The Design Observer Group

Posted 03.11.09

Jessica Helfand

My Facebook, My Self

Lillian Gish as Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter, 1926. Photo Courtesy of Turner Network Television.

In a recent interview on the Today Show, Mark Zuckerberg — the young founder of Facebook — observed that the single most distinctive feature of his revolutionary social networking site was its capacity to let users control various degrees of privacy.

I would have listened to more of the interview were it not for my laptop notifying me that I was being invited to chat by someone I went to high school with. For anyone unfamiliar with this practice, Facebook also has a questionable feature displaying everyone who you’ve “friended” who happens to be online while you’re online, which in turn allows them to spontaneously engage you in an online chat. (Even if you’re sitting in your pajamas, watching the Today Show.) Mind you, the sheer fascination of this surprise encounter — this particular guy never uttered a single word to me when I was a teenager — struck me then, as it does now, as remarkably un-private.

Turns out, the very perception of what is public versus what is private is a fundamentally generational conceit. It is also, as it happens, a visual one.

Kitty Baker Scrapbook, Norfolk VA, about 1916. From Scrapbooks: An American History.

I am often asked whether people made scrapbooks, a century ago, intending to share them with others. There’s no explicit visual cue that tells us people wanted their stories projected to the world, nor is it clear that any single scrapbook maker believed this to be a clearcut, black-and-white issue. (Couldn’t it be both?)

What it does point to is perhaps the more profound question of the projected self: who, after all, doesn’t want to look a certain way to others? Scrapbooks and photo albums represent a genre unto themselves because they are unique autobiographical efforts — unvalidated by external approvals, often asynchronous and even wrong in their depiction of real-world events, and stunningly prone to the occasional willfully-constructed fiction. Among other things, this explains why so many scrapbooks celebrate a kind of curious “episodic” time — leapfrogging from happy event to happy event and ignoring the arguably more revealing, if banal, moments in between. Reconstructing biographical narratives within the context of so much idiosyncrasy is ridiculously hard. (And devilishly fun.) There’s also something deeply engaging in the ebbs and flows of personal stories in which actual truth is gloriously trumped by an individual’s own flawed, if heartfelt rendition of life as he or she deems fit. The resulting palimpsest-like volumes offer extraordinary reflections of authors no longer here to speak for themselves, in which visual cues become biographical cues: pictures speak at least as loud as the words that accompany them. Often, they speak louder.

Where Facebook is concerned, the line between public and private exists in a sort of parallel (though oddly torqued) universe: like scrapbooks, Facebook is comprised of pages with amalgamations of diverse content, all held together by an individual’s own process of selection. Generally speaking, there is a pronounced appreciation for nostalgia, alternately endearing (how adorable you were at 15!) and excruciating (how appalling you look at 50!). Just like scrapbooks, there is a fair amount of posturing and proselytizing, bad grammar and bizarre juxtapositions. There’s a scarcity of snark. And an almost evangelical devotion to stuff: where scrapbook-makers once pasted in pictures of their favorite film stars, Facebook encourages the construction of fan pages, as well as groups to join, causes to support, and so forth.

But when it comes to posting actual images, the similarity ends somewhat abruptly: first, because the emphasis on networked sharing is Facebook’s lingua franca, whereas scrapbooks inhabit a more diary-driven personal landscape; and second, because online, the degree to which pictures are deployed takes the projected self and splinters it into millions of tiny satellite identities leading who knows where.

And it begins with the no-holds-barred domain of the Facebook portrait, or portraits plural, since that is more the rule than the exception for most users. Why have one self-portrait when you can have twenty or thirty or more? I predict — within the next ten years or so — a magnificent exhibition in some great museum that examines the aesthetic permutations of the iterative self-portrait: retouched and re-engineered, Googled and canoodled and oh-so-public. But the social consequences of such wanton picture-posting are not without concern: paradoxically, while this endless and myopic self-branding may breed a generation of really thoughtful image-makers, what are they jeopardizing, even sacrificing, in the process?

For anyone under the age of, say thirty or so, the whole notion of open-source thinking is a native habitat that can be applied to everything from group-table seating in restaurants to sharing playlists to data clouds (I tag, you tag, we all tag) — in short, there’s nothing proprietary because people in this particular demographic group don’t perceive space as anything you can own. They see it as infinite real estate, to be grazed but not commandeered, shared but not colonized. The beauty of this thinking, besides the fact that it is inherently democratic and gracious, is that it lends itself to a kind of progressive evolution in which everyone wins. It’s commendable, really, and speaks well for us all.

On the other hand (and I’m not the first, nor will I be the last to mention it) there are implicit pitfalls in this rapidly growing virtual arena, particularly for those for whom social skills have not caught up with, say, their computational skills. On Facebook, this leads to huge numbers of pictures by kids of kids at parties acting stupid — yes, stupid — with cigarettes and sunglasses and cans of beer and face paint. It’s kind of sweet and sort of sad and probably meaningless (or so way too many parents of teenagers tell me) and lighten up, I’m told, because they’re just posturing, showing the world just how radical they can be. It’s safe, because after all, they’re not drinking and driving. They’re just on screen.

Or are they? Even if you are super-careful — hell, even if you don’t have a Facebook account yourself — say you find yourself at some random party where there's someone brandishing a mobile phone. And that someone (or, for that matter, someone else) snaps your picture. Soon thereafter, somebody with a Facebook account “tags” you and there you are — whammo — your questionable behavior rendered spectacularly public. Sure, the same thing can happen on Flickr (and does) but there’s something about those interconnected six-degrees-of-separation orbits on Facebook that make a seemingly innocent act like "posting" a random image seem both insidious and scary. (Scarier still, many of the more provocative pictures being posted are actually seen as
badges of honor by the people posting them.)

Naturally, people in their thirties and forties (and fifties and sixties) are just as likely to parade themselves through their Facebook albums, and do. But the control mechanism is more conscious, and the editorial process itself is typically a bit more cogent. Sure, there are people my age posting images of themselves with big hair back in the 1980s, but this seems more silly (and sentimental) than self-destructive. (After all, those of us who remember a world before Starbucks are old enough to know better.) No — self-destructive is a thirteen-year old girl posting images of herself in a bikini, and all the boys in her class, and her school, and her neighborhood, and even her friends’ friends commenting on it, all of it screamingly public. Self-destructive is a seventeen-year old high school senior posting images of himself with a bong, or downing shots of whiskey, or lap-dancing with that thirteen-year old in the bikini. Self-destructive is the as-yet unknown ramifications of so much self-publishing, when what we're publishing is our selves.

Who is to say what’s right or wrong, what’s appropriate or not, what’s shared, what’s seen, what’s hidden? Plenty of what’s taking place on Facebook is inherently innocuous, and most of us are willing to take responsibility for what we post and where we post it. A lot of Facebook is seamless and fast, streamlined and effective and fun. But as projections of ourselves, a Facebook identity, made manifest through a person's posted photo albums, inhabits a public trajectory that goes way beyond who and what we are. And it all starts with what — and more critically, who — we actually show.