I have to write this, or else Nate will get to define me

A fascinating article in the NYT discusses some of the social aspects of online communities (particularly Facebook). One quote captures the unique sort of self-imposed captivity that online communities can create:

Yet Ahan knows that she cannot simply walk away from her online life, because the people she knows online won’t stop talking about her, or posting unflattering photos. She needs to stay on Facebook just to monitor what’s being said about her. This is a common complaint I heard, particularly from people in their 20s who were in college when Facebook appeared and have never lived as adults without online awareness. For them, participation isn’t optional. If you don’t dive in, other people will define who you are. So you constantly stream your pictures, your thoughts, your relationship status and what you’re doing — right now! — if only to ensure the virtual version of you is accurate, or at least the one you want to present to the world.

It’s a great description of one of the addictive aspects of online discussion.

The article also gives a good explanation of who exactly your Facebook friends are — and why they (might) matter:

But where their sociality had truly exploded was in their “weak ties” — loose acquaintances, people they knew less well. It might be someone they met at a conference, or someone from high school who recently “friended” them on Facebook, or somebody from last year’s holiday party. In their pre-Internet lives, these sorts of acquaintances would have quickly faded from their attention. But when one of these far-flung people suddenly posts a personal note to your feed, it is essentially a reminder that they exist. I have noticed this effect myself. In the last few months, dozens of old work colleagues I knew from 10 years ago in Toronto have friended me on Facebook, such that I’m now suddenly reading their stray comments and updates and falling into oblique, funny conversations with them. My overall Dunbar number is thus 301: Facebook (254) + Twitter (47), double what it would be without technology. Yet only 20 are family or people I’d consider close friends. The rest are weak ties — maintained via technology.

This rapid growth of weak ties can be a very good thing. Sociologists have long found that “weak ties” greatly expand your ability to solve problems. For example, if you’re looking for a job and ask your friends, they won’t be much help; they’re too similar to you, and thus probably won’t have any leads that you don’t already have yourself. Remote acquaintances will be much more useful, because they’re farther afield, yet still socially intimate enough to want to help you out.

Like the last quote, this seems quite accurate — a good characterization of exactly what Facebook (or for that matter, blogging) often does. Yet, in a way, these two observations are in tension. On the one hand, the first snippet notes that today, a person must be online constantly to make sure that the online persona is accurate. This seems accurate enough. Online personas are creations of pixel and byte, and they require maintenance. And more importantly, online personas are not created solely by the person; they are also affected by discussion among others — gossip. And maintaining an accurate persona can be a lot of work.

Yet, as the article also notes, the audience for online personas is limited in important ways. Those who communicate via online persona (as compared to in person) tend to be the weak ties. They’re not wife or best friend; they’re the old college classmates. Is it really worth it to keep constantly updated, just so your old college roommate doesn’t get a wrong impression?

Really, if I just left my Facebook profile alone for a week, or a month — would anyone even give a damn? I’m really not sure. My close friends, I’ll see anyway. And as for my old college classmates — I’m not sure they’d even notice. We’ve already gone for years without contact in the pre-Facebook era — I’m not sure another month with no updates will matter much.

Should I experiment with this? No, the thought is much too frightening to bear.

Besides, then I’d just be letting Nate (and every other co-blogger or online interlocutor) define me, and I could never do that.

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