The Facebook way of life

Facebook has changed how college students see themselves, each other and their world
Saturday, December 22, 2007 | 2:37 p.m. CST; updated 9:47 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008
Lindsay Wilkes-Edrington

Lindsay Wilkes-Edrington is a senior at the Missouri School of Journalism.


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I tried to commit Facebook suicide once.

It was mid-November 2005. I was a sophomore at MU and had been using the social networking Web site for about a year.

It all started simply enough. I created a profile and friended a few people. But as time went on, I realized I was putting too much thought into how I wanted my online image to look. Once, I caught myself taking my own photo because I thought it would be better than the ones others had taken. I’ve always been pretty aware of how others perceive me. But whoa, I thought: This is pathetic.

So I decided, that’s it. I’ve had it. I want to kill my online identity.

I took down a picture of myself posed inside my dorm room and put up instead an image of an exploding atomic bomb. I deleted all my personal information, dropped out of nearly a dozen groups and defriended all my friends. Then, after a few days of broadcasting my stance, I deleted my account.

The withdrawal symptoms started immediately. It didn’t take more than a few hours before I was fighting the urge to log back on. It had become part of my daily routine. Wake up, check e-mail, then what? How could I leave my dorm room in the morning without knowing what was up? It was like leaving for class without my underwear on. Something just felt like it was missing.

I gave in about a week later. A sense of relief came over me when I discovered that Facebook had conveniently saved my information. My interests, favorite music and favorite movies were all there again. It was like remembering who I was, as sad as that sounds.

Founded in the spring of 2004 as a social network for college students, Facebook has been around for four years now. It reached MU in the fall of 2004, about the same time I and other members of this year’s senior class were moving into the dorms.

To say it’s changed us would be an understatement. Most of us came to college to learn, explore, meet different people and, ultimately, find ourselves in the process. None of us could have anticipated that one Web site would factor so heavily into that college experience.

It’s become a big part of how we keep in touch, waste time and have fun. But more important, perhaps, it’s also developed into a powerful platform for us to broadcast — or shape — our personas.

Some of us, myself included, spend a lot of time perfecting what our profiles say. Sometimes the changes are large, but more often they’re subtle. A tweak of our interests. An update of our photo. The ultimate goal is to alter our online identity in the way we really want the world to see us.

Christine Rosen, a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington D.C., likens social networking users to “little Van Goghs and Warhols, rendering quixotic and ever-changing versions of ourselves for others to enjoy.” In a recent article called “Virtual Friendship and the New Narcissism,” written for the technology journal The New Atlantis, Rosen says a lot of our minor tweaks are a “clamoring for attention.”

In the overwhelming world of online information, we want some sort of status, she says. We seek self-exposure. We want to stand out.

“I think it’s more about status-seeking, the presentation of self,” Rosen says. “All of society feels time-pressured, and yet, it’s ironic, we find time to play massive online role-playing video games and to tweak our MySpace and Facebook pages.”

Rosen said there’s a reason famous people rarely maintain their own online profiles.

“Celebrities don’t need legions of MySpace friends to prove their importance,” she writes in her article. “It’s the rest of the population, seeking a form of parochial celebrity, that does.”

Facebook has almost become a college course in itself. With more than 80 percent of college students registered on the site, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education, this generation is learning both a practical lesson — how to build a basic Web site — and a sociopsychological one: how to create mini-advertisements of our lives.

“There’s certain new skills that are required to maintain one’s presence online,” Rosen says. “You learn certain things. What you learn is to create and nurture a persona that’s distinct from the person you are in the real world.”

Even though Facebook has opened itself up to users of all ages and says its biggest age group is increasingly those over 30, the college student is still the core user.

There are 36,973 people in the MU network on Facebook. How many of those are seniors is hard to say, since not all of us list our class year on our profiles.

Fred Stutzman, a doctoral student at the University of North Carolina who teaches an “Online Social Networks” class, has done studies on Facebook’s critical success factors.

Facebook wants us to care about our profiles, Stutzman said. By adding additional features, the Web site encourages us to add to our profiles so they can keep users coming back for more.

“How often do you visit your best friend’s profile?” Stutzman says. “Of other people in your network, once you’re a little bit established, you transition to ongoing relationship management, so there’s less opportunity for use there. It tends to get you to come back by posting new things.”

Stutzman says it only makes sense that college students make the most use of these features.

“We go to college anew. You have to re-establish yourself, and Facebook is the re-establishing process on a college campus,” he says. “It’s only natural that we’re turning to these things because naturally we want to know more about each other. It’s a natural human emotion.”

It might be natural, but is it healthy? As the senior class of MU graduates, are we leaving campus with a valuable life skill we can continue to use in this Internet age?

Daniela Orozco: The Facebook enthusiast

Daniela Orozco likes the Disney movie “The Lion King,” but she wouldn’t dare list it as one of her favorite movies on her Facebook profile.

“It’s useless,” she says. “It doesn’t tell a lot about me.”

Instead, she makes it a point to list only obscure foreign films that few people have seen but smart people would appreciate. Doing so, she says, gives people insight into who she is: a girl who appreciates culture and enjoys seeking out things that make her think.

“People won’t perceive them as personal, but they are,” Daniela says. “It’s hidden.”

She writes in her “About Me” section that “there is no better way to know me than talking to me in person!!!”

But Daniela doesn’t try to hide the fact that she wants people to spend time looking at her profile. A marketing major, she says she feels her page is the perfect place to advertise her personality and what she wants people to associate with her.

Daniela didn’t sign up for Facebook until January 2006. That’s when her family moved to Columbia from Mexico City.

When she arrived at MU, the pressure to log onto the social-networking Web site started almost immediately.

“You were nothing if you didn’t have Facebook,” she says. “I wanted to fit in. I was new. I wanted to be like everybody else. That’s the sense every international student feels about Facebook.”

Now a senior, she says she logs on at least three times a day and is “a total addict.”

Her profile pictures are almost never of herself. A lot of times, she uploads photos of words and images that are intended to make a point. A recent one proclaimed, “Live. Work. Buy. Die.”

She doesn’t limit herself to that, though. She also recently put up a photo for a few days of a fat man dressed as a ballerina. That one was just for fun.

“People see it and click on it just to see your profile bigger,” she says. “It attracts a viewer to your profile, and that’s what you want.”

Daniela insists she’s not trying to draw attention to herself just for her own pleasure.

Sure, she likes it when people look at her 17 photo albums. As she states in her profile, it’s even better when they “leave a comment on the albums or on the wall. All of that is appreciated!!!”

But it’s not about just feeling popular, she say. For her, it’s all a matter of showing her Facebook friends what she likes and hoping that by exposing them to it, they’ll discover something new that they enjoy, too. A few of her Facebook photo albums include favorite paintings by Frida Kahlo and images that speak out against consumerism.

“Sometimes I get seven to 10 comments on my pictures, and I love that,” she says. “Making people think about what you think, it’s like creating a discussion, but not forcing it.”

Her status updates, she said, serve the same purpose.

When she was in Washington, D.C., over fall break, Daniela updated her status to “Daniela is sitting on Lincoln’s lap.”

“I could’ve put, ‘Daniela is in D.C.,’ but I don’t like to put literal things,” she says. “People had to think, ‘Oh, Lincoln isn’t around here; she must be on a trip.’ Then they’d ask me.”

Daniela says she updates her profile whenever she thinks of something new that will improve her online personality. Usually, that’s at least once a week.

In her mind, changing her page, or altering her online image ever so slightly on a weekly basis, is just a way to show she’s growing.

“Updating stuff makes you go forward,” she says. “You’re improving. You are doing something different. Your personality changes because you have different experiences. That’s when you realize you have matured.

“It’s a matter of telling people I am different, that I am not a common girl.”

Sarah Brockman: The wary fun seeker

Sarah Brockman wants her Facebook profile to say one thing about her: She likes to have fun.

The Spanish major has nine photo albums filled with pictures of her and her friends smiling, dancing, drinking and acting silly. Some of those albums are appropriately titled: “Fun times!,” “Fun times over winter break 05-06” and “Junior Year Fun!!!!”

Her Facebook page also features about half a dozen applications, which are third-party creations that Facebook allows users to add to their profile. Her page includes applications such as Honesty Box (What do you honestly think of me? Your comments are absolutely anonymous! No one will know you posted this!), Happy Hour!, Food Fight! and Naughty Gifts!.

Sarah says she’s never put that much thought into her profile. She wants people to see her as a fun-loving college student but not someone who’s out of line. She thought her profile reflected that, until recently.

She went home a few weeks ago and met up with a former high school adviser, whom she’s friends with on Facebook. He made a snide comment about photos he’d seen of her drinking that were posted online.

The realization that someone she respected had judged her character based on what she had up on Facebook surprised her.

“It hurt me that that’s what he’d think,” Sarah says.

Photos posted by other users can have tags labeling who is in the picture. Sarah has 377 photos tagged of her and only occasionally takes one off she doesn’t like. She doesn’t bother to delete groups she’s not interested in anymore, or to defriend people she doesn’t know or delete applications she no longer uses, even if some, such as Naughty Gifts!, might give some people the wrong impression.

Sarah says she thought her profile reflected a sweet girl who likes to hang out with friends. She has 249 friends and is a member of 72 groups, including one her friends created in her honor called “I heart Sarah Brockman!” Her interests are “Dancing, swimming, hanging out with friends, staying insanely busy!”

Only a few photos up show her holding drinks.

“A friend told me, ‘Sarah, you’re 21, you have the right to put that on there,’” she says.

About a week after the incident with her adviser, a profile picture of her and a friend at a concert, beers in hand, was still up. She’d been thinking about taking the photo down, she says, adding that it’s funny that it was her high school adviser who made her realize maybe her image online isn’t who she wants to be.

“He knows me, but I didn’t know he’d think of me that way,” she says.

A few days later, the profile picture came down, but about half a dozen others of her with drinks remain up, tucked away in her photo albums.

“I hope my peers would understand it’s just an online thing, that it’s for fun,” she says.

She’s now put strict privacy settings — restrictions on who can see what — on what her adviser has access to.

John Nichols: The indifferent user

John Nichols is a tall thin white guy with red hair. His Facebook picture is of a burgundy Ford pickup truck with an old canoe mounted on top.

He’ll tell you the reason he doesn’t have a photo of himself is because he just doesn’t care.

But push him a little more, and he’ll admit it’s partly because he’s trying to control how people view him.

“I’ve always had a thing where I don’t think pictures of me look that good, so I put a picture of my truck on there,” he says. “People do form judgments based on images, so instead I put pictures that say something about me. They can say, ‘This guy likes canoeing.’”

He admits to looking closely at others’ profiles and knows it sometimes alters his perceptions of them. So, to prevent others from doing the same to him, he consciously keeps the information on his page to a minimum.

Other than quotes from Mahatma Gandhi, E. F. Schumacher, Aldo Leopold and a friend of his, the personal info section of his profile is blank.

It’s not that he doesn’t have favorite interests, music, movies, TV shows or books, he says. But he doesn’t want people who disagree with him to write him off.

Those few quotations, then, serve a purpose: Instead of his having to write about himself, he lets other people do the talking. The quotes talk about appreciating nature and dreaming big, both of which John values.

What he doesn’t mind people knowing about him, though, is that he’s a big environmentalist. His beliefs are important to him, so he makes that the focus of the rest of his page.

He has an application called “Greenbook” that calculates his carbon footprint and another called “Carpool” that allows him to get rides, cutting down on the number of cars on the road.

He says his lack of information is also his attempt to broadcast how much he wants to distance himself from the site. He’s even a member of a group called “I hate Facebook!!!”

Too much information, and he fears he’d risk looking like he actually cared to be on it.

“It’s like some weird culture that, even though I’m on it, I don’t want to be a part of,” he says.

Not wanting others to add to his image, John also carefully monitors what photos get tagged of him. Sometimes he even tries to keep himself out of the way of cameras altogether.

“If you see someone with a camera at a party, it seems like the only reason is Facebook,” he says. “People take pictures for putting them on Facebook. Photo albums are dead. Not only do I have to worry about how I present myself, but once you get on, you open yourself up to other people being able to add to your image. It’s extra pressure to think about that.”

Striking a balance

My interests on Facebook are carefully crafted for one reason: I want to sound different, yet cool.

In high school I was the girl with pink hair, plaid skirts and fishnet stockings. My high school class voted me “most unique.” You wouldn’t know that now, but I don’t want to let it go. Picking and choosing what I put on Facebook is one way I try to maintain that image.

I guess the best way to describe my feeling about Facebook is to say I’m ambivalent. I’m not an active user in the traditional sense. My privacy settings are strict; I rarely write on people’s walls; and I refuse to add applications. In other words, I hardly use it to network. Nowadays, I probably don’t spend more than a few minutes on it a day.

But I am very aware of how the site is used, so what I have on there of myself, I’ve put a heck of a lot of thought into.

To me, the interests I list are kind of like conversation starters. Ask me why I include “front row shows,” and I’ll tell you about how I used to wait eight or nine hours outside concert venues, so I could rush the stage when the doors opened and be up front.

I could’ve just said I like concerts, but that would be too easy. I’m a writer, so I try to make it seem like I think about the words I use.

It’s all about striking a balance, though.

A few of my friends are photographers and have taken some pretty nice photos of me. But they look a little posed, and if I put those up, it might look like I’m trying too hard. And if I look like I’m trying too hard, I’ll lose my argument that I generally don’t care about Facebook. And if I look like I care too much about Facebook, I lose out on trying to appear cool.

And to accomplish my definition of “cool,” I also can’t make everything on my profile accurate to a T. My favorite TV shows really are what I list, “Felicity” and “Freaks and Geeks.” But lately, I’ve caught myself tuning into “Reba” in the afternoons and “That’s So Raven” on Saturday mornings. Truth be told, I kind of like them. I’m not about to admit that online, though. Then I’d seem lame.

After four years with Facebook, the one thing the seniors I talked to agreed upon is that it’s hard to remember a time in our college career when we weren’t somewhat preoccupied with our online identities. As we’ve changed, so, too, has it.

But it doesn’t really stop after college.

Although a lot of Facebook users are keeping their accounts after graduation, some of us turn to other networking Web sites such as LinkedIn, where the goal is to connect yourself with as many different people in your career field as possible. Grooming your online identity on sites like this one is a lesson in pitching yourself for a job. Put out there the information that will please potential employers, and forget the rest.

Maybe the Facebook lesson we’ve learned in college isn’t such a bad one. Perhaps people don’t need to see our downfalls, the things we’re more reluctant to reveal online, unless they know us in person.

But is there an opportunity lost to the time we spend thinking about all this?

Rosen thinks so. She says she wonders if all that energy put into improving our profiles is time we could be using to genuinely improve ourselves.

“We think it’s an improvement, but the time we spend when we’re doing that is time we’re not spending doing something else,” she says.

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