This has not been my week. I’m talking, of course, about the disturbing bugs that have infiltrated my apartment. If you’re Facebook friends with me, this isn’t news, as I’ve documented the incidents down to each individual bug. Riding on the coattails of this consistent narrative, I decided to use it to convince people that I had returned to the one place in which I never had a bug problem: Paris.
This assignment sent me into a spin of anxiety. I love a good anthropological experiment, but I knew I’d be blasted for false representation. Still, that small daredevil part of me that enjoys riding a bike helmetless around traffic circles found the prospect exhilarating. The idea of me jetting off to Paris after spending two years living there was far-fetched but just believable enough to work. Especially since I knew some people who had just done so over fall break.
I had good reason to feel social anxiety – I have a couple good friends in Paris who would be seriously hurt if misled. Being considerate of such “nightmare readers” (Alice Marwick and Danah Boyd, “I Tweet Honestly, I Tweet Passionately: Twitter Users, Context Collapse, and the Imagined Audience”), I emailed them forewarning of the ruse. I also informed my parents so they could field confused familial calls. You may think that family would call me directly, but no. I made the mistake of writing a status using the f-bomb my freshman year. Within minutes, my parents called saying my uncle called them, suspicious that my account had been hacked since it couldn’t possibly be me. So much potential for context collapse when connected with family and friends of all ages and locations (a problem coined by Marwick and Boyd).
No one had reason to doubt me, perhaps making me more uncomfortable. My profile is normally perfectly authentic – I avoid Don Slater’s disembodiment notion on SNSs (“Social Relationships and Identity Online and Offline”). Who I am online is who I am offline: My profile is matchy-matchy, picture cutesy, and statuses proclamatory. Anthony Giddens, cited in Zizi Papacharissi’s “Without You, I’m Nothing: Performances of the Self on Twitter,” would approve of my coherent narrative. I continued it throughout the con, too – my profile showed me posing before the Eiffel Tower and my cover photo coordinated. No inconsistencies.
I posted it at 6pm on Thursday, when most people are out of class. I even put my location as JFK airport, using the technical affordance/social cue to reinforce my supposed trip (Nancy Baym, Personal Connections in the Digital Age). Facebook’s large reach brought diverse reactions. My weaker ties, which depend on only Facebook for updates, automatically accepted the lie (Caroline Haythornthwaite, “Social Networks and Internet Connectivity Effects”). My strong ties, with which I have Haythornthwaite’s termed “media multiplexity,” were skeptical, knowing that I would’ve told them over another medium first. Several texted, private messaged, or called me to verify. I rewarded them by telling the truth. They’re identifiable in the comments by versions of “You didn’t tell me!!” Strong ties know that I wouldn’t have been able to keep my mouth shut if it were true.
The next day (accounting for a seven-hour flight), I changed my profile and cover pictures and my location to “Paris, France.” I was curious to see if my location change would affect Nicole Ellison and Danah Boyd’s system-level data (“Sociality Through Social Network Sites”). When I lived in France, all ads were in French and referring to France/Paris. Nothing ended up changing, ads targeted to NYU students about New York-based opportunities enduring. From experience, I believe that Facebook literally senses your physical location; it takes more than manually selecting a city. So, even if you can fool your friends into believing you’re elsewhere, the Internet knows better. Huh.
Over the two days, my heart jumped at every notification. Even more so when I finally posted the explanation. Context collapse came back to haunt me. The Paris ties (even if weak) that didn’t get the warning were frankly pissed, while American friends my age simply laughed at their gullibility.
Here’s what I take from all this. We’ve been talking about the difference between the online and offline world. In prior years, and still today in certain circles, online identity was separate thru Slater’s disembodiment. But SNSs like Facebook intertwine the two worlds; we know, or at least have met, most of our connections offline. If I do something stupid online, I’m bound to hear about it offline. Usually I’m good about self-censoring by composing statuses in consideration of what Marwick and Boyd call the “lowest common denominator” and “nightmare readers.” I maintain an identity directly corresponding to the Anna known offline.
It was a betrayal. Everyone probably felt like lonelygirl15’s followers, an example of inauthenticity in Michael Wesch’s “An Anthropological Introduction to YouTube.” Except this was worse because everyone knew me offline. I felt that shame particularly wash over me when a good Parisian friend called to explain that she was going through a tough time. Although she knew it was false, the status reminded her that I wasn’t there with her. This could have been an unmitigated disaster had I not had the good sense to shoot her an email.
This is evidence that Facebook is not just for facetious exchanges but another portal to honestly communicate. It shouldn’t be held to different standards than phone calls or texting, both mediums in which physical identity is concealed, like Facebook. But you know what, Facebook friends who are reading this, I won’t apologize further. Let this experience show that we are responsible for our representations. Yes, our identities should evolve like Sandra Weber and Claudia Mitchell’s “identities-in-action” (“Imaging, Keyboarding, and Posting Identities: Young People and New Media Technologies”) and Giddens’ “reflexive project of the self.” But there is a difference between subtle changes over time and a dramatic, sudden announcement.
So, now that we’ve talked, let’s all take a deep breath, hug it out, and move on.