(Note: This post originally appeared on the now defunct craigtsoandso.com. Datestamped footnotes with commentary may have been added for my own reflection and amusement.)
I’m not a narcissist, at least as far as I can self diagnose. But, I think the way people use the internet and especially social networking is introducing a bit of narcissism that is very difficult to escape as a member of the connected population at large.
Like many people I know, I spend a lot of time on Facebook1 and to a much lesser extent now, Myspace2. A couple of nights back I decided that my main profile picture was starting to feel a bit stale so I went through the handily linked list of pictures I am tagged in (758 and growing) to find a new virtual head shot. As I mostly failed at this task- skipping over many ridiculous and unflattering pictures before finally settling on a mildly ridiculous picture where at least I’m dressed in snazzy wear- old thoughts from the back of my mind returned about the nature of an individual’s constructed online persona and how it correlates and conflicts with the real person’s persona.
As I’ve said before, it’s astounding how much things have changed in just the past decade with the advent of the internet and the ubiquity of the cell phone. It’s just bizarre to look back at the evolution of how people have used these tools and how they’re now converging. I remember early on even way back when my friends and I used ICQ then jumped mostly to AOL Instant Messenger, people’s “profiles” would start to include more and more information, going way beyond a simple about me. When I hit college in 2001, AIM was somewhat of a de facto social network of its own, to the point where people were checking away messages and profiles much more often than they were actually chatting with each other. In hindsight, it’s hard to imagine why social networking sites didn’t explode sooner.
When Facebook expanded to Purdue’s campus somewhere around 2004/5, I joined as a curiosity. It was mostly worthless then, just a picture and about me sort of thing, with ways to find common classmates. I already had AIM, why would I want to browse the all aim profile website? But over time something started to happen- as the network grew so did the value of the site. Imagine that. Then Myspace came on the scene and though I was resistant to it as the home of idiot pre teens and idiots in general, the network of friends there and the new ways they were interacting with each other became increasingly interesting. And as the interactions increased, so did the intricacy in crafting the information that was the public face of the user to the network.
Cut forward to now- with the various networks copying and expanding features, even adding chat as a secondary feature (welcome back to AIM) they have become more than a way of looking people up, they’re becoming integral in how people interact and communicate. I know many people who would first send a message or post on a wall before sending an email, even if they have the address handy. Event organizing and photo sharing have all been co-opted, because when you combine information with easy access to your network of friends and family it becomes even more valuable.
But, do we act the same as our online counterpart as we do in the flesh? How much is filtered out? The unflattering pictures, the bad moments, etc. How many of us are consciously or unconsciously limiting information in order to be seen differently than as we are? To be fair, this happens "in real life" all the time. It takes time to get to know the real person rather than their representative, as Chris Rock will tell you. However, the amount of tools currently at our disposal to put our best face forward is greater than ever. In fact, not using them can have a serious detrimental effect.
With companies and colleges and potential dates searching social networks and the internet in general for information on people, allowing the real person to have too much visibility can be hazardous. Personally I tend to let the ‘real me’ out on purpose more than most, at least in my opinion. But you can bet I use those privacy controls to their fullest extent and with all their granularity. I am happy I’m not searching for a new job or school just because of the amount of effort required to make sure I look as good as possible is beyond exasperating. As for dates, the sooner they find out about the real me, the better.
Since I enjoy pouring my thoughts and misadventures out onto the internet at large, I’ve even created this whole so and so pseudonym as a mild bit of security through obscurity.3 But as any security student knows, this is woefully inadequate. A google search for my name has my twitter profile on the first page of results. But not before a couple of results for someone who shares my name, the openly gay musical composer. Compose on, brother.
Either way, I hope as connectivity continues to expand and more of our communication is done electronically instead of face to face, we collectively find a way to maintain our sense of who we are really amidst the snapshots we leave facing the window. The more we have to dig to find the person the more time we waste.
Can you see the real me doctor?