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What are Facebook friends for?

The Pharaohs built statues. Caesar put his visage on coins. We use Facebook and MySpace.

By Christine Rosen / October 10, 2007



WashingtoN

Although only in their adolescence, social networking sites such as MySpace.com and Facebook.com, which allow users to create profiles complete with pictures, commentary, music, and links to others, have become a major cultural presence. They offer users an easy way to keep track of old friends, find new ones, and advertise their popularity by listing and ranking the ones they already have. They make friendship more convenient and offer ways for the like-minded to congregate in virtual space.

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But does this technology, with its constant demands to collect and manage our friends and to relentlessly market ourselves, in some ways undermine our ability to achieve what it so boldly promises to give us – a surer sense of who we are and where we belong? The Delphic Oracle's guidance was, "Know thyself." Today, in the world of online social networks, the Oracle's advice might be, "Show thyself."

Unlike earlier online communities such as GeoCities, which were organized around virtual neighborhoods, one's entree into the social networking world is through the revelation of personal information. And unlike a real-life neighborhood, where one usually has general knowledge of others who live in the area, social networking sites are gatherings of deracinated individuals, none of whose personal boastings or musings are necessarily trustworthy. Here, the old arbiters of community – geographic location, family, role, or occupation – have little effect on relationships.

Enthusiasts praise social networking for presenting chances for identity-play; they see opportunities for all of us to be little Van Goghs and Warhols, rendering quixotic and ever-changing versions of ourselves for others to enjoy. Instead of a palette of oils, we can employ services such as PimpMySpace.org, which offers "layouts, graphics, backgrounds, and more" to gussy up an online presentation of self, albeit in a decidedly raunchy fashion: sexually explicit images and crude video clips are among the most popular graphics used by PimpMySpace clients.

Distinctive sameness

This kind of coarseness is commonplace on social networking sites for a reason: it's an easy way to set oneself apart. Pharaohs and kings once celebrated themselves by erecting towering statues or, like the emperor Augustus, placing their own visages on coins. But now, as the insightful technology observer Jaron Lanier has written, "Since there are only a few archetypes, ideals or icons to strive for in comparison to the vastness of instances of everything online, quirks and idiosyncrasies stand out better than grandeur in this new domain. I imagine Augustus' MySpace page would have pictured him picking his nose." And he wouldn't be alone. Indeed, this is one of the characteristics of MySpace most striking to anyone who spends a few hours trolling its millions of pages: it is an overwhelmingly dull sea of monotonous uniqueness, of conventional individuality, of distinctive sameness.

The world of online social networking is practically homogenous in one other sense, however diverse it might first appear: Its users are committed to self-exposure. The creation and conspicuous consumption of intimate details and images of one's own and others' lives is the main activity in the online social networking world. There is no room for reticence; there is only revelation. Quickly peruse a profile and you know more about a potential acquaintance in a moment than you might have learned about a flesh-and-blood friend in a month. As one college student described to The New York Times Magazine: "You might run into someone at a party, and then you Facebook them: what are their interests? Are they crazy-religious, is their favorite quote from the Bible? Everyone takes great pains over presenting themselves. It's like an embodiment of your personality."