It’s late Thursday night and I‘m probing Jackson Beck ’17, a classmate, about his Facebook habits over questionably cheap steak sandwiches.
“So how much time do you really spend on Facebook every day?” I ask.
“About an hour,” he answers, without pausing to consider.
“And when you log off Facebook, what percent of the time do you leave feeling satisfied?”
“About five percent of the time,” Jackson pauses, biting into his sandwich and looking up at the ceiling as he chews. “Yeah, I’d probably say I leave Facebook feeling unsatisfied 95 percent of the time.”
“So you’re telling me you spend an hour a day doing something that 95 percent of the time leaves you unsatisfied?” I ask.
“Well … Yeah.”
I’m writing this article because I’m curious. I’m curious as to why, when I walk around a lecture hall or a dining hall or a party or a seminar table, at least a few people are always scrolling through their newsfeeds. I want to investigate why I, like many of my friends and classmates at Yale, feel ultimately unsatisfied by the hours, days, weeks and collective years that we’ve spent staring at that familiar blue screen. Why do we spend so much time on Facebook?
Yale was one of the first three universities to receive theFacebook.com in March 2004, along with Columbia and Stanford. Mark Zuckerberg birthed his brainchild just a month before in his Harvard dorm room at the beginning of February. It was a basic blue and white affair, with a male’s pixelated blue face staring down at users from the top left corner of every page.
Just a few months later, the News was already lauding and lamenting the far reach of theFacebook.com’s popularity: “Ahh, the joys of being able to mass-proclaim your popularity via the Internet. Although theFacebook.com is not the originator of social standing sites, it is undeniable that for the college student eager to find new and enlightening ways to procrastinate (those which don’t involve another being or a spare hand) theFacebook.com can easily become a means to fruitful Friday online frolics,” wrote Dana Schuster ’07.
Schuster’s guide to Facebook etiquette included (now scarily dated) warnings to the class of 2008 to resist the temptation to message new suitemates in lieu of calling them. TheFacebook.com’s capabilities, she half-joked, half-pleaded, were by no means a proxy for meeting real people.
As Yale students a decade later, we belong to the first generation of “digital natives” — a term which Sherry Turkle, director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self, used in her aptly titled book “Alone Together.” When I entered Yale, my expectations for the place were almost entirely dictated by the Class of 2017 Facebook page.
By Bulldog Days there were already campus celebrities, certain names on everybody’s lips. Before I had even stepped foot on campus, I had seen pictures of my suitemates when they were toddlers, learned what kind of activities they had been involved with in high school and felt myself a partial witness to their awkward middle school phases. Calling them on the phone probably would have been the most prominent display of social ineptitude I could ever conceive of.
It’s a blustery Saturday afternoon when I sit down for coffee with Helder Toste ’16. If you don’t know who he is, you probably don’t have a Facebook.
I’ve always assumed that Facebook celebrities are introverts glued to their screens, but Helder is both more gregarious and socially adept than I expected. He keeps his phone in his pocket throughout the duration of the interview, removing it only once to glance at a few messages that accumulated during our chat.
“I like to consider myself a very fun and sarcastic person,” he tells me. “I think coming into Yale, a lot of people from the Class of 2016 were like, ‘this guy is so intense!’”
Toste says that he uses Facebook for around an hour a day, but intermittently, like when he’s waiting for class to start or walking home from the library. He gets around 10 to 20 Facebook messages a day, and when he logs on, there are usually around five to 10 notifications waiting for him. He likes to post on the Class of 2018, 2017 and 2016 pages — mainly because he wants to help answer people’s questions — and on “Overheard at Yale” because it’s amusing.
Although students frequently disagree about how to pronounce his surname (It’s Tost-ee), the name is ubiquitous around campus.
“A lot of the time I meet people and it’s like, ‘you’re Helder, the guy on Facebook,’ and I’m like ‘that’s not totally who I am!’” He explains. While Helder stresses that his Facebook profile in no way represents who he is, he has made a fair number of friends through such interactions.
Bianca Li ’17 also feels like her two-dimensional Facebook profile doesn’t fully capture the complexities of her three-dimensional self.
“I feel like in person I’m very much more of a listener than a talker. There’s a lot I won’t tell people unless they ask me,” she says.
Li spends five hours on Facebook every day. She is a frequent poster on the Class of 2017 and 2018 pages. Unlike Helder, she isn’t so positive about the recognition she gets for her Facebook activity but concedes that it’s part of the trade. She understands her online presence can be polarizing, because of the amount of comments that she posts.
Li says she’s amazed that people often recognize her from her Facebook profile. “Freshman year, people would visit my dorm room. Some people who didn’t even have swipe access to my entryway. It was kind of creepy, but at the same time, I kind of understand the fascination with people who are so visible online,” she says.
She describes her Facebook personality as “jokey” but also sometimes serious, when she advocates for things she thinks are important, like feminism and healthful living.
“It’s very much a representation of what I would like to be seen as,” she says.
Ben Chen*, a junior who deactivated his profile for the entirety of last year, agrees that Facebook does give us a platform to present what we’d like to be seen as by other people, but often in a way that he finds “pathetic.” Ben chose to deactivate his Facebook because of what he calls an “old person’s obsession with privacy,” and for the same reason requested to use a pseudonym to retain Google anonymity.
“I think at Yale, the perfect profile picture is one where you look really good, but where it doesn’t look like you’re trying to look good,” he says. “At my high school the perfect profile picture was just a picture that looked really good.”
Ben says that perhaps this active nonchalance on Facebook is unique to the elite and highly educated — that we, as Yale students, think we need to be aware of the medium as a medium. We need to simultaneously wink at the idea of Facebook and try to look good on Facebook. Ben’s idea of a good profile is one that’s either over the top, campy and ironic, or one that’s tasteful, effortless and fun.
“How tasteful are their photographs? If they’re trying too hard to come off a certain way, then that seems kind of desperate and pathetic.”
And thus we enter a zone where we’re judging and being judged on every detail of what we’ve chosen to present. We’re carefully packaging mass amounts of information about ourselves because being seen as pathetic sounds really scary.
Before Facebook, if I met an interesting guy at a party, I’d have to ask my friends if anyone knew his telephone number, and then muster up the guts to call his landline, all the while fearing he wouldn’t pick up — or even worse: that the conversation would be awkward. Now I can go on Facebook and see what his “deal” is and also pictures of his cats and his parents and what he looked like when he was a baby and what type of people he hung out with in high school and what bands and movies and books he likes and doesn’t like and he likes country music? Hah, no way. Like he ever stood a chance.
“I think the biggest problem with Facebook is making assumptions about someone before they actually meet them,” laments Maggie Morse ’17. “It’s hard — for example if your friend says they’re dating someone new, it’s hard not to make an assumption in your head. You get some sort of impression of them. I’ve definitely done that. But I wish I didn’t.”
“That sounds awful, oh gosh,” she adds.
“I’m pretty sure we’ve all done that. It’s inevitable. Human nature,” I quickly reply.
Who am I making justifications for?
I call Nicholas Christakis ’84 on a Friday evening just before he drives out of cell phone range into rural Vermont. Christakis, director of the Human Nature Lab, does not discount the day-to-day utility of Facebook, but he does maintain that Facebook has the ability to perpetuate feelings of negative self-worth. Christakis attended a Yale where every room had landlines (with no answering machines!) and people scribbled messages to friends on the chalkboards outside each suite.
“On any given day, a few of your friends might be having a truly exceptional experience,” he explains. With Facebook, he goes on, you can see everyone’s exceptional experiences and suddenly start to feel that you’re the only one stuck behind a screen. This can lead to feeling very envious very quickly, even though Christakis points out, “most days are just a normal day.”
Hall Rockefeller ’16, who deleted her Facebook after her freshman year, has a similar take. “I found that Facebook represented an alternate reality that I didn’t really want to partake in,” she says. “I think that the self that exists on Facebook is definitely not the one that exists in, well, I’d like to say reality, but Facebook becomes some sort of weird, twisted reality.”
Rockefeller found that Facebook created a standard against which she didn’t want to measure herself. “I just wasn’t interested in seeing people live in the ways that people wanted to present them, because it made me assess my life in a way that I didn’t want to or need to assess.”
In fact, in an oft-cited study published in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking, researchers ran an analysis of Facebook usage among college students and found a correlation between low self-esteem and high levels of Facebook activity. And while scientific studies only describe reality up to a point — especially when we’re talking about something as subjective as self-esteem — when I told the students I interviewed about the study, they all seemed to nod their heads in agreement. To them, the correlation made sense.
To Chris Paolini ’17, you can look at someone’s Facebook profile and understand how exactly they want to be seen by their peers — especially when being critiqued by other Yale students.
“Yale’s not particularly [academically] competitive, but what a lot of people are worried about is the way they seem to other people,” he says. “Especially when it comes down to intelligence and impressiveness.”
The image that Yalies strive for, Paolini thinks, is not necessarily one of perfection, but an image that we think is the best encapsulation of ourselves. That’s the image we want on Facebook. “You have a certain degree of control over your virtual identity. And in that sense, it’s not a true perception that people are having of you,” he says.
Facebook gives us time to perfect a virtual version of ourselves. On the internet, you have both time and Google on your side when you’re engaged in a comment war. In the “real world,” however, you only have a few seconds to prove your intellectual prowess.
“Facebook is the one place where people don’t really make mistakes easily. It’s a lot more conscientious, how an identity is created,” Paolini observes.
Creating that external self takes time. I no longer have a Facebook account, but when I did, I probably spent as much time stalking myself as I did other people. Deleting pictures in which I looked uncool, hiding things on my timeline that my grandma had posted (the horror!) and strategically refraining from “liking” things people had posted on my profile so it looked like I didn’t spend that much time on Facebook. I did.
But the desire for cool internet-impassivity doesn’t seem to be anything new among Yale students. In Schuster’s article — now more than 10 years old — she advised her peers:
“I recommend updating your Facebook photo every three to four months … Or you may opt to leave your original Facebook photo up indefinitely — instantly emanating an ‘I haven’t been on theFacebook.com in ages’ aura despite the fact that you surreptitiously lavished in your summer internship’s ability to provide you with countless hours of anonymous Facebook-browsing.”
As Yale students, we often face a familiar dilemma: work/sleep/friends. Pick two. Yet with The Facebook, that has changed. We can suddenly multitask: socialize and work, or socialize and sleep simultaneously. Because even when we’re in bed at night, people can browse through our photos or “poke” us. And how many lecture rooms are filled with screens opened to a page of notes, with a Facebook tab right behind it? Or sometimes, just the Facebook tab?
Every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday night from 10 to 12, a group of students congregate in the Branford Trumbull room over home-baked cookies and tea. They talk about life, dreams, hopes, other Important Matters that have always plagued college students. At the front door of the tea room is a basket filled with iPhones and Androids. “Technology free zone —Please place your phone in the basket,” the sign reads. It’s held in Branford, but anyone is welcome to join — as long as they drop their phone in the basket before entering.
Branford College Master Elizabeth Bradley helped create the space last spring when a group of students came to her with the idea.
“They were talking … about how hard it is to have an authentic conversation,” she remembers. “In the dining hall, people will pass by each other and say, ‘hey, how are your midterms? What’s going on? What are your plans for the summer?’ Just these sort of facts, rather than — ‘how do you feel about these courses you’re taking? Who do you feel like you’re becoming as a person?’”
“They just felt like there was no space to do that. It was almost socially weird to do it.”
I’ve been thinking about Master Bradley’s words a lot lately. When I deactivated my Facebook a month ago, the first terror that popped into my head was that no one would remember my birthday. After a five-minute process of finally finding the “deactivate your Facebook” portion of the website, I was confronted with the profile pictures of my closest friends with pleas to stay written under them. (How did they know who my closest friends were?) “Theo will miss you.” “Fiona will miss you.” As if I were moving to Beijing. I clicked the necessary bubbles and boxes, closed my eyes, and in a moment of inexplicable panic re-entered my password and pressed the deactivate button. “To reactivate your account, log in using your old login email address and password. You will then be able to use the site as before. We hope you come back soon.” The reply was smooth.
My birthday came and went and I had a party that I invited people to by text and word of mouth. My grandma emailed me, and my parents and my two closest friends from high school called. Life carried on.
I’m not trying to sound alarmist, nor am I caught in some luddite vision of a past Yale in which we only spoke face-to-face and All Was Good, but I feel the fact that we needed to create a special room to put down our phones just to have a conversation says something. It says a lot.
Branford Residential Fellow Steve Blum ’74 seems to agree with my assessment. Steve is at the tea room almost every night chatting with students. His was a Yale where friends would meet nightly for pizza and games of bridge, and where the closest thing to campus celebrities were the football players you read about in the News.
“The very fact that we (a) had to invent the tea room, (b) had to have rules attached to it and (c) that people actually end up talking about it in a meaningful way, is in fact testament to something we’ve lost,” says Blum.
Of course it’s easy to feel nostalgic about a time you’ve never lived in. You can imagine the good parts without the bad parts. Yet, as Master Bradley described the times spent out on the quad and Christakis talked about the little notes slipped under doors and Blum waxed lyrical about the daily games of frisbee in the courtyard, I can’t help feeling that, in gaining Facebook, we’re losing something else.
On Monday night, I walked through Bass library looking at how many computers were open to Facebook. (I suppose you could call it stalking in the real world sense.) Fingers clicked at lightning speeds as photos whizzed by screens in nanosecond intervals. In my surreptitious (and maybe a bit invasive) study, I counted six out of 40 laptops on the top floor of Bass open to Facebook, besides the guy watching Spiderman. Around 13 percent. Numbers are only helpful to a point, but I rode home on my bike through the rain that night wondering why Yale students spend so much collective time on a blue-and-white webpage that more often than not, seems to leave us unsatisfied.
Out of all the Yale students I spoke to, the average time spent on Facebook was about 45 minutes (I suspect it’s higher, but maybe people just want to present the best versions of themselves. Especially to reporters.) Human error aside, it’s still a lot of time. 45 minutes a day. That’s five and a quarter hours a week. 21 hours a month. 252 hours a year. And if the average Yale student is a sophomore (like me) who has had a Facebook profile since ninth grade, that’s 52 and a half full days spent on Facebook. Fifty-two and a half days we could have spent reading books or learning how to play an instrument or getting up the courage to speak to our crush in person. Maybe I’m just optimistic about how we would have been spending our time. I don’t know.
But I fear that as we spend our hours in the library half-studying and half-looking through the prom photos of that girl who sits across from us in section, as we decide not to contact the boy whose profile indicates a taste for country music, as we lie in bed mindlessly scrolling in the minutes before drifting off to sleep, that we’re losing something more than time in the process.