Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Check Out My Selfie

I was having dinner after an afternoon at the mall with my friends Ashley and Bridget, our topic having turned to celebrity culture (as it is wont to do in my life). Somehow we'd gotten from wondering how exactly celebrities have private dating lives and social media problems (like pondering how many celebrities receive marriage proposals daily through social media outlets) to the more general idea of Facebook stalking. Was there a link, we wondered, in the way that we treat celebrities and how we rely on the internet to know things about them and find out things about them as people (since we don't know them personally) and the way that we view social media of people we do know?

This feels a bit like a chicken and egg question to me; it's impossible to really know which came first. Likely our cultural obsession with celebrity culture, paparazzi focus, and tabloid nature influenced how we view social networks that our friends use. With media that makes us feel like stars in our own lives, it's easy to see how using the same methods of keeping tabs on celebrities and finding out information about them could be applied to people we just met or know, seeing them as interesting, idolized figure we want to know more about. But humans also have a knack for gossip and inquiry. We've gossiped about people we know in our cities and villages for many a year. Performing the same act on social media is a new step in this process and further blurs the line between public and private information. I admit to Facebook stalking, mainly to find out more about people my friends are dating. There's a need to find information about someone you or others are or may be intimately connected with and, for whatever reason, it cannot be gained from the person them self. This makes sense in the case of celebrities - we are distanced from them in some way and don't personally know them. But in the case of our friends, coworkers, and significant others, we could find this information from them ourselves. But instead we scan the internet, through Instagram photos, Facebook profiles, and tweets. Part of this is is do to the material nature of the internet - it gives us something tangible to see. We can see a person expressing their interest in a certain kind of music or tweeting about a certain topic or sharing photos from a certain trip. There's nothing unusual or negative about this; this is the purpose of social media and what makes it brilliant and unique. What becomes dangerous is when we rely on internet portrayals and perceptions more than our own opinions and personal interactions. That's not to say we can't meet people and learn about them through the internet - we certainly can and I'm evidence of that - but when rely solely on other people's opinion or only by what someone makes evident on their Facebook profile, we aren't really forming our own relationship with an individual, not speaking to them, either in person, on Skype, or in chat messages, and we aren't seeing that person as something more than a profile page.

I find the idea of Facebook stalking strange. It makes sense in some ways, in seeing if this person is really someone you want to spend time with and go out on a date with. But it can easily go too far and become obsessive and, when it becomes the only way of getting to know the person instead of talking to them and using dating as a chance to get to know them, it's problematic. It runs the risk of making someone as a stranger by only using one outlet to get to know them. There's a line in the song "When We're Fire" by Lo Fang that says, "I'm a person, not a concept," and I think of this while writing about this problem.

To step back for a moment, I want to make sure I don't sound as if I am demonizing the use of social networks to learn more about people - that's what they're for - and you can certainly have relationships with people online. I've made awesome friends online and I know several people who have successful romantic relationships initiated online. But these sort of interactions differ from Facebook stalking and there is also a certain kind of complexity that can be reached when interactions are kept to scanning a profile or reading tweets but never actually interacting with the individual (whether virtually or in person) and this is most easily expressed in that complicated relationship with celebs that I so frequently turn back to. Learning about celebs online but directly interacting with them creates a strange state of being, of knowing a great deal about them and yet not much at all. We feel intimately connected with them without ever having had a conversation - whether in person or virtual - with them. It a strange place to be in, a place when reflected upon produces such thoughts such as, "Well shit, I know your middle name, your favorite music, and your entire IMDb profile, but I actually know nothing about you as a person." It's often wondered why people want responses to fanmail, tweets, or other such interactions from celebrities, and sometimes the answer is given that they want to be recognized and noticed as being number one fans. But I think it's more than this. I think it's more along the lines of providing evidence of communication, of being able to talk to a celebrity on their Twitter as one might a friend, of having support for that strange sense of knowing them and having it validated.

Writing this makes me wonder how you readers will respond to this, as I've the one talking at you and yet I know little about most of you. I make assumptions about you as you must make about me. While I put a great deal of my thoughts on this, I don't put all of my life out here and you are left to fill in the blanks. And yet, this isn't really a weird relationship - well, it's not for me. I don't find it weird that you read over my blog and may never speak with me. I don't expect it. Blogging - and really even Twitter - is somehow in a different sphere than Facebook where it's acknowledged that most people reading our content aren't people we personally know, whereas Facebook is built more around the premise of keeping in touch with people you know (at least that's what I've gathered from using it). And yet they aren't really all that different, especially with the ability to post from one site to another and the similarities in their content. Regardless, I don't find it at all strange that people I've never met and never spoken with read my blog, and yet if that much time was spent pouring over my Facebook profile, I'd feel a little uncomfortable. And yet there is way more content and deep, personal thoughts on this blog than on my Facebook. So what they heck is going on here anyway?

The short story is that humans are very weird, complex social creatures. The long story is that we do lots of good and bad things in our communication and, perhaps, it's to avoid the staggering existential question of whether we can really know another person at all. Or whether we can truly know ourselves. And whether our boundaries of public and private really hold up with the internet at all.

But hey! Let's dodge that existential crisis with a reminder that social media can actually be a really, really great, powerful thing, as long as we keep in mind how we're using it. Are we going to continue to Facebook stalk to some degree? Yes. Are we going to continue to feel personal bonds with people we hardly know? Totally. Are we going to continue to be nosy, inquisitive creatures and all humany-wumany? You betcha. We're humans and it's beautiful and strange and complicated. We just have to be aware of what we're posting and not be creepy about what other people are posting. But first, lemme take a selfie:

Yes, this song will get stuck in your head. And yes, you will hate me for it. But this is a great representation of how internet culture can be simultaneously awesome and awful. You're welcomes :)

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