The funny thing about social media is that, for its whole mirror-of-reality shtick, it doesn’t invite any fetishes. If “to Facebook” were a verb, which it nearly is, you wouldn’t be able “to Facebook” oddly, quirkily. It would happen on a single scale of use, from hyperactive Facebook use to the online presence of a Siberian hermit. Social media is strictly functional; it tells us how to use it. We post. We comment. We like. Some people over-share and some people under-share, but the content, however sundry — no matter how tacky, tactless, gross or Republican — never really shocks us. A selfie with Bill Clinton? Yawn. A screenshot of your text with mom? @crazyjewishmom probably did it better. To lift a phrase from Keats, Facebook is life; life, Facebook. And so, Facebook numbs us to life and life to Facebook.
This isn’t unique to Facebook. Feminism has split over the similar critiques of pornography: during what were known as (i.e., what Wikipedia calls) the Feminist Sex Wars of the 1980s, feminist theorists quarreled about whether pornography is a site of domination or liberation. Does the passivity of women on screen invite male viewers to objectify women? Does porn deaden us a little bit? Or is pornography a venue of sex-positivism — something women, long chafing at the hypocrisies of male prudishness, should welcome and celebrate? By analogy, this debate cuts to the heart of Facebook. The anti-pornographers might argue that it anesthetizes us to reality, locking us into little jealousies the way pornography locks us into misogyny. We scroll through our walls so quickly, selectively, the way porn-viewers fast-forward through the bad acting and skip all the foreplay. Facebook gives us license to see what we want to see — which is to say, it’s a gawking, solipsistic experience.
But for the sex-positive folk, Facebook isn’t about spectacle. It’s about connection — a celebration of humans as social animals. For them, all social media is a bit like Couchsurfing, where indie Swiss people connect with dreadlocked Argentines and crash on each others’ couches as they bum around and find themselves.
My problem with that is the problem I had with Harry Potter: nobody goes to the bathroom. Which is to say, how can we actually connect on Facebook when our profiles are so curated, indeed, when we live for the sake of our Facebook personas? We objectify ourselves. We see the world through Facebook — “what will look good on our profiles?” as opposed to “what looks good to me now?” I remember how hard it was to climb Wat Pho in Bangkok when one hand was clutching my iPhone, trying to take a selfie with an orange-robed monk clambering impatiently behind. I remember very little of the view, except for how it reflected on the iPhone.
Yale is a bit like this, as was high school, which is why we’re at Yale in the first place. We do things — run clubs, edit newspapers — to make us look good. During the week we live for our LinkedIns; weekends and spring break are for Facebook. But at least LinkedIn is honest; at least it’s up front about its sleazy self-presentation. During the winter months when I rarely left the house, I spent a lot of time splayed across a variety of Ikea furniture, clicking my way around LinkedIn. I was trying to figure out how to be successful: what internships to do, what classes to take. It felt dirty, kind of like porn. And LinkedIn is somewhere in the genre: plot is excess. Achievements and work histories are listed, drawn up like cool, sleek sex acts.
Since we’re living in what a guy from section calls “late capitalism,” you might be tempted to think this is just some elaborate ad for LinkedIn. It’s not, trust me. My 500+ connections can attest to the fact that “LinkedIn campus rep” isn’t on my resume. But since, of course, we’re living in what another chump from sections calls “an age of irony,” you might still be tempted to think I’m plugging for LinkedIn. Really, I’m not. If you really want to know what I’m thinking, let me refer to another term from section: “the male gaze.”
It’s as if LinkedIn is social media’s answer to the Feminist Sex Wars. Social media is all about these scrutinizing gazes. Government watches us. We watch, and judge, each other: oppressive, one-way spectatorship. But there’s something about LinkedIn, the whole “so-and-so viewed your profile” feature, that brings the gaze down to a wink. You see me seeing you, and though staring is wrong, on LinkedIn it’s whitewashed by these insecurities and careerist pretensions that make it all seem as if we’re walking around in tuxedo tops and naked on the bottom. And that feels very college.