Show Your Best Face

Online social networks are a hop, click and jump from reality

Let’s talk about that great photo of you on thefacebook.com. For the uninitiated—all three of you—thefacebook.com was described by its creator, Mark E. Zuckerberg ’06, as a third-party alternative to the long-awaited, much-hyped work in progress that is a universal Harvard facebook, offering a “personal network” where connections can be forged via classes, interests and, most powerfully of all, mutual friends.

But back to that hot pic of yours: what’s astonishing is just how good-looking everyone else is on thefacebook.com, too! Clicking away late one night I couldn’t help thinking how different these images were to those that would fill an official facebook, filled with Harvard ID photos resembling deer in headlights, stunned squirrels and other expressions of terrified confusion caught on film amidst the chaos of freshman week. Instead, the thefacebook.com scene includes reams of carefully coiffed, immaculately manicured, evening-garbed Harvard students grinning eagerly on page after page as we present our own ideal image of selfhood to fellow browsers. And there’s more hotties to be found hooked up to the site every day, as upwards of a half of undergraduates have eagerly signed up since its inception just a week or so ago.

This summer’s Friendster phenomenon, though not a website exclusive to Harvard, worked in much the same way, spreading across the student body like an unpleasant rash as more and more joined to build connected social networks in a bid to prove their own popularity. There was the obligatory flattering photo adorning each profile—my own completely unrepresentative image, for example, was all wide-eyed and blow-dried, culled from a photo album otherwise sadly dominated by slightly demonic red eyes and uncontrollably frizzy hair.

Friendster, too, asked the same sorts of deep and meaningful questions designed to provide a glimpse of the user’s true personality. And just as the photos probably more often than not stretched the truth, answers to said probing questions turned out to be depressingly uniform, following an unspoken code of college-ordained pseudo-intellectual coolness where everyone’s favorite book was One Hundred Years of Solitude and no one ever ’fessed up to knowing all there was to know about that classic Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant tear-jerker Notting Hill—though I guess that could just be my own dirty little secret.

The big difference between Friendster and thefacebook.com, though, was that Friendster was essentially a dating network—albeit a more socially acceptable one than most. There was that little white lie that was implicit in its warm ’n’ fuzzy title, that this was about friends meeting friends, and no one was in the slightest bit desperate and dateless—they were all just looking for “activity partners,” as Friendster’s code engineers let us say in place of any overt indicator of romantic interest. This clever masquerade allowed Friendster to go where no online matchmaking service had gone before, thrusting the previously-reclusive personal ad into the open where it could bask in the sun as the wired generation logged on in unprecedented numbers.

While Friendster’s popularity on campus has waned in recent months, what it and thefacebook.com share in common is that just about every profile is a carefully constructed artifice, a kind of pixelated Platonic ideal of our messy, all-too organic real-life selves who don’t have perfect hair and don’t spend their weekends snuggling up with the latest Garcia Marquez. There’s little wonder why Harvard students, in particular, find the opportunity to fashion an online persona such a tantalizing prospect. Most of us spent our high school careers building resumes so padded they’d hold their own in a sumo match, an experience which culminated in the college application, which came replete with the opportunity to describe our plans for world peace in 50 words or less à la Miss Congeniality. And come to think of it, beauty pageants, college applications and online social networks aren’t exactly dissimilar as far as knowingly superficial yet nonetheless nail-biting contests of social acceptance go. Now that we’re here at college, the practice of scheduling our days into red-penned oblivion means that for better or worse, our activities and consumption patterns have become a shorthand for who we actually are. What better way, then, to interact with each other than through sets of questionnaires which filter our acquaintances by way of these exacting criteria?

For all this apparent cynicism, online social networks prove endlessly fascinating as long as I continue to subconsciously sort everyone I know into neat little categories. Lest we forget, Harvard’s particular manifestation has also brought hitherto top-secret stalking techniques to the masses—finding out where someone last logged on has become a particularly valuable service with Telnet’s popular “finger” function on the fritz of late. While thefacebook.com isn’t explicitly about bringing people together in romantic unions, there are plenty of other primal instincts evident at work here: an element of wanting to belong, a dash of vanity and more than a little voyuerism probably go a long way in explaining most addictions (mine included). But most of all it’s about performing—striking a pose, as Madonna might put it, and letting the world know why we’re important individuals. In short, it’s what Harvard students do best. And that’s why, wildly misleading photos aside, it would be difficult if not near-impossible to go cold turkey in the face of thefacebook.com.

Amelia E. Lester ’05 is an English concentrator in Adams House. Her column appears on alternate Tuesdays.