Jessica Helfand | Essays

My Facebook, My Self

Lillian Gish as Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter, 1926. Photo Courtesy of Turner Network Television.

In a recent interview on the Today Show, Mark Zuckerberg — the young founder of Facebook — observed that the single most distinctive feature of his revolutionary social networking site was its capacity to let users control various degrees of privacy.

I would have listened to more of the interview were it not for my laptop notifying me that I was being invited to chat by someone I went to high school with. For anyone unfamiliar with this practice, Facebook also has a questionable feature displaying everyone who you’ve “friended” who happens to be online while you’re online, which in turn allows them to spontaneously engage you in an online chat. (Even if you’re sitting in your pajamas, watching the Today Show.) Mind you, the sheer fascination of this surprise encounter — this particular guy never uttered a single word to me when I was a teenager — struck me then, as it does now, as remarkably un-private.
Turns out, the very perception of what is public versus what is private is a fundamentally generational conceit. It is also, as it happens, a visual one.

Kitty Baker Scrapbook, Norfolk VA, about 1916. From Scrapbooks: An American History.
I am often asked whether people made scrapbooks, a century ago, intending to share them with others. There’s no explicit visual cue that tells us people wanted their stories projected to the world, nor is it clear that any single scrapbook maker believed this to be a clearcut, black-and-white issue. (Couldn’t it be both?)

What it does point to is perhaps the more profound question of the projected self: who, after all, doesn’t want to look a certain way to others? Scrapbooks and photo albums represent a genre unto themselves because they are unique autobiographical efforts — unvalidated by external approvals, often asynchronous and even wrong in their depiction of real-world events, and stunningly prone to the occasional willfully-constructed fiction. Among other things, this explains why so many scrapbooks celebrate a kind of curious “episodic” time — leapfrogging from happy event to happy event and ignoring the arguably more revealing, if banal, moments in between. Reconstructing biographical narratives within the context of so much idiosyncrasy is ridiculously hard. (And devilishly fun.) There’s also something deeply engaging in the ebbs and flows of personal stories in which actual truth is gloriously trumped by an individual’s own flawed, if heartfelt rendition of life as he or she deems fit. The resulting palimpsest-like volumes offer extraordinary reflections of authors no longer here to speak for themselves, in which visual cues become biographical cues: pictures speak at least as loud as the words that accompany them. Often, they speak louder.
Where Facebook is concerned, the line between public and private exists in a sort of parallel (though oddly torqued) universe: like scrapbooks, Facebook is comprised of pages with amalgamations of diverse content, all held together by an individual’s own process of selection. Generally speaking, there is a pronounced appreciation for nostalgia, alternately endearing (how adorable you were at 15!) and excruciating (how appalling you look at 50!). Just like scrapbooks, there is a fair amount of posturing and proselytizing, bad grammar and bizarre juxtapositions. There’s a scarcity of snark. And an almost evangelical devotion to stuff: where scrapbook-makers once pasted in pictures of their favorite film stars, Facebook encourages the construction of fan pages, as well as groups to join, causes to support, and so forth.

But when it comes to posting actual images, the similarity ends somewhat abruptly: first, because the emphasis on networked sharing is Facebook’s lingua franca, whereas scrapbooks inhabit a more diary-driven personal landscape; and second, because online, the degree to which pictures are deployed takes the projected self and splinters it into millions of tiny satellite identities leading who knows where.

And it begins with the no-holds-barred domain of the Facebook portrait, or portraits plural, since that is more the rule than the exception for most users. Why have one self-portrait when you can have twenty or thirty or more? I predict — within the next ten years or so — a magnificent exhibition in some great museum that examines the aesthetic permutations of the iterative self-portrait: retouched and re-engineered, Googled and canoodled and oh-so-public. But the social consequences of such wanton picture-posting are not without concern: paradoxically, while this endless and myopic self-branding may breed a generation of really thoughtful image-makers, what are they jeopardizing, even sacrificing, in the process?

For anyone under the age of, say thirty or so, the whole notion of open-source thinking is a native habitat that can be applied to everything from group-table seating in restaurants to sharing playlists to data clouds (I tag, you tag, we all tag) — in short, there’s nothing proprietary because people in this particular demographic group don’t perceive space as anything you can own. They see it as infinite real estate, to be grazed but not commandeered, shared but not colonized. The beauty of this thinking, besides the fact that it is inherently democratic and gracious, is that it lends itself to a kind of progressive evolution in which everyone wins. It’s commendable, really, and speaks well for us all.

On the other hand (and I’m not the first, nor will I be the last to mention it) there are implicit pitfalls in this rapidly growing virtual arena, particularly for those for whom social skills have not caught up with, say, their computational skills. On Facebook, this leads to huge numbers of pictures by kids of kids at parties acting stupid — yes, stupid — with cigarettes and sunglasses and cans of beer and face paint. It’s kind of sweet and sort of sad and probably meaningless (or so way too many parents of teenagers tell me) and lighten up, I’m told, because they’re just posturing, showing the world just how radical they can be. It’s safe, because after all, they’re not drinking and driving. They’re just on screen.

Or are they? Even if you are super-careful — hell, even if you don’t have a Facebook account yourself — say you find yourself at some random party where there's someone brandishing a mobile phone. And that someone (or, for that matter, someone else) snaps your picture. Soon thereafter, somebody with a Facebook account “tags” you and there you are — whammo — your questionable behavior rendered spect  acularly public. Sure, the same thing can happen on Flickr (and does) but there’s something about those interconnected six-degrees-of-separation orbits on Facebook that make a seemingly innocent act like "posting" a random image seem both insidious and scary. (Scarier still, many of the more provocative pictures being posted are actually seen as badges of honor by the people posting them.)

Naturally, people in their thirties and forties (and fifties and sixties) are just as likely to parade themselves through their Facebook albums, and do. But the control mechanism is more conscious, and the editorial process itself is typically a bit more cogent. Sure, there are people my age posting images of themselves with big hair back in the 1980s, but this seems more silly (and sentimental) than self-destructive. (After all, those of us who remember a world before Starbucks are old enough to know better.) No — self-destructive is a thirteen-year old girl posting images of herself in a bikini, and all the boys in her class, and her school, and her neighborhood, and even her friends’ friends commenting on it, all of it screamingly public. Self-destructive is a seventeen-year old high school senior posting images of himself with a bong, or downing shots of whiskey, or lap-dancing with that thirteen-year old in the bikini. Self-destructive is the as-yet unknown ramifications of so much self-publishing, when what we're publishing is our selves.

Who is to say what’s right or wrong, what’s appropriate or not, what’s shared, what’s seen, what’s hidden? Plenty of what’s taking place on Facebook is inherently innocuous, and most of us are willing to take responsibility for what we post and where we post it. A lot of Facebook is seamless and fast, streamlined and effective and fun. But as projections of ourselves, a Facebook identity, made manifest through a person's posted photo albums, inhabits a public trajectory that goes way beyond who and what we are. And it all starts with what — and more critically, who — we actually show.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Technology

Comments [42]

Smart article -- puts me in mind of an artist's recent Facebook based project to "build a large collection of paintings (sum 200) which mirror individual self-portraits." He goes on to say, ". . . I've developed an interest in how people take simple or complex snapshots of themselves, post them to their page as a representation of who they are and what they want people to see."

The paintings:

Matthew Cavnar

I think you just explained some kind of religious transformation, similar to how bellydancing went from grandmother's secrets to erotic bars.

A fantastic take on the subject. People are actually link and being turned down for jobs because of their ridiculous Facebook (and MySpace) exploits. And you're right about pictures speaking volumes. How often do you run across your old classmates and coworkers, only to find them drunk and making-out in all their photos? (Oh, wait, they had two pictures with their child, so they must be good parents.)

I know, I know, I shouldn't judge books by their covers. But what if they're all covers, no pages? What if their Facebook life is solely comprised of random party images and comments with poor grammar? No conversations, no events, no content?
John Mindiola III

You'll be happy to know that, in following your final thoughts; I deleted my Facebook and my self as an enigma—which many have remarked at prior—has now grown ever larger.

But it's nice.

It's nice to be able to construct yourself in person than as opposed to being constructed by digital signage.

A (hopefully) humorous thought.

Joe Moran

While it's certain we're witnessing some kind of social transformation, it's even more clear that it will continue. When kids of our generation - who have grown up seeing themselves and all their friends, colleagues, acquaintances, and pretty much everybody showing off, making out, and/or drunk - start making hiring decisions and voting, will it be a disqualifier to know that an otherwise smart and capable candidate was once caught dancing on top of the bar?
How long will it take before it's acceptable to party on the weekends? How long before it's ok to acknowledge that one has had a physical, intimate relationship before marriage? How long before the transparency and open information which the internet is bringing to the corporate world are accepted to apply to the personal world as well?
Daniel Erwin

On the flipside, a benefit of all of this rampant unedited self-publishing is that future politicians will all come with stacks of scandals, and so will everyone reporting on them, as will the audience, which ought to make the silly scandals go away, replaced with real judgment of a candidate's record and character.

Damn, that is a convoluted sentence. What I mean is: when everyone's checkered past is on Google, the important lapses of character and judgment will hopefully bubble up.

Facebook is a whole new way of communicating which dominates many people's lives. It has positives and negatives--many which we don't even know yet. One thing is for sure, it is having a huge influence on my generation.

One thing that I am fascinated with is how people will "un-tag" photos of themselves if they do not like the picture (especially if they think it is unattractive). In my mind, I think that I should keep every picture because that is how I looked at that exact moment in time from that exact angle. I think it adds flavor to my online identity--it is part of my story.

I don't think our society fully appreciates - or is ready for - the stripping of privacy caused by the tools we are using. Facebook is just the tip of the iceberg. When social apps talk to each other the implications compound. When you add location-aware devices, RFID tags and various other trackable/hackable devices and unsecured broadcasts, our connections to each other become inversely proportional to our privacy.

I have a feeling that this lack of privacy is going to lead to an era of some very uncomfortable situations due to what we easily discover about others and what they may know about us. I could see this causing a fear of information, and perhaps finally - eventually - a general acceptance of each others' humanity, imperfections, past mistakes and other things we tend to currently keep private.

Is the problem that people behave badly, or that we now have proof that people behave badly?
Anthony Carton

I loved the write up. I am a younger person in the midst of the facebook era and I cant agree more with the statements in the article. After reading it I was filled with questions for everyone on the affects of facebook.

1. Recently a peer of mine was kicked off of campus (college) for underage drinking. The image of her drinkin (off of campus) was found on facebook by her Resident Advisor. The image is distorted and there was a dispute as to where it came from/if it was her/ and where it was exactly taken. Will (or has) facebook been involved in any other crimes and will it be deemed trustworthy evidence in any form of correctional system?

2. I would like to see the affects of facebook on individuals who have passed away. I have had friends who have passed and there facebook accounts where removed. Like scrap books it preserves there life to an extent. Who removes those accounts? What would happen if it stayed up? How would it affect the individuals loved ones?

3. I have a seen alot of job postings and career opportunities on facebook. ALOT! Do you think it is creating more job opportunities then the amount of opportunities it is taking away?

Thanks for the article.

Hurray for Facebook and the stripping away of societal masks constructed due to repressive prudery! Hurray for the increased transparency and broadcasting of public behavior, the removal of a layer or two of fearful obscuring of reality!

Unless one suspects that the truth will not, in fact, set us free.

Because, sure, there will always be masking of one sort or strength or another. But Facebook is the beginning of the erosion of the necessity for constant, straitlaced posturing ~ it's a major breach in the armor of hidden hypocrisy.

Oh, how society trembled when James Joyce unleashed his Molly Bloom! Oh, how the willful deniers of self once railed against the truthful depictions of ~ gasp! ~ How People Actually Are! And that, in myriad iterations, just in the abstract world of text.

The last bastion of bullshit (earlier, it was for fictional people; then, it was for celebrated sorts; now, it's for everybody and their goddam sister) is about to fall to ruin. Some other sort will likely replace it; but perhaps it won't be as egregious; and at the very least, hallelujah, it'll be some kind of FRESH bullshit.

So much better than stale.

Really enjoyed this. I think it's high time for someone (or, better yet, a FB group) to write the meta-Facebook volume of how to manage FB's potentially unruly outgrowths.

Case in point: I've had an ex-colleague of mine try to friend me three times in a row, and I've ignored her each time. Clearly FB doesn't send her any notification of me clicking "ignore", and for that I thank them heartily. But on the third try I just clicked "confirm", wondering if maybe she was out of work and this was a ham-fisted way to get in touch with every last contact she's got. That doesn't seem to be the case, but what - to my dismay - does seem to be the case is that she's a commenting, poking, !!!-loving freak on a much more alarming scale than her real-world persona suggested.

Meta-FB etiquette question is now: if I de-friend her, what evidence does she have of this? If I want to keep her as a business contact but remove her from my personal life (where I never wanted her to poke her nose in anyway), how does this get finessed? Suddenly I'm beholden to explain myself; suddenly a slight relationship in the real world has all these awkward implications in the virtual one. What a colossal drag.
Jude Stewart

beautiful exposition.

i'm still waiting for someone to go andy kaufman on the format, though, or at least pull off a prank on the order of lonelygirl15...

All this, the Facebooking, Twittering, Flickring, You Tubing, is seeming evermore Orwellian. It's as if we have collectively created a digital "Big Brother."
Michael Maurer Smith

facebook is for losers. recently someone i used to like emailed me and we met up. she turned out to be not only unattractive after twenty years but incredibly boring. afterwards, she continued to stalk me by calling and talking about nothing. i finally had to blow her off. sometimes it is far better to keep away from people from the past.

fb hater

I gotta say, I lost interest in the point this article was making in the very first few paragraphs. It tries to contradict zuckerberg's point of facebook's privacy with the chat feature. Is the author even aware you can turn that off?? It's like an AIM chat, you can go online or offline. I turned it off as soon as the chat feature was added and have had no unwanted IMs popping up. Not exactly the point you should use to start an article off with.

Not a bad article, although using Facebook to muse about the divide between public and private in the twenty-first century is somewhat old hat. I think, as some of the other comments have noted, that what will ultimately happen is a combination of smarter self-policing and relaxed standards for "professional behavior" in the workplace and in politics--all in all, probably a good thing (and one already underway--compare the controversy over Clinton's use of marijuana in '92 to the complete irrelevance of Obama's use of cocaine in '08).

For another take on the relationship between Facebook and the album/scrapbook tradition, see this article.

I enjoy FB as a tool for selective sharing. A blog post is available to the whole world. I do not necessarily want the whole world to know what I am thinking. I am also afraid someone may abuse my content. On the other hand, email messages, including email newsletters may be annoying to people you don't know well. FB allows me to share with a limited group of people I trust in an unobtrusive way. I can also limit access to specific items on my profile for specific people. More secure than a blog, less pestering than an email. Works for me.
Misha Beletsky

I think twitter's the biggest fad the world's ever seen but facebook on the other hand is here to stay, it's all about sharing with real people. Not celebrities or presidents but friends and families. I can only see continual growth for it, Parents and Grandparents are moving outside their comfort zones for a piece.

Creative Agency Manchester

I may have seemed like a prude in my initial comment. Oh no, not that. TRANSPARENCY of behavior is a good thing. To have trust and accountability can be a very intimate, character-building phenomenon ("iron sharpens iron"), but that doesn't make the BEHAVIOR okay.

Am I unaware that respected business folk party loose on the weekends? Yes. Do I agree with it, want to see it, or think that anybody else would? No.
John Mindiola III

Enjoyed this article thoroughly and am just as amazed as the author of the facebook phenomena...it is definately evolution

Bottom right corner of your browser: "GO OFFLINE".

Thoughtful post, Jessica. Is it just me, or are we in the middle of a Facebook backlash? Witness these two recent online articles:

Tara Stiles: Help! I'm Addicted to Facebook!

Facebook: Home to Wannabe P*rn Stars
Ricardo Cordoba

seamless and fast... how true. Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter are all about propagating the fabulous 'I' immediately: the author looking at his- or herself published on the world wide web asap. Warhol was kinda close with his 15 minutes prediction; given today's culture it could be rephrased to say "With Facebook, we will all take 15 minutes to gaze at what we wrote and immediately published to Facebook. We will even come back every day for 15 minutes to further relish our 'fame.'"
Jason A. Tselentis

wasn't it in the late 60's that the phrase: "the personal is the political" was coined? i'm not so sure facebook represents a generational paradigm shift as much as it is the inevitable process of technology catching up to human nature. "the personal is (potentially) the public".

that some are more creative, others more selective, others more reckless, is just the endless stream of variety that is humanity.

and yes, you can edit the sharing features in facebook.
rainier facebender

With the decline of printed media, Facebook has helped me spread the word on various arts events at the college where I handle publicity. College students do not pick up the newspaper to ascertain the week's happenings; they look to Facebook and other social platforms. I understand the dilemma of protection and privacy - I was concerned as well. It helps to adjust privacy settings and mainly allow "friends" or particular "friends" to have access to private photos, notes, etc. Here is a helpful link: FB-privacy

I have no doubt people would have published their scrapbooks had there been a quick and easy way. It seems less likely that there was a sudden shift in people's willingness to share, than that there suddenly was a way to share.

I think it's insufficient to focus only on Facebook, or now Twitter as the media are obsessed with. People are sharing more detailed things as soon as the ever-expanding network can accomodate it. Not only incriminating photos on Facebook, but their most recently played music on Last.fm, their vacation plans on Twitter, the books they are reading (and how many pages into it they are) on Readernaut, even their precise location via GPS iPhone apps. On a new service, Daytum, people can log and share the most insignificant minutia of their daily life, and they will.

People need to learn how to control the level of "sharing" using Facebook's "LIST" feature. You can segregate your "friends" into different lists. I have a 'family' list, a 'friend' list, a 'work' list. You can then set what kinds of Facebook content each list can 'see'.

The old Facebook was a world of sharing everything. But the new Facebook (as of last year or so), has much finer controls for who sees what.

Jessica and many posters don't seem to realize this (just like she failed to realize you can turn Chat off). I think one problem is that older users don't even really know or fully explore the technologies they are using. They leave lots of things to default settings. And then write articles about them, drawing some extreme conclusions.

Don't do stupid things like leave all their Facebook 'friends" in one aggregated list. Don't leave your privacy settings to "All Can See". Doing so is as brainless as clicking on flashing email messages that say things like "Ebay needs your account info now".
patrick s

Patrick, you're right: I am indeed an "older" user. But in the interest of full disclosure, my 13-year old didn't know about the various levels of privacy settings on FB either.

The fundamental issue, however, remains the same: and that has everything to do with thinking before you post, and especially before you post photos.
Jessica Helfand

This is the best article on setting privacy in Facebook:


Note section 4: you (the Facebook user) can set whether anyone sees photos tagged of you. It's very handy for preventing anyone seeing embarrassing photos.

The good thing about Facebook's domain is that it has controls like this. If some snarky person took an embarrassing photo of you, put a line of text under the photo with your name, and uploaded this photo to a plain old web page, then you're in a real pickle. Google's spiders would pick up the link, and soon that photo would appear in searches with your name on it. And there'd be *nothing* you could do. The regular wide open Internet has far more destructive capabilities than Facebook. At least Facebook has privacy controls (and pretty good ones, at that). We should be lauding Facebook for the level of control it offers and recognizing that the regular Internet is where "no holds barred" risks are truly being exposed.

I believe that asking people to "think about ramifications" is going to be a failed strategy in the Internet Age. Not simply because calling for moral self-control is setting a high (and subjective) bar, but simply because there are and will be folks who are willfully immoral.

What's changed is that "showing pictures" has become instant, global, and practically no-cost -- unlike printed paper and scrapbooking. This shift makes closed systems (such as Facebook) a godsend for those concerned with privacy.

And it's true: most 13 year olds aren't worried about privacy. And may never be, given the changed nature of embarrassing-details-distribution in the age of TMZ.com. The regular Internet (plus Google) removed any shred of control or privacy; Facebook by contrast is a small stream flowing against this tide.
Patrick S

Being a university student 'Facey B' pretty much comes as standard. However, after a long, unproductive day in the studio checking face book continuously, and getting nowhere I found my cursor hovering over the 'disable account' button...and it was gone.

The interesting thing is that since then, anyone who realises they can't find me on there, have actually congratulated me on my achievement, because they admit they could never live without it!

Now I am free from pointless chat with people I don't really want to talk to, and bad birthday parties that make me feel bad when I click 'not attending' because I want to cook a Lasagne. But to hell with it, I'm out of the strong grasp that new social communication technology seem to have on us...well apart from my iPhone that is.
Dominic Merritt

I don't own a computer but use mine at work. I tried face book but became very bored with it. I don't seem to have time to be chatting and chatting. I do although have time to read blogs when work is slow. I don't completely understand this whole facebook craze,,,seems like people should be doing other things that are a bit more creative instead of wasting their time checking their face book and chatting with people they would normally not even be with in the same room.
Lucian Nicholson

The boundaries between us are completely altered by technology. It is fascinating that people with whom we had little or no contact with in previous social environments, such as high school, find security behind the screen of a computer to reach out and make contact. Why is their suddenly a desire to interact? Perhaps the physical separation of space between us lends us comfort but why do we feel the need to "friend" or chat with people whom we've previously ignored? What does this mean for our friendships with one another?

Here is the latest on another early precursor of Facebook, the Stammbuch, or Liber Amicorum: German student's social album from the 18th c. Facebook in 1750s
Misha Beletsky

crackbook is here to stay, and i agree w/ the poster that twitter will die a slow, odd death while facebook will survive due to the strong family & friends connections...

paste up

I've always thought of Facebook as voyeuristic narcism. It's a place where the averge go to see and be seen by the universe. Even more unfortunate, Big Business has garnered the deomocraphic information Facebook catalogues for sniper marketing. My money is still on Twitter. People can follow you, but they can't "random chat" you in the middle of the day. It's pure thought—as profound or mundane as it may be—sent on a wind. Then again, I'm a Gen-X-er. Which makes Twitter my social media fix of choice by default.


Nice post
Shamima Sultana

I'm in a masters class studying digital technology. I've heard so many times the following phrase, "oh, you could be anonymous in 2005, but people need to know who you are online in 2010." Oh, really? Guess what, people. Those of you who are out there are fools. You'll get yours. You're so busy examining your own navel, you didn't even think about whether or not it was a good idea to expose yourself on the web.

Dumb asses.

"Naturally, people in their thirties and forties (and fifties and sixties) are just as likely to parade themselves through their Facebook albums, and do. But the control mechanism is more conscious, and the editorial process itself is typically a bit more cogent.

Sure, there are people my age posting images of themselves with big hair back in the 1980s, but this seems more silly (and sentimental) than self-destructive. (After all, those of us who remember a world before Starbucks are old enough to know better.)

No — self-destructive is a thirteen-year old girl posting images of herself in a bikini, and all the boys in her class, and her school, and her neighborhood, and even her friends’ friends commenting on it, all of it screamingly public.

Self-destructive is a seventeen-year old high school senior posting images of himself with a bong, or downing shots of whiskey, or lap-dancing with that thirteen-year old in the bikini.

Self-destructive is the as-yet unknown ramifications of so much self-publishing, when what we're publishing is our selves."

Perfectly put.
Afifa Chida

At the same time, although I am not a fan, I do see the little good that it can bring. With regards to "networking" that is. Hmm.
Afifa Chida

The only things that are truly private are what goes on in our heads. The sooner we get used to the fact privacy is not viable in the 21st century, the happer we'll be. (It' not my name or my email address, and I am using a cloaked IP). ;)
Paul Winter

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