The Faces of Facebook

We’ve all heard the stories: college admission staff looking up students’ Facebook pages; potential employers (think Obama’s campaign) checking out applicants via social networks; and what better way to get the scoop on a potential date (or keep tabs on someone) than by looking up personal postings via online profiles?

It used to be fairly simple to compartmentalize one’s social spheres before things like Facebook created a convergence of networks. So what’s a person to do if Mom and Dad, bosses and co-workers, high school and college pals, former romantic interests and current ones are all converging, mingling and posting on your one, very public wall?

One solution is to de-friend the outer circle and keep only close friends in the inner-sanctum of Facebook. Say your top 225 friends. (You could have even earned a burger for your efforts if Burger King hadn’t pulled their recent de-friend-a-friend campaign.)

Or you could follow Sarah Perez’s directions on how to set up categories of people on Facebook, thereby specifically managing who has access to your wall, your photos, your comments and your Facebook life. You can even block specific people from accessing or finding you on Facebook.

Privacy settings and controlled access certainly have their place. I’m wary of exposure of my kids’ activities and photographs to any ol’ anybody. But safety issues aside, I think there’s something else going on amid the angst I often hear from people worried about public wall postings, photo tags of them at parties and such.

It’s the fact that we have gotten used to managing our manners depending on the company we’re keeping. We have a certain code of conduct in our professional worlds. We have neighbors, church friends, civic acquaintances, and relatives–all with different knowledge and histories of us.

Yet, instead of working to cordon off segments of our lives, I think it’s time to think about who we are in our entirety. Are we the same or different depending on who we’re talking to and who we’re with? Are we letting people fully into our lives to see us with our strengths and vulnerabilities? Or do we have areas of our lives that we’d like to keep under wraps from others? Are we authentic? Genuine? Truthful in all of our communications?

When I was little, teachers at church would remind us, “Jesus is the invisible person who sees and hears everything that you do.” It sounded an awful lot like, “He sees you when you’re sleeping. He knows when you’re awake. He knows if you’ve been bad or good so be good for goodness sake!”

I resist behavior modification by fear. I prefer when some catalyst comes along that requires a self-examination of some aspect of my life. Colliding worlds on Facebook has been a bit of that kind of catalyst.

When I look at my community of friends on Facebook, I find myself asking the questions: Am I the same person to my church friends as I am to my college friends as I am to my work colleagues as I am to my children? If I say something/write something, am I comfortable with people from all areas of my life reading it?

A decade ago, I was editor of World Vision’s magazine when the Kosovo refugee crisis erupted. Our corporate Gifts-in-Kind department copied me on an email detailing all the items being sent to the refugees: blankets, water purification tablets, diapers, and, because World Vision thinks of everything, Kotex feminine hygiene products.

I don’t know what about that caught my attention. I guess I had never thought through the details of what you might require if you had to abandon your home and flee across borders. And here was World Vision, planning down to the last detail for those in need!

I wrote a quick and jokey email to my magazine staff saying that we ought to create a whole fundraising campaign on the magazine’s business reply envelope titled, “Kotex for Kosovo.” It had great alliteration.

Unfortunately, I hit “reply all” instead of “forward,” and my tongue-in-cheek email went back to the entire corporate GIK team. Ah, the embarrassment. But the problem is not the technology, those darn reply alls that trip us up. The problem is that we trip ourselves up when we have things in our private world that we wouldn’t want made public. Think Clinton. Spitzer. Blagoyavich. And I’m not just picking on the men.

I happen to believe that we live in a culture that has lost a certain amount of community as well as accountability. We crave connections. We want to be known. How else do you explain the huge phenomenon of Facebook’s 150 million users? Or the gazillion 25 random list postings. But oddly enough, even as we write our status feeds, comment on friends’ notes, postings, videos and pictures, we also work diligently to show them only what we want them to see. And only to certain people.

We’ve all become spinmeisters, managing our profile pages to ensure that we’re witty and hip; popular and cool. Beautiful families. Great vacations. Clever links. And it’s cool to count on the fact that our friends can, well, literally count our friends!

Facebook is rapidly responding to the desire for ever-more customized views. I wonder if we would be better served by an application that filters the spin and helps us communicate with more candor and greater consistency across all our circles of friends.

[Written Feb. 2009]

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