Not long ago, the web was abuzz with the saga of Nathalie Blanchard, a 29-year-old Canadian woman suffering from depression whose benefits were withdrawn when pictures appeared on Facebook showing her “having fun.” There are many reasons why this story is disturbing—it is scary to think that insurance companies employ representatives to patrol Facebook, for one thing—but perhaps most troublesome is the idea that anyone would believe there to be a direct correlation between a person’s Facebook profile and their inner life.
The people I know who spend the most time on Facebook are introverts, who would prefer to leave a message on someone’s “wall” than risk an encounter in the flesh. Most truly outgoing people, in my experience, are much too busy with work, friends and kids to spend hours sitting around downloading pictures, filling out quizzes and fiddling with apps. In this sense, Facebook is a substitution for a busy social life, not a reflection of it. More often than not, uploading pictures to your profile may be a form of compensation—a way of assuring others (and yourself) that you do, in fact, have friends, with whom you sometimes appear to “have fun.” In this respect, Nathalie Blanchard’s “happy” pictures would be a confirmation of her depression, rather than a refutation of it.
In this sense, I would argue that Facebook is, socially speaking, highly conservative, in that it encourages the establishment of a stable, orthodox “public self”. According to Facebook, if you are not “single,” “married” or “in a relationship”, then your only other option is the coy phrase, “it’s complicated” (and if you change your status to “single,” the announcement is accompanied by a tacky broken heart). You can be interested in “friendship,” “dating,” “a relationship” or “networking,” but that’s it—no voyeurism, flings, wife-swapping or morbid curiosity. We are inundated with warnings not to include anything “remotely inappropriate” in our profiles. Organizations that permit the use of Facebook generally do so with the caveat that you should not post anything you wouldn’t want your grandmother, boss or shareholders to see (the family camping trip is fine, but the spree in Vegas is verboten). Most recently, on December 10, the Florida Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee ruled that the state’s judges and lawyers may no longer be Facebook friends, as it “creates the impression of a conflict of interest.”
And creating impressions, of course, is what Facebook is all about. In many ways, the Facebook profile is a return to the Victorian portrait photograph, which was a way for the middle classes to present a version of themselves suitable to the public sphere. Popular until the 1920s among ladies and gents of a certain class, these daguerreotypes were a way of presenting a stage-managed version of themselves as they hoped to be seen (and measured) by others. In other words, their function was just as consciously performative and voyeuristic as the Facebook profile. Subjects would often be photographed wearing a very special item of clothing that they considered represented their essence—a characteristic fancy hat, for example, or an oriental parasol.
The austere clothing, erect backs and humorless expressions of the Victorians may no longer be in fashion, but we still like to see ourselves through other people’s eyes, cuddling our children or pets, showing off a favorite dress or indicative piece of furniture. The keen fisherman will inevitably represent himself with rod and tackle; the pro surfer will stand by the ocean with her board, and the proud gardener will stand among his prize-winning dahlias. Who we are, on Facebook, seems indistinguishable from what we do.
Or, at least, what we want to be seen doing. The fact is, we all “do” countless things, from brushing our teeth and using the toilet to driving, eating and doing our laundry, activities rarely seen in profile pictures. People who spend a lot of time on Facebook may, in fact, devote most of their waking hours to sitting in front of their laptops, but very few people depict themselves this way. Similarly, we each play a number of roles—we are almost all consumers, employees, clients and subjects, for example, but how many of us define ourselves this way on Facebook? Instead, naturally perhaps, we see ourselves in relation to other human beings—our families and friends.
Yet as we all know, the Facebook persona is a public facade. However long may be our list of Facebook “friends”, most of us—according to statistics—are close to our partner (if we have one) and one or two best friends, just as we’ve always been. Still, we all like to maintain the illusion of popularity, so why not advertise the number of people we know, however remotely? In the same way, we are not always happy; we may actually be depressed most of the time, and yet, like Nathalie Blanchard and everyone else, we prefer to display photographs in which we appear to be “having fun.”
It is too easy, then, to criticize Facebook for the false promises of intimacy it holds out, a charge that has now become commonplace. Critic William Deresiewicz, in an essay published recently in the Chronicle of Higher Education, complains: “The new group friendship, already vitiated itself, is cannibalizing our individual friendships as the boundaries between the two blur.” The most disturbing thing about Facebook, according to Deresiewicz, is “the extent to which people are willing—are eager—to conduct their private lives in public.”
This is the same over-reaching that leads people to believe that, through its infiltration of our homes and its tracing of our personal habits, the Internet has robbed us of our privacy in unprecedented ways, a delusion which evaporates with the briefest glimpse backwards in time. As the author Jonathan Franzen points out, as recently as the early years of the 20th century, the average westerner lived in small town conditions of almost constant surveillance. Not only was every purchase, every appearance, every activity noticed, but it was noticed by people who knew you, and who also knew your parents, spouse, siblings, and children. “Compared to this,” claims Franzen, “our lives now are super anonymous, and we live with a striking degree of anonymity. In some ways, in fact, the Internet is the triumph of privacy”.
The Internet makes easier than ever, today—and more tempting—to live a very private life. By conducting all major transactions online, we can avoid face-to-face contact with shopkeepers, bank tellers, bureaucrats, service providers and other contingent samples of humanity, including—if we so wish—neighbors, colleagues, lovers, family members, and, yes, even friends. Yet however carefully we may have chosen the lives we now lead, it becomes difficult, as we get older, not to be seduced by the memories of a time when we were less private, and our lives less carefully mediated. It is no surprise that, in middle age (and those over 35 are the fastest growing demographic of Facebook users), many of us develop an obsession with maintaining contact with high school friends and childhood sweethearts. The further distant from them we grow, the more sentimental we tend to feel about our childhood and adolescent years and about our younger peers, even if they were no more than casual acquaintances at the time.
This is a natural development; it may also be a response to the way our present-day companions lose their gloss compared to mysterious lost loves of the past. It may also be an attempt to re-connect with images or signifiers of lost years that were “missed” at the time, due to emotional dissociation or psychological maladjustment. This theme–the unlived life of the past which still haunts, beckoningly–is the subject of Henry James’s ghost story The Jolly Corner, published in 1908, whose protagonist, Spencer Brydon, returns to his childhood home after more than thirty years abroad. Brydon begins to believe that his alter ego—the ghost of the man he might have been, had he not left at 23 for a life abroad—is haunting the “jolly corner,” his nickname for the old family house. His early years become a “morbid obsession” for Brydon.
“He found all things come back to the question of what he personally might have been, how he might have led his life and “turned out,” if he had not so, at the outset, given it up.”
His speculations are, as he admits, a result of the habit of “vain egoism,” of “too selfishly thinking,” the same curiosity—natural and perhaps universal—that fuels the popularity of Facebook, which is certainly founded on narcissism. Rather than accepting this as a pejorative cliché, however, we should stop a moment to recall that a reasonable amount of healthy narcissism is necessary in functioning adults, because it allows us to balance our own needs with those of others. Narcissus learned to see himself as an object of desire only when others, who fell in love with him, had taught him to do so. Like the self-love of Narcissus, the lives we show each other on Facebook are artfully constructed illusions, masquerades of the way we really live. We all know, privately, that we are often unhappy, that all relationships are difficult, that parties can be boring and marriages moribund. Maintaining a public self is one way to redeem our dignity, to keep up the illusion of faith, if not for our own sake, then for the sake of others. In this sense, Facebook returns the psychology of the self to the public realm, away from lonely solipsism and existential angst (I’ll keep the mask over my face, if you keep the mask over yours). In brief, it reinforces the relationship between friendship and good citizenship, reminding us that we are not alone in our lies.
MIKITA BROTTMAN is a psychoanalyst and chair of the program in humanities & depth psychology at Pacifica Graduate Institute. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org