Michael Cobb visited Portland State this past fall and read a paper about—among other things—self-presentation on social networks.
Though Bill Maher called out the millennial kids for not losing it over Edward Snowden’s revelation, Cobb claims Maher should recognize that the millennial already knows how available his or her information is. At this point, millennial kids actually manipulate their information for performance’s sake. Social network personas have become a brand based on how the millennial child presents information about him or herself.
To me, it appears that such online personas fall into one of roughly three camps: the normative #tbt-er, the person who attempts to convey his or her authentic self through social networks, or the concealer (either withholding the majority of his or her information or avoiding social networks altogether). All three categories use the self-editing that comes from the recognition of a lack of privacy, so they necessarily differentiate themselves from the user’s spontaneous real world presence.
Lots of people like to concentrate on the narcissism of this kind of branding, which definitely exists. What I find more interesting though is another result personal branding has on the millennial user: obsession with another’s brand. The idea that the user edits his or her information makes other users crave the crumbs that are dropped.
The effect on friendship here is minimal. There is still interest in a friend’s brand, but the stakes are low and the user is generally okay with not seeing all of their friends’ information. That’s why I’d like, instead, to look at that most fecund human interest: romance.
Let’s consider what happens when the social network user falls for someone. The user immediately stalks that person on Facebook in order to obsess over the information given and crave the information not given. If the person whom the user is interested in has a private account—or even better, a significant other—this obsession grows into something like desired grief.
No matter how sad it makes the user to see pictures of X and X’s partner, or no matter how unavailable the user knows X’s information is, the user continues to visit that profile. After a while, this obsession with information might turn into an obsession with grief. It’s a funny social network version of the martyr complex. The user might begin to crave that longing or sadness that is so easily achieved by the visual knowledge of what is and isn’t shown.
The same can be applied to the post-breakup social network user. There is, of course, the requisite un-following that occurs, ostensibly an effort to rid the user of the ex’s presence. Most of the time, though, a similar kind of longing happens. Obsession with the ex’s profile may grow. As opposed to the pre-social network breakup, a pictorial link between user and ex exists. Also, it’s safer to stalk online than in real life.
The user can and will attempt to know how the ex is coping, what the ex is doing and—oh my god—if the ex is dating. Most logical users probably know the superlative benefits of a clean break. Still, the user forsakes that logic and obsesses over the ex’s social network profile because it’s there, and again, the sense of pain makes the user feel satisfied for some masochistic reason.
What I find interesting about the effect branding has on social networking is the fetishization of pain that comes from the obsession with other people’s presentation and withholding of information. Romantic relationships show just how obsessed and masochistic the strategic presentation of information can make us.
I feel obnoxious if I discuss problematic behaviors and don’t offer some sort of advice. I think the removal of social networks from real life can be productive, though conducive to behavior that is crazier than reality. Otherwise, the internet is a place of calculated posturing removed from the real world, and the user may more easily keep a self-conscious tab on internet behavior that clashes with real-world personal philosophy.
Obsessing over anyone’s social network information is an invasion of privacy. Not necessarily in our ability to find out information they don’t want us to, but merely by one’s constant presence in another’s cyberspace. It’s creepy and fools the user into thinking someone else’s information, or lack thereof, is more important than it is. The fact that you wouldn’t do it in real life should be enough to activate your integrity and not do it through your thumbnail avatar.