10 Suggestions for the improvement of Facebook

1)  Customisable Personality Interface (CPI).  It’s high time that Facebook recognised the fact that most people simultaneously maintain a number of different, often competing personalities.  I’m not talking about clinical disorders – schizophrenia, hysterical-wife-syndrome etc, rather just the (mostly harmless) facades we employ in different situations with different people.  So for example you’d have your “employee/professional” interface, your “mother-in-law” interface, “old-school mates”, “ex-boyfriends”, “people-I-only-just-met” interfaces, etc etc.  Each profile would be individually customised to suit the people connected with  that particular interface.  I could have an “Ambassador’s Wife” interface for example.  The number of potential interfaces could be limitless (although you’d worry about being friends with anyone with more than a dozen active CPI’s wouldn’t you?). 

The ability to pre-determine exactly which interface a new “friend” is connected with would be a ritual step in the friend-acceptance process.  While potentially time-consuming initially, it would have to be easier than navigating your way through quagmire that is FB’s privacy settings.  Admittedly, your profile/s may require a bit more in terms of their mental upkeep, but the whole exercise would be ultimately more rewarding.

And besides, lets be (virtually) honest.  We’re already exhausted – we’re presenting simultaneous performances tailored for different audiences across platforms both real and virtual.  Facebook ought to get the jump on what is sure to become a facility in red-hot demand – I can already see “the smart personality” feature on the CPI horizon.  You simply programme in the type of character traits you want to reflect in each of your CPI’s and let web-coding post comments, re-tweet, like, submit and chat with your friends accordingly.  CPI’s cut both ways of course.  No more snooping around on the pages of your old high school mates in an effort to see just how you compare in the weight gain/hair-loss stakes.  Similarly, you can say goodbye to opportunities to check up on your son/daughters escapades out on the town last weekend.

More favourably, the CPI functionality would also preclude people having to continuously de-activate their Facebook account every time they go job-hunting (your Facebook page is infinitely more useful as a character reference to any prospective employer than the 150-word carefully crafted blurb at the top of your C.V.) The “petition to stop employers using facebook for background checks” group would be redundant if you could present an “employee” interface whenever the moment demands.  In fact, with a suitably impressive collection of photos of oneself doing voluntary work at the local soup kitchen, you’d be inviting companies to come and check you out. 

While laborious a task de-activation of your account may be, it is however at least preferable than going through all those 654 photos you’re tagged in in other people’s albums (how can you be sure it’s even you in them anyway?  You can’t even see the faces for all those bottles of tequila).  And just think, unlike poor Caroline Guiliani who scandalously supported Obama instead of her own father during the U.S. Presidential race in 2008, you could have a bob both ways in the upcoming election.  A tick for the Greens to keep on the right side of the hippie play-centre Mums, and a nod for National in the interests of keeping the peace at Christmas dinner with the grandparents (who, god-forbid, are also pursuing you on Facebook).  Relief!  Life could be so simple

But I don’t want to act like this brilliant idea was conceived by all by myself.  It was, in fact, the central contention of one of the most cited Sociologists of all time, the late Erving Goffman.  His most famous book, titled “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life” (1959), was all about how life is essentially a performance – with society merely the theatre in which we act out our roles, continually adapting these roles depending on the context and audience.  Goffman would be having a field day with Facebook if he were alive today.  “The theatre” is of course our profile pages, our community groups, causes and walls, complete with a gazillion “apps” (including the all-important ‘thumbs up’ button) that we can use as our props.  This here blog, for example, which feeds my Facebook “wall” automatically.  Nice.  Or is it?  Do you really care?

When Goffman argued (quoting from the great Wiki-source in the sky) that “when an individual comes in contact with other people, that individual will attempt to control or guide the impression that others might make of him by changing or fixing his or her setting, appearance and manner” little did he realise that he was actually contextualising a framework for the continual refinement of one of the twenty-first century’s most bizarre and successful phenomenons.  Facebook with the ability to “change, fix and set a given appearance or manner”.  Genius! 

But, humour aside (that as funny as I get, by the way) the truth is I have actually always struggled with Goffman’s theory.  It clashes with my own sense of identity – or moreover, it makes me feel like I don’t have ONE, but rather MULTIPLE identities.  And there seems to be something inherently wrong with this…. It calls into question one’s honesty and integrity, which we will probably all agree are two of the most valued attributes in any human being.  Does the ability to maintain multiple identities mean we are dishonest? 
 
After much reflection, I’ve decided the answer is “no”.  Goffman may be right, at least on the surface anyway, about society being a stage (Facebook is vindication if he ever needed it).  But I think the logic of assuming that its dishonest to present these different selves is flawed (though let me just clarify that I don’t think Goffman ever passed judgment on the practice per se).  Rather, I think that society (the groups within groups within cultures within countries to which we belong etc etc) requires us to play particular roles whether we like it or not.  We act to belong, or to at least feel like we belong.  And we also act, to make other people feel like they belong too.  It’s self-reaffirming, and ultimately necessary for the reproduction of society.  The people who don’t play, or refuse to adapt their ‘selves’ according to the correct context, are often excluded and kept on the fringes (6 chapters into Diane Levy’s book on “Time Out” and you get the picture).   And it’s cold on the fringes – deathly cold if you’re that guy from “Into the Wild”. 

Apparently Goffman does concede that with all these performances underway we do, nevertheless, need “a cloak room and a parking lot”.   Nicely put, for the 50s.  I’m not sure where that space might be in society today (with our mutual demands on each others’ around-the-clock availability) but I want to believe that there is a core within all of us, a central nervous system of identity if you like. Even if it is only the (sometimes badly-behaved) person we are with the people from whom we can’t hide our flaws.  People who love us anyway, perhaps more so without the costume and props.  Moreover, when we exit stage left (log-out, shut-down etc) I want to believe there’s more than just clothes on hangers left in the room.  And of course, there usually is – Kids, haranguing for food.  A pile of non-virtual washing, not folding itself.  A husband (given up waiting and gone to bed).

Speaking of which, if you’ve read this far, wow I’m flattered – then I leave you with this very short 3 minute and video clip, demonstrating the art of maintaining “virtual” performances at the same time as those happening in “real time”.  The description goes something like “what’s happening now is not half as interesting as what I’ll tweet about later”. 

PS: stay tuned for the other 9 suggestions for improvement, my personal favourite being the ability for OTHER people to control your profile pic (my friend Jo is beta-testing this feature as we speak and everyone else is loving it).

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