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Perspective

My profile, myself

Why must I and everyone else on Facebook be so insufferably happy?

By Kara Baskin
November 1, 2009

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One early-morning browse through Facebook a couple weeks ago, I encountered a woman who had it all: She got massages, partied in New York City, and was perpetually off to fabulous restaurants. When she wasn’t dining out, her loving husband was preparing gourmet meals. She was popular, too -- 630 friends! I took a swig of coffee. That person was me. The same me who was nursing an unrelenting zit while listening to that gourmet husband hiss about a $2,000 car part.

I took another gulp of coffee and updated my status: “Loves caffeine!”

Cringe. My Facebook status has reduced me to someone I really don’t know. (I tried Twitter, but the word limit makes me write in contrived haiku.) Examining my profile and my updates, I realize that this stranger sounds at best like a name-dropping braggart (“Dinner at Post 390 tomorrow!”) and at worst like a shallow bore (“OMG, Mad Men!”).

A romp through friends’ profiles reveals that I’m not alone. One pal is baking homemade apple pie! Another is so grateful for his amazing girlfriend! Yet another is meeting Tom Cruise! Either I possess a network of exceptionally blessed chums or we’re all engaging in an online game of one-upmanship. Come on: Would you ever sidle up to a colleague and say, “Good morning, Al. Know what? I am just so grateful for my amazing girlfriend!” No, because you’d look like an arrogant jerk. This kind of hyperbolic glee is designed for the virtual masses.

Really, what is it about Facebook that tempts us to assert our happiness to the world but not disclose our sadness or simple humanity? Obviously nobody is as one-dimensional as his or her profile, and the site’s format -- unlike, say, blogs -- doesn’t allow for soul-wrenching soliloquies. But we can be candid, right? Frankly I’m sick of the gurgling babies, home improvement photo albums, and pets in cute poses. I want bad haircuts, alien babies, and status updates about credit-card debt. I want someone to post “I’ve gained 10 pounds!” and really mean it.

I know. I sound like the Facebook Grinch. I don’t begrudge anyone happiness, and it’s nice to have a convenient way to share good news. But sugar-spun epiphanies, day after day? What’s the point, unless you’re trying to convince yourself (or someone else) that you are indeed your profile? And to some extent, you are. After all, until I see you in person, my online status is my identity, and American Dreaminess is a more palatable package than malaise, confusion, or worse. (If my reality were actually like Facebook, I’d have a busier social life than Andy Warhol in his heyday, a cleaner house than Martha Stewart, and a happier marriage than Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson.)

But I also don’t kid myself that people commit my every update to memory. Deep down, I know I’m posting as much for myself as for anyone else. Which is even more troubling. So I’m beginning to wrestle with the Facebook honesty factor. How should I decide what information to share with the world, and what do my choices say about me?

As an experiment, I started being more candid on Facebook. My husband was looking for a job this summer, and we spent a hellish several months tripping over each other in our apartment. I peppered my profile with surly updates about the woes of unemployment. Well-meaning acquaintances would stop me at parties and say, “Hey, poor Brian! Has he found a job yet?” Made me feel pitied, exposed. Maybe people really did look at my profile after all. So when he landed a job, we told our parents. Then I told Facebook. I had to even the score.

At one time (and I’m old enough to remember this), it seemed as if everyone feared the Internet’s scope and potency. It held powerful secrets, from Social Security numbers to conspiracy theories. And it’s still a reckless place, largely governed by schadenfreude (TMZ) or voyeurism (Fmylife). Meanwhile, Facebook is a non-anonymous (hence tightly controlled) fantasy land. While the Internet unmasks, Facebook can gloss over, trading honesty for fake intimacy -- exhibitionism flirting with normal social restraint.

Which is why I’ll let 630 people see photos chronicling my new bathroom or haircut -- the most happily average fibers of my life. But reveal what I’m really thinking? Frankly, I just don’t know you that well.

Kara Baskin is the editor of Lola magazine. E-mail her at editor@lolaboston.com.

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