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Look Her Up On “The Facebook”

My first introduction to Facebook, still called “The Facebook” at the time, was in the fall of 2004. I was 21 years old and just starting my fourth year (of an eventual six) in college.

In the social-network-behemoth’s early years, only students with valid email accounts from approved colleges and universities could have Facebook accounts. Zuckerberg’s own school, Harvard, was first, then MIT, Columbia and the rest of the bonafide Ivies. More schools were added in small batches over time, creating a temporary sense of validation for the student body of each newly invited campus.

From the start, Facebook’s power was its ability to bestow social capital upon its young user base. To have a Facebook account meant that not only were you enrolled in college, but you were enrolled in the right kind of college. To have a Facebook account in those early days meant that you, just like those preppy Harvard kids, were on the inside of the club. It didn’t really matter what the club was. All that mattered was that you were an invited member.

I attended a college with 450 undergraduates and a curriculum which required every student to learn Ancient Greek, reproduce centuries-old science experiments and read the works of almost every dead white man from Homer to Einstein. Suffice it to say, we were not in the first round of invitations to the cool club. I don’t remember it exactly, but I’m pretty sure my school wasn’t added to Facebook until at least halfway through 2005. Oh the shame.

Like most of the world in 2004, I had no idea “The Facebook” existed (and certainly no idea that it would take over the hearts and minds of most of the world within the decade) until an ex-boyfriend who went to a different school told me about it. In a conversation that would set the precedent for all that Facebook would come to mean in my life, he told me about his new girlfriend, saying, “She’s really cute. You should look her up on the Facebook.”

This simple statement carried a heavy weight of subtle meaning. 1) My new girlfriend is beautiful and popular. 2) I know you don’t belong to “the Facebook”, but I do, and so does my new girlfriend who is beautiful and popular. 3) I would like for you to look at several photographs of my beautiful and popular new girlfriend on this cool new website that you have not been invited to join, but I have, and so has my girlfriend, you know, the one who is beautiful and popular.

And so, like a hobo staring into the bright window of the warm and and happy family, I followed his link to see the “wall” of this girl who I had never met (and never would). I tasted the poison apple and clicked on her photos and read the indecipherable inside jokes written to her by other attractive strangers. Just as intended, I felt jealous and distinctly uncool. It would be another year before I would have an account of my own, but the trap was set, the hook baited. I’d lost the fight before I was even allowed into the ring.

Beer Cans and Bare Ankles Could Ruin Your Life

During my first few years out of college, as I entered the adult world of professional office environments, discussions around what was and was not appropriate to post online were seemingly endless. Most of them were lead by older manager types who would warn us that “the Internet is forever” and that no one who had pictures online of themselves holding a beer or, heaven help them, a cigarette, would ever be able to get hired at any respectable company.

In this photo, a woman brazenly holds a cigar. The fact that she is playing chess is irrelevant. This person clearly lacks good judgement and strength of character.

In this photo, a woman brazenly holds a cigar. The fact that she is playing chess is irrelevant. This person clearly lacks good judgement and strength of character.

I was careful about the content I allowed to go on social media. The warnings of these office veterans was cloaked in puritanical stodginess, but their advice wasn’t all that bad. Despite the fact that I smoked almost a pack of cigarettes a day into my 30’s, it can not be proved by any photographic evidence. I rarely curse online and never invoke God or Jesus Christ in any way that could be interpreted as vain. The same social graces and rules of polite conversation that my mother drilled into me as a child have governed the majority of what I share of myself on the Internet. I’m neither low-class nor a Philistine (even though I sincerely believe both of those to be entirely made-up categories).

Interacting online has its benefits, socially, professionally and even psychologically. Blogs and YouTube, Twitter and Facebook, whichever platforms you choose have the potential to connect you to people and ideas that would otherwise be out of your reach. These networks give everyone a tiny megaphone and, whether or not anyone is listening, you have a (semi-)public space to speak your mind.

I want to connect, to converse, to whisper my thoughts into the void. Like any form of gambling, there’s a thrill in not knowing what the outcome will be. Never being sure if the next submission will be met with praise, disdain, affection or silence makes even the most banal interaction feel charged with potential.

Fundamentally, I am not ashamed of anything about my life. On a basic and practical level, I have nothing to hide. Honesty, especially honesty about struggle and hardship, can bring people together and encourage others in similar situations. I really do believe that and I don’t mind occasionally sacrificing some dignity for the sake of making someone else feel a little less alone.

With every passing year, more and more of almost everyone’s life is in the public record. We are all public figures, all within reach of fame. Once a mocking pseudo-compliment, “Internet-famous” is becoming a practical goal for freelance creatives and entrepreneurs of all kinds. In 30 years, there will be more CEO’s with tattoos than without and having a picture of yourself holding a beer in college somewhere on the Internet will be no more damaging to your career than walking around with exposed ankles, or occasionally wearing shorts.

I’m Not Committed Enough to My Paranoia

I deleted my Facebook account more than a year ago, Instagram a few months later. I’ve had several blogs over the years and have now taken most of them offline. I deleted everything but the bare minimum of information from my LinkedIn page. I closed as many unused accounts as I could remember.

The problem is that I am lukewarm. At times I feel deeply anxious and overexposed, but I lack the true conviction or paranoia or wisdom to remove myself from the Internet entirely. I don’t mean in any drastic, change-my-name-and-create-fake-profiles-to-flood-google-with-more-misinformation-than-truth kind of way, although I will admit to having genuinely considered that strategy on several occasions. I mean what I’m doing right here- the fact that I continue writing and sharing and giving away these bits and pieces of myself for anyone to find. My Twitter feed alone could fill in my life’s story to anyone with the unreasonable desire to read eight or so years of 140 character confessions.

From time to time, I will put my own name into google’s magic machine. I’ll use DuckDuckGo or some other anonymous search tool, hoping to get an idea of what any stranger might find if they looked me up. Every time, the search returns just enough results to make my face burn and chest tighten. There is nothing damning. Nothing I wouldn’t be fine with my parents or neighbors or first-grade teacher seeing. It’s not the content exactly, but the simple fact that there are results at all.

Admittedly, I have experienced bouts of genuine, mental-illness-adjacent, delusional paranoia. I can accept the fact that some of my desire for solitude and privacy is based on processes in my brain that are not strictly related to objective common reality. I am fully aware that I am neither an important government asset nor a criminal of any note. The private details of my life and mind are of no particular value beyond the average identity thief’s scheme of running up a credit card or some other horrible but boring form of larceny or fraud. Nevertheless, I feel afraid sometimes, or at least keenly aware of my own vulnerability against potential threats.

Maybe I want to be heard but not seen, if that makes any sense. I want to communicate and learn. I want to engage with ideas and pop culture and ancient philosophy and witty insights into modern life from that girl I kind of knew in college. I don’t want to remove myself from the world I live in. I don’t want to disappear, but I’d also rather people not know exactly where I am at any given moment or how I spend my time from day to day.

As I write this out, I realize just how simple and basic my desire is. I want what people have wanted for all of recorded civilization. I want to be left alone to live and do as I please. Like any selfish adolescent, I want attention on my own terms and freedom from any and all expectations. It is a fundamentally immature desire- to live without commitments or obligations other than those I want at the time, to assert my authority over any other person who would dare to pass judgement on the choices I make or the things I love.

Since I am a grownup and not a child, I know that these demands are not entirely reasonable or even desirable. I know that obligations are often worth fulfilling even if they are not fun to do and that commitments are necessary for any kind of order in a society of humans. I know that other people occasionally know things I do not and that what sounds like criticism can sometimes be useful insight. I know that I can love the things I love regardless of what anyone else may think and I know that conflict and disagreement is frequently the best way to learn something new or for a relationship to grow.

I Accept That I Will Always Be Vaguely Embarrassing to Myself

I don’t think I’ll go back to Facebook any time soon. My mind is still a little too fragile to use that particular platform responsibly. I’ll probably continue to stress out every time I find some old snippet of regrettable text attached to my name from internet use of the past. Every now and then I’ll take breaks from the digital world entirely. These decisions are specific to me, but I feel like they’re healthy enough.

At the same time, I’ll continue to send these little missives into the universe. My Twitter autobiography will continue to grow. Most likely, I’ll join and quit several more social networks before I die. Other people are interesting and every now and then they can change your life. I don’t think I’d want to live without all of you.

So my conclusion is ambiguous, but not completely unsatisfying. Life is full of unresolved tensions. There is conflict in love and peace within chaos and through all of it I continue working towards rest, moving towards the still point of the turning world.

That last sentence is the kind of thing I should be ashamed to share on the internet. And I am ashamed, at least a little bit. But I’m going to hit “publish” anyway.