Maybe Nick Hornby was right

I have a friend named Sarah, whom I met in college. Sarah is very funny, highly opinionated, and a voracious consumer of pop culture. Her favorite quote (which might have even been in her Facebook profile before she exited the ‘book for good) was the classic High Fidelity line that seems to captivate so many of my peers: It’s what you like, not what you ARE like, that matters.

Spoken in the movie version by the perpetually hangdog John Cusack, it takes on the cadence of wisdom, even followed up by his next statement, “Call me shallow, it’s the fuckin’ truth.” It does seem to be in many ways the fuckin’ truth these days, especially where social media is concerned. I’m still an avid Facebook user, though my newsfeed is increasingly taken up by the inanities of diet plans and an endless parade of engagement rings and photographs of gooey-faced babies. I share things most often via Facebook, partly because it’s the medium I’m most comfortable with at this point and partly because it usually results in more reactions from my friends. In the ten (!) years since I joined I’ve carefully cultivated an online persona made up of the articles and statuses I share, the comments I respond to, the photographs I post—and, of course, the things I (literally) like.

I’ve looked at many a wedding photograph, and read more than a couple of crushingly dumb but enticingly titled Thought Catalog articles—but not reacting to them means I can keep that part of my “personality” hidden. Enjoying a BuzzFeed roundup of walnuts that look like Chewbacca? Fine. Broadcasting that enjoyment to the world? I’d rather not. It doesn’t really matter what I am like in person when I’m using social media, because the platform allows me to create myself as I want—in my case, generally enthusiastic, moderately snarky, and interested in all things puppy.

The same applies to online dating, to a certain extent. The profile you fill in might ask you how you feel about religion and how strongly, how you describe yourself, and what you’re looking for in a relationship. It also asks you what music you like, what movies and TV shows and books. But it’s all a measure of how you want to seem. What will people think if you put down Gravity’s Rainbow versus 50 Shades of Grey? Game of Thrones or The Bachelor? It’s a conscious creation of yourself that goes way beyond the self-editing everyone does in person-to-person interactions, because there’s so much more lead time. Think hard, the blank questionnaire says, because potential mates will judge your answers just as harshly as you judge theirs. In the absence of presence, when the prickle of chemistry can’t be felt, What do I like? can turn into What do I wish I liked? Perhaps it can make us more honest, or at least more revealing of our inner desires. Or perhaps it all becomes shallow, when a mention of Pynchon stands in for depth like a shorthand with no good translation.

So if I saw a post like this on Facebook, would I hit the like button? Maybe. But not without thinking long and hard about how it would make me seem.

Update: Strangely enough, I wrote this without realizing Facebook’s birthday was today. The site rolled out automatically generated “look back” videos of the content each user has shared since signing up. While I’m sure it involved a vastly complicated algorithm of some kind, the events highlighted were not necessarily the ones I would have chosen. So maybe I now have two social media personalities—the one I craft for myself and the one the platform decides for me. It’s a bit of an odd feeling, I have to say.

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