I remember first registering for a Facebook account. By most measures, I was a little late to the game. In the familiar parlance of technological acceptance, I was not an early adopter, but part of the early majority. Young and naïve, the eventual significance of this decision was lost on me, as it was, I’m sure, on most of my peers. Until that point, the internet had always been an arena of anonymity, my ‘profiles’ more persona than personification. I had no idea what I was signing up for. Keep in mind, at this time Facebook was the exclusive domain of college students.
The potential was immediately apparent. Facebook was a playground for us, this was our generation’s social club, and this time around everyone was invited. Don’t have the nerve to talk to that cute girl in the back row of your philosophy class? Have no fear, and Poke her instead. Want to make your ex jealous? No problem, just snap some photos next to those sexy girls at the party that you never actually spoke to and post them (with tags, might as well ‘friend’ those hotties in the process). There was never any doubt; Facebook was invented to help people hook up. The very definition of a relationship turning serious became that little Feed update, changing your relationship status from ‘It’s Complicated’ to ‘In a Relationship.’
Every aspect of our social lives became fair game. Status updates preceded (and inspired) Twitter, and all of a sudden everyone knew when I woke up hung over, or when I ate some good street meat, or when I felt “:-)”. Nights that ended so drunkenly that the few memories were able to survive could suddenly be looked up online, just check the photos you were tagged in.
Evolution took hold, and the potential grew. Now we weren’t just re-connecting with long-lost friends, we were participating in professional groups, joining protests, playing games, and marketing ourselves. No longer were friends lists limited to our classmates and peers, but began to include our parents, our co-workers, clients and employers. Suddenly I began to get nervous when my blackberry started buzzing to tell me I had just been tagged in a photo (like one from a few years ago when, over the course of the night, my attire morphed into a black razorback bra, pink tank top, leopard skin jacket, fireman’s hat, and a body covered in magic-marker tattoos of anatomical equipment). Things were starting to get out of hand.
I fought back, created a limited profile, reduced my searchability, deleted scandalous photos, and stopped sharing quite so much in my status bar. I changed my personal information; my religion is no longer listed as,”I am god, you’ll see.” I began to communicate through messages instead of Wall posts, and took it easy with commenting on others’ photos. Despite my efforts, my Facebook profile was still to some degree what it was in the beginning, a place to stockpile friends and acquaintances, build a personal photo album from pictures other people posted, and lazily hit on women. What I was left with was a bloated contact list of single serving friends, and a huge liability anytime a potential client or employer Googled my name.
Here’s the problem. I, like many of Facebook’s early users, didn’t realize what it would end up becoming when I started using it. How could we have? Even the creators didn’t know where it was going. What started out as just a fun site where we could interact with some old friends became our pre-eminent online profiles, our digital selves. Had we seen that coming, would we have been more careful? More thoughtful about to whom we would grant access, more cautious about what we would say, more discrete about what we would share? If only we could go back and do it all over again.
Looking past some of the new features, like circles, and a more customizable feed, Google + has one great advantage over Facebook: the opportunity to start fresh. Now that we know the true nature of our social network profiles, i.e. a digital representation of ourselves, we have a chance to re-brand, to clean up our images, and re-enter the digital realm not as drunken teenagers looking to score, but as responsible adults taking advantage of the newest form of communication.