Facebook – something that is more about me than I could ever be.
The fact is, Facebook offers the possibility of creating an endlessly better version of me. I am both medium and message. This is McLuhan on crystal meth; this is McLuhan on Facebook.
In my profile, I presented a smart and sexy self with very little effort. I chose the best photograph and added a witty little remark for my status. Then I noted my recent poetry book publication, as if this were the only thing my old high school friends needed to know about me (“I found Jacob on Facebook the other day and he’s a published author now”) and filled in my favourite movies and books, selecting ones that were either canonical (showing that I’m well watched/read) or somewhat obscure (showing that I’m unique).
I topped these off with a couple, but only a couple, of light-hearted films and books, to show that I don’t take myself too seriously.
What else is there to know about me? Nothing. Nothing that I want my now 96 friends (and climbing) to know anyway.
Nowhere on my Facebook page will you find out that I’ve racked up a few disastrous romances. No, my Facebook self, Jacob Scheier the published poet who has read and liked Civilization And Its Discontents while also loving the romance-comedy Big, would not be involved in such textbook neurotic behaviour.
Jean-Paul Sartre acknowledged that you can’t be your true self all the time without lapsing into a state of paralyzed madness. And, of course, the line between “real” self and persona is blurry at best, since I really did read and like Civilization And Its Discontents, but I am also picking my nose as I write this and pining after a woman who insulted me in several creative ways before dumping me.
Of course, nothing in this woman’s Facebook profile suggests that she likes humiliating mind games and drinking till she becomes belligerent. No, she likes, oh, let’s say, bluegrass music and French existential literature. She is “very liberal” and her religious views consist of a quote from Gibran’s The Prophet. I would like to meet her if I hadn’t already done so.
My point is this: she isn’t lying about herself; she’s just omitting information that gives the least bit of insight into her actual self.
Like me, she knows how much more likeable her Facebook self is.
The problem isn’t that Facebook encourages us to conceal much of our actual selves, but that it may actually convince us that our Facebook selves are real. As this woman told me, after our last Walpurgisnacht, or “date,” “Sorry, I wasn’t myself that night.”
The other side of this is that you can’t maintain a persona in the non-virtual realm for long. Ultimately, it seems, this woman rejected me because of all the qualities that are not listed on my Facebook profile. She also deleted me as her Facebook friend, because I told her I didn’t want to be actual friends. I was perfectly fine with our Facebook selves keeping in touch.
I find myself wishing that I could (and maybe that everyone could) be more like my (their) Facebook self. And this has helped me understand why Facebook is so addictive.
People claim they’re addicted to spying on their “friends” or ex-lovers they’ve become friends with in order to spy on them. I, too, am addicted to voyeurism via Facebook, but only because it allows me to spy on myself. I am addicted to the online self I am continually making.
Jean Baudrillard observed we have copied the original symbols of our culture so many times that we no longer have imitations of the originals; the imitations are the only reality left. My Facebook self started as a fraction of who I am, but now I find myself taking pieces of that persona and attaching them onto and over my “real” self.
Just as Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) in Trainspotting makes a rational argument for the irrational choice of heroin over life, I am more and more choosing my Facebook self over my real self as a legitimate lifestyle alternative to life.
It would probably now take a 12-step program to get me off the site, and one of the early steps would be acknowledging that I am not my Facebook self. But I’m not going to propose a 12-step program, but, rather, something involving less human contact, something that accords with the beliefs and values of my generation, something like methadone.
I propose another Facebook. Facebook II would encourage us to reveal our less desirable traits. Acceptable profile pictures would include people in the throes of vomiting or sobbing or cleaning their ears with their fingers.
We could keep the lists of movies and books, but we’d list the ones we didn’t understand or couldn’t appreciate. I’ve never made it past the first few pages of Ulysses, for instance (something my Facebook self would never admit, although he probably believes that he really enjoyed those first few pages and it’s only a matter of time before he reads, likes and understands the entire book).
Finally and most obviously, we would accumulate enemies instead of “friends.” We could seek out our enemies, add them to our list and exchange insults on one another’s walls.
(It has recently come to my attention that there is a site called Snubster that allows one to put people “on notice’’ or worse, on a “dead to me’’ list, although most enemies named are celebrities, like Paris Hilton, and little is revealed about the users.)
I am not suggesting that this cynical, somewhat hateful person, my Facebook II self, is the real me (or you). I guess I could say this is the kind of essay my Facebook II self would write if he weren’t so lazy. My hope, then, is to create a Hegelian synthesis (see how much stuff I know!) out of my Facebook I and Facebook II traits.
Not because being real is cool, but because it has become a lot easier to look at ourselves in our Facebook profiles than in the mirror. And when it stops being necessary to look in the mirror, we become capable of just about anything.
Jacob Scheier is a Toronto poet and author of More To Keep Us Warm (ECW).