It was a Thursday night. I was hungry. And broke. And at this point in my 20s, I was accepting free dinner invitations from anyone who didn’t resemble a serial killer. This evening, I had a first date with a man that I’d met on a late night in a dark bar. I barely remembered what he looked like and my traditional pre-date Internet stalking session hadn’t provided any proof of his existence. I was concerned. Mystery man ended up to be wearing cuff links larger than my earrings and kept gratuitously using the word “tangible.” It wasn’t great, but I could cope. Until I mentioned that I was unable to find his Facebook profile and he explained that was because it didn’t exist. My date hated Facebook and refused to sign up. Holding eye contact, I asked the obvious question: “Are you a serial killer?”
Luckily, my date didn’t have a penchant for murder, he just happened to loath social media. He backed this bold claim by smugly sitting back on his bar stool and announcing that he didn’t need Facebook for anything. Ever the elegant persuader, I exclaimed he was “cray!” and recited a laundry list of Facebook’s perks (cool pics! LOL-worthy wall posts! LIKES!) with the desperate conviction of a crack addict. I furiously defended Mark Zuckerberg’s brainchild as if it were my own, explaining its necessity for a thriving, relevant, digital existence.
He couldn’t be swayed. He considered himself very noble. I considered him very annoying. Unfortunately, I couldn’t articulate the colossal scope of social media’s implications for modern society. I’m not an economist! Plus I’d just pounded three beers. Twenty uncomfortable minutes later, I texted my roommate the dark truth of our generation: Facebook was a dealbreaker.
The really weird thing is that I don’t even like Facebook. In fact, with the recent parade of soft-focused ultrasounds cascading down my newsfeed, I kind of hate it. So I surprised myself with such a passionate response. Walking through the starless streets to the subway, I considered my visceral reaction to his anti-Facebook stance. This went beyond fears of uncovering gorgeous ex-girlfriends or him judging my carefully selected likes. No, like most issues with my love life, this dilemma wasn’t about him at all… it was about me. In the dark tunnel of the 6-train, I was forced to finally confront my looming online identity and ask the question that was really bothering me – why was I feeding this monster?
There was a time when I didn’t give a second thought to my social media presence. I had just settled into my freshman year of college when Facebook trickled its way to our Midwestern campus. I signed up instantly without understanding what it was or how to use it. As soon as the relationship field allowed a link to a partner’s profile, my suitemate Monica and I connected saying we were “married.” This prompted legitimate questions about our sexual orientation. We laughed this off while publishing our dorm names and room numbers, posting pictures from themed frat parties and leaving PG-13 messages on each others’ walls without ever questioning privacy settings.
Later that year, I went on an interview for what would be my first internship. My future boss asked a few standard interview questions before hooking an eyebrow to ask, “So, you like pirates.” This was true. More accurately, I loved pirates. But, instead of explaining my passion for rum and the ocean, I stammered and began to sweat. As my embarrassment dissipated, I realized that all HR had to do was click “search” to uncover the slew of graphic pictures on Facebook from my pirate-themed birthday party weeks before. My profile pic at that time was of me pulling back my pirate eye patch to wink while simulating fellatio on a sword. Arg, indeed. I had begun to taste the salty information tsunami that would come to dictate my existence.
As my small clutch purses awkwardly bloat with devices, I find myself getting nostalgic for my unplugged days. I miss that time before I knew everything that social networking implied. Before “friending” was a verb and Facebook existed solely for documenting pre-adulthood shenanigans. It was a delicious slice of adolescence when choosing to ignore the information around you didn’t make you ignorant or detached; it was a blissful era of irresponsibility – I just hadn’t realized that yet.
I thought about this strange evolution the other day, as I furiously de-tagged newly uploaded tagged images of me taking shots and the sloppy, sloppy aftermath that ensued. Of course, I was the girl who suggested we all throw back bourbon at 2am, but there was something unsettling about publishing that information. While real-life Katie had eaten a hot dog from a street cart alone on a curb at 4:00am that night, Facebook Katie was the girl at 7pm in the freshly-ironed dress and the polished bangs. I was determined to keep a Stalin-like grip on the few sheds of dignity that I hadn’t traded for a cheap beer buzz. And I had to de-tag this shit before my mom saw.
While I enjoy cultivating an online persona that creates the illusion that I have self-control, the truth is that my (and everyone’s) online identity does matter. Like any social construct, Facebook can be unforgiving. It’s hard to come back from a first impression where you’re a BJ-givin’ pirate. But more than a responsibility, an online identity is an opportunity. There are few areas of your life where you can really control how people perceive you. Everything is minted with meaning by your own curatorial hand. ‘Facebook you’ doesn’t have to be ‘real you’, it can be who you WANT to be, which is more evocative about your true self than anything revealed on a first date. In my (laptop glazed) eyes, my date’s avoidance of Facebook equated to a lack of self-awareness, a disinterest in solidifying an aspirational self and an avoidance of a tool – as much as I hate to admit it – that assigns meaning to our lives. Dealbreaker alert. Facebook isn’t the carefree collegiate cult anymore. While it’s a bummer to hop off the party bus, it’s refreshing to (finally!) be in control of where we’re going.
As I willed the train to arrive, my mind skimmed back to before Facebook would have cast an ugly shadow of detachment over an otherwise pleasant evening full of free alcohol. Back at home, still wearing my pointy hat, I took a break from packing up my room in our shared apartment, poured a glass of wine and performed a massive de-tagging session in preparation for my first foray into the professional arena. I removed every compromising picture – which numbered in the thousands. It had been a sloppy slideshow worthy of any Animal House parody: body shots, triple kisses, bar crawls, sharpies and highlighters on flesh, shame, oh the shame!
I realized afterwards that I hadn’t saved any of the pictures. The images had come from hundreds of different albums. Once united together in my profile, they were now floating freely through cyberspace. The evidence of a repercussion-free college life was lost. It was time to be a grown-up, and I did the only thing I could – I cried. Afterwards I changed the privacy settings on my albums so that I was the only person who could see the documentation of my blissful extended adolescence. I exhaled into a large space of potential and logged out.
You can read more from Katie M. Lucas on her Character Grades.
Feature image via.