What are Facebook friends for?

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

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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.

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.

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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."

But in doing so, might we miss an opportunity to get to know someone intriguing merely because we discover that her MySpace profile says she is a Republican? Or a vegetarian? Or passionate about karaoke? Our personal technologies allow (indeed encourage) us to filter out the things that we find distasteful – television commercials, boring tracks on a CD, political opinions with which we disagree.

Egocentric friendship

Social networking sites encourage a similar sort of egocentric single-mindedness about friendship. Friendship in that world has become an online instant opinion poll – immediate gratification for the person casting his vote, perhaps, but discouraging of reflection beyond that initial snap judgment. This has already spawned a culture where many people have more "friends" than real friendships. The impulse to accumulate as many "friends" as possible on a MySpace page does not stem from a desire for connection, but instead is an expression of another deeply felt human need: the need for status. In earlier centuries, the painted portrait was the marker of elite status that members of the middle class quickly adopted once they rose socially.

With the advent of online social networking sites, we have embraced a medium to create status, not merely to commemorate the achievement of it. By creating a profile and gathering thousands of "friends," we signal to others our importance. There is a reason that most of the MySpace profiles of famous people are fake: Celebrities don't need legions of MySpace friends to prove their popularity. It's the rest of the population, seeking a form of parochial celebrity, that does.

It is unclear how the regular use of these sites will affect long-term behavior – especially of children and young adults who are growing up with these tools. Almost no research has explored how virtual socializing affects children's development. What does a child weaned on the youth site Club Penguin learn about social interaction? How is an adolescent who spends her evenings managing her MySpace page different from a teenager who spends her nights gossiping on the telephone to friends? Given that "people want to live their lives online," as the founder of one social networking site told Fast Company magazine, and they are beginning to do so at ever-younger ages, these questions are worth exploring.

The few studies that have emerged do not inspire confidence. Researcher Rob Nyland at Brigham Young University recently surveyed 184 users of social networking sites and found that heavy users "feel less socially involved with the community around them." He also found that "as individuals use social networking more for entertainment, their level of social involvement decreases."

Another recent study conducted by communications professor Qingwen Dong and colleagues at the University of the Pacific found that "those who engage in romantic communication over MySpace tend to have low levels of both emotional intelligence and self-esteem."

The implications of the narcissistic and exhibitionistic tendencies of social networkers also cry out for further consideration. Describing the results of her recent study that found significantly higher rates of narcissism among students, researcher Jean Twenge of San Diego State University told the Associated Press, "Current technology fuels the increase in narcissism.... By its very name MySpace encourages attention-seeking, as does YouTube."

There are opportunity costs when we spend so much time carefully grooming how we look on the Web. Given how much time we already devote to entertaining ourselves with technology, it is at least worth asking if the time we spend on social networking sites is well spent. By investing so much energy into improving how we present ourselves online, we might be missing opportunities to genuinely improve ourselves.

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