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My Facebook Profile Has a Drinking Problem (Not Me)

 

Debates have sprung up in the last year or two over the right to privacy when it comes to the internet. Facebook – by far the world’s most popular social networking site – has been at the centre of this issue. Supposedly who you are can now be discerned not by meeting you, but by visiting a webpage that is intended to be you in a nutshell. The problem stems from the wrong people – prospective/current employers, certain friends/relatives – discovering pictures, videos or comments added by you for all (or some) of the world to see.

In the United States there have been instances of recently hired teachers being fired because someone from the school board found the person’s facebook page, which had pictures of them drinking – just drinking, not puking their guts out in an alley – in Acapulco. It was argued that this is not an appropriate image for a teacher, as they are expected to be a role model not only for their students, but ideally, all youth and the community. While this makes sense, it should also be pointed that out that no one is ‘just’ their job, and a ‘personal’ not ‘professional’ webpage could reasonably be expected to reflect the rest of someone’s life, not just their career. In Germany, there are already laws in place barring companies from making any hiring/firing decisions based on pictures or comments found on employee’s social networking pages.

But this a boring non-issue to me. If you don’t want certain people to see you at your most embarrassing or bitchy, don’t post it on the internet. Before the rise of social networking sites, you only told embarrassing (or amazing) stories to the small circle of people you trusted, not your seven hundred and forty six internet ‘friends’. If you confuse Facebook with your diary, regardless of the privacy settings you have, you deserve everything that’s coming to you.

No, my interest is in what I believe will be the next phase in the disassembly of the human individual thanks to ever-advancing communications technology (if the world doesn’t got too belly up in whatever catastrophe befalls it after the economy bottoms out). With personal information becoming less and less personal everyday, those trying to manage what is essentially dueling identities are going to come to a rather damning crossroads. Regression to a more private and exclusive form of sharing – say, quitting Facebook or whatever new fad replaces it in two years – which would resemble a time before the pervasiveness internet, does not seem possible, unless you go the full monty and live in a electricity-free shack in the woods. On the other hand, if you have trouble juggling the images of your own self but can’t give up looking at your friends party pictures and playing Angry Birds, how about adding a second self to the mix? Or a third?

One of the most popular New Yorker cartoons of all time depicts a dog sitting in front of a computer, saying to a fellow canine beside him, “on the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog”. We could choose worse memes to base the future of human interaction on. And considering the cartoon was published in the mid-nineties – a decade before Facebook debuted – it comes off as incredibly prophetic. Anonymity has seemingly become an impossibility in cyberspace, but perhaps we are looking at it from the wrong end.

After all, this was the allure of early online chat rooms. Awkward conversations between silly screen names with lengthy pauses that depended on the strength of your modem. No one knew who you were. A twelve year old boy could claim to be a twice married heart surgeon (admittedly, the charade wouldn’t last too long without a bit of research), a Star Wars fan could ‘pretend’ to like Star Trek, and a hacker could pretend to be from AOL Customer Service and ask for gullible people’s account information.

This has evolved, of course. Second Life and other avatar based virtual realities are glorified chat rooms, but haven’t yet developed to the point where it mimics life accurately enough to have an entire persona that is believably built out of pixilated images with little to no bearing on real life. On a very basic level, at least all the photos in your Facebook profile look like you, lending credit to your actual existence. The future of Second Life is an effortless merging of its current state and Facebook. The easy access of information – think how simplistic your profile page is – with an extremely detailed graphic interface. Soon you won’t click on icons and links to get from one page or picture to another. Instead you’ll do so in a completely virtual world, visiting people “door to door” and looking at pictures of them in virtual scrapbooks. The only hurdle is bandwidth.

Until then, a second identity can exist in a fragmented form on Facebook alone, and to start it up is stupidly easy. When you’re in city A, you’re Jacob Phelps, early-to-bed, boring IT analyst. But when you’re in city B (or suburb C), you become Frank Boswell, hard-partying, lady-killing extraordinaire. A double life is only unseemly if you truly have something to hide. Beyond that, it will probably become a social lifeboat of sorts.

The internet is either extremely confining or extremely liberating, the difference being the effort you put into constructing your online persona. The more it dovetails with who you are, the harder it is to ‘be’ anyone else. Obviously this is common sense in the real world (no one will believe your claim that you can handle your liquor if you always puke after your second tequila shot), but we’ve applied these rule sets to cyberspace when we really do not have to. As living in the virtual world of text messages and status updates becomes a larger and larger part of how we conduct ourselves, new rules sets will emerge, and eventually break out of the digital world and enter the real one. Using the names in the paragraph above, no one at Jacob’s place of employment will care if Frank vomited on a stranger’s kitchen table over the weekend. Two worlds, no collisions as of yet.

At this stage, we return to the trust and secrecy issue of only telling certain people that you are both Jacob and Frank. Who would you tell? Pretty much the close circle of friends that you would have told before the internet allowed you to have hundreds of them. And if you’ve never really lived in the pre-internet period, the people you can trust are the ones you see face-to-face and don’t think are complete assholes (this is perhaps the lowest definition of friendship I can think of that still works).

Not that the doppelganger solution is a perfect one. The most basic problem is this: Overlap.

In the world of arts and entertainment, this is a classic device that either invites howl of laughter or tears of anguish. Juggling two identities is the premise for Wilde’s Importance of Being Earnest and practically every Shakespearean comedy. In more modern terms, it would be Seinfeld’s “worlds collide” theory, where the friend-persona of George Costanza was getting intertwined with his fiancée-persona, the result being he had to be two ‘different’ people at the same time.

What happens when Jacob is in a restaurant with a work friend when a person who knows him as Frank walks up to him?

You know what’s going to happen?

(and here’s the kicker)

Nothing, really.

Jacob is going to be able to tell this person: “I’m not being Frank right now, sorry.”

And the person who thought it was Frank will chuckle and smile and say, “okay, see you later when you’re Frank”. And then leave Jacob with his work friend, who will eagerly ask about ‘Frank’ and his possibly wild adventures.

That’s right. It’s going to be okay. No hint of shame in admitting that to someone you’re sometimes someone else. It’s going to be accepted that to other people, you are someone else.

After all, it’s existed on some level for as long as social interaction has. It’s expected that you change your behaviour – even if it’s only slightly – depending on which groups of people you are currently socializing with. Drinks with some co-workers after work might have a more restrained and formal atmosphere than smoking joints and talking shit with your university buddies. Almost certainly both of those situations will offer a different ‘you’ than when you are having Christmas dinner with your relatives.

Why not name these different ‘yous’, and give them room to breath. It doesn’t have to be a total overhaul where you speak in a different voice or wear different clothes, and it’s not like you have to bring out your doppelganger on a regular basis, but I believe it would be a relief from time to time to step out of yourself from time to time and try someone else on. Even if it’s just you…but slightly more opinionated thanks to an extra drink or two. Why not differentiate your old self from your suddenly new self? Your facebook profiles can be, ‘Bob Jacobs’ and ‘Whisky Bob Jacobs’, if you want to keep it that simple.

There’s a party you and work you, and anyone who has walked into their workplace at eight thirty in the morning with a monster hangover knows that keeping them separate in reality is sometimes hard enough. There’s no reason why – with the expanse and possibilities of the internet – that we should have to bring this juggling act to our cyber identities.

As mentioned before, this is not a new concept, as separate social personalities is a basic quality of human interaction, but even wholly alternate names and identities have existed, for better or worse. Strippers have fake names, writers use pseudonyms, and the James Bonds of the intelligence community have a drawer full of passports. All of these examples are people adapting a secondary persona for very good reasons, and while it doesn’t mean these professions have had a head start or the gift of forethought, it shows that on some level we as a society can accept and appreciate such dualities. Granted, creating a doppelganger for the purpose of hiding your ribald side isn’t the same as doing so for the sake of national security, but Facebook and other social networking sites have changed social discourse to such a point that the distinction has become moot. If we are able to create multiple identities (all you need for a facebook profile is an email address), it seems inevitable that we will.

If everyone is breaking social rules, then it’s no longer a social rule.

Critics might claim that this process will be incredibly confusing and complicated, but that’s an accusation that has been levied against a wealth of social advancements that have been made possible through technology, from the spread of information thanks to the printing press (a bishop famously opined, “the pen is a virgin, the printing press is a whore’) to the expansion of government programs that made health care available to all thanks to medical breakthroughs (‘socialized medicine’ still being a dirty word in some Western countries).

Complexity is part of human progress. It is our ability to navigate through an increasing intricate and interdependent society that we base our belief that advancement in both a social and biological sense is possible. And after a long run of everything around us disseminating and speeding up, it’s time that we do an internal upgrade and diversify ourselves to adapt to this heterogeneous world.

Beyond the first steps, if we take these new possible identities to the (il)logical extremes, some of the avatars can be completely fictional, having nary a single quality that can connect you with whatever new person you just created.  In fact, you don’t even have to actually go out in public and act like this new person. It can be a completely virtual identity. Let’s say you never touch alcohol but want to build a reputation as boozehound. Create a facebook profile with some easily doctored pictures of you drinking, or pretending to drink (a lot of beer and whisky looks like apple juice). Log on to some online AA messageboards, apologize to other people on facebook (who can be in on it) for making such an ass of yourself at their house the previous weekend. Everyone has a laugh, no one gets hurt, and someone completely under your control has a kooky reputation on the internet that will never affect you.

Even more interesting is when you change your life in some fashion, which requires you to no longer play the role of, say, Frank, or ‘Whisky Bob Jacobs’. Don’t just delete the account, hold an online funeral (or a real one, invite all his online friends to actual bar for a real piss up, where the deceased attends his own wake). For those who never liked him, it’s a chance to celebrate his passing, and for others who enjoyed his capering, it’s a period of pseudo-mourning, remembering (or trying to remember) all the good times they had.

The death of your alter ego(s) can be a somber or hilarious experience, depending on what you’ve decided to leave behind. ‘Frank’s’ facebook page might be full of condolences or jokes.  The act of actually saying goodbye to such a persona can be a spiritual experience or character building exercise. A cheapening of death? Perhaps, but it can also be a way of accepting and understand the temporality of our own lives (and all the identities within our single life).

Why do it, one may ask? Why not? Think how much more creative this is than watching reality TV.

As the internet becomes less personal and free and more corporate and controlled – a rise apps means a decline in typical user generated content – these fake profiles might be one of the successful forms of detournement available to facebook users.

With cyberspace becoming the most popular forum for spending free time – which typically means arguing over the merits of Youtube videos, seeing pictures of celebrities spill ice cream on their clothing, and trying to destroy egg-stealing pigs via bird slingshot – creating an alternate identity can almost be defended as a worthwhile character building exercise.

It’s only a matter of time before a memoir is written by someone who’s been one thousand different people online not for the purposes of conning anyone, but just because it’s a chance to be different whenever you are bored with who you are at that moment. Call it a symptom of ‘channel/internet surfing’ culture. Or it will be looked at as a pure art project (a rather conservative one, compared to some forms of body modification). James Frey and his A Million Little Pieces not-quite-memoir was the last casualty of the old world where fact and fiction aren’t allowed to mingle. Now he could claim his internet self spent all that time in prison, not him.

Postmodernism chewed up and spat out the mashed up remains of truth in a cultural sense, and while it still plays an essential role in such disciplines like science, economics, and politics (well…), culture is permitted to bend the rules slightly. Multiplicity, relativism, and interpretation are the buzzwords for postmodernist theory, and the public’s interaction with the possibilities facebook offers stands on the cusp of embracing these concepts on a personal level.

Reaching your full potential becomes so much easier when there’s more than one of you to play around with and manipulate through an ever-expanding virtual world that is playing a larger and larger role in our society.

The diffusion of your self is the best way to confront a complex system (the internet) that saves everything for all eternity (or as long as the servers don’t crash, which might just be the same thing). Don’t shy from it, hoping those pictures of you on Spring Break are never found, that’s just another you, nothing more. The only thing to remember is, when the time comes, make sure that you kill the right persona. Instead, if it’s the person on your driver’s license, I imagine you might end up with a bureaucratic nightmare on your hands…

 

 

 

What bothers me the most about the possible fate of our species is that if it all starts to go belly up and the planet becomes less and less hospitable, billions of people will attribute this to some sort of apocalyptic comeuppance for being immoral in the eyes of a spooky space god instead of blaming it on our own ignorant dumbfuckery of not acting upon the dire conclusions reached by basic chemistry and physics