Facebook and the fiction of self-perception

Remember when you were young and your imagination just ran wild?

You’d be in the backyard pretending to be soldiers or wizards or sports stars or actors or a wide variety of other personas that you’d conjure up with just a little imagination and a disregard for the world around you and its nosy neighbors peeking out at you from behind their blinds, wondering ‘What the hell is that kid doing now? Is he waving a stick around like a sword?’

While this practice is more prominent in childhood, it’s actually seen a great resurgence in the past five years for adults. I’m not saying that there are adults running around their backyards with sticks shoved down the back of their shirts pretending to be a sword-wielding He-Man, but I’ve noticed a staggering use of imagination in the way that most people use Facebook.

The practice of creating personas that most of us engaged in as youngsters has been brought back, with many of us using the social networking site as a way to make us seem like extremes of the people that we want to be. It’s akin to going to a high school reunion and exaggerating every part of your life to an extreme degree. This is the precise reason most people use Facebook, and when you become aware of this fact, it’s almost comical to the extent of how true it is. After all, how many people on your Facebook feed are currently constructing the following personas:

  • “I’m a workout freak.” Numerous times each day, you’ll receive a motivational quote involving working out from this person…usually an image taken from a Facebook group of other people obsessed with letting everybody know they work out. They’ve got the tracker that automatically posts to Facebook how far they’ve ran, and even if they didn’t, they’d tell you how hard of a workout they had immediately afterwards via a status message update.
  • “I’m super parent.” These status message updates are packed with life lessons they just got done teaching their kids, how they just stood up to a teacher/other parent/librarian for their child (“You think you can tell MY child how many books they can check out?”), or pointing out bad behavior they saw other parents doing so they be validated with comments other super parents (“Call me old fashioned, but…”).
  • “I’m a super successful business person.” This person will post status updates of every meeting they had, how long their day has been, and how busy they constantly are (a claim that is made less valid by the fact that they are on Facebook nearly constantly).
  • “I’m a philosopher.” This person posts quotes, deep thoughts and insights to current events via status updates.

 

When people cultivate these personas, they often times write them as if they are writing in their personal diary and are completely unaware that anyone else is reading them…although they’re crafted in such a way that they’re extremely obvious and more concerned about a personal image than a political candidate. Why? Because nobody is really quite sure exactly how Facebook should work. Should we post every minute detail of our day? Should we only post when significant events happen in our lives? Should we be overly personal or keep it light?

No matter how people decide to use it, however, one fact is obviously clear to them…what they write will be read by a lot of people. It’s not quite mass communication, but it’s getting close. They know that what they post on their Facebook wall has the potential to be read by potential employers, potential suitors, friends, strangers, enemies and family. It’ll stay there after we die, and what’s left will define the type of lives we live.

This is why we shape our Facebook personas each day in a way that defines not who we are, but who we want to be. None of it is accurate…it’s mostly just a reflection of the types of people we want to be. We want others to see us as workout freaks, super parents, successful professionals, philosophers, photographers, writers, fun-loving partiers and political junkies. We fill our pages with posts that help shape these personas and identify us to others in a way that we only see in our minds. We try to seem aloof about this fact, but we are all keenly aware that how our Facebook persona looks is seen by most everyone as an accurate reflection of our life. This could not be further from the truth.

In reality, our Facebook friends will never be as true to life as the friends we interact with on a regular basis because they’re reflections of how a person wants us to see them, not who they really are.

With every status update that helps shape this persona and mold it into a caricature of an ideal self-perception, we’re moving farther and farther away from reality. We’re not keeping a record of our lives and accomplishments and thoughts to share en masse with our friends around the world as we might like to think…we’re merely running around with towels tied around our neck, imagining ourselves as superheroes while, in reality, we’re nothing more than naïve and self-obsessed.

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