My initial reaction to Facebook Timeline was a cynical one – it was a user experience that encouraged people to continue to share their present life, but also fill in details of their past. It would give Facebook even more personal data, in a more structured form, to allow them to (eventually) market ever more targeted advertising to their true customer base. But since I think about Facebook as a company, not as some abstract cultural force, I believed this was an eminently reasonable decision on their part. As I thought more about it, however, my initial negative reaction didn’t dissipate but rather grew into a more visceral, and seemingly less logical, distaste. I eventually realized that Timeline helped me realize Facebook’s view of the self and identity, and it was a view that I fundamentally disagreed with. In fact, it makes me moderately annoyed!
Before Timeline (B.T.) but after News Feed, I didn’t pay much attention to Facebook’s view of identity, as my past actions and thoughts seemed to dissolve as the feed hummed along. I had deleted some old, hammered photos of course, but mostly memories of 25 year old Rob’s awesomeness were hazy and rose-colored. That is until I downloaded my FB history and realized that on Facebook, 28 year old Rob looked a lot like 23 year old Rob. IRL, this was not the case. 
But what was my Facebook identity? And what were “Zuck’s” thoughts on the matter. To Google I went! By now, I think we’re all aware of Facebook’s belief that increased transparency forces people to “act better”. This is an issue I’ll discuss another time, but it also has an implication regarding Facebook’s view of identity. From Kirkpatrick’s The Facebook Effect (and many blogs quoting it): “You have one identity,” he emphasized three times in a single interview with David Kirkpatrick…”The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly.” He adds: “Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.”
Um, no Mark it isn’t. But I can see why he would think people “should” have one identity.
Yes, there are the practical business reasons – attaching data to a single, real-world identity is much more valuable from an advertising standpoint. And the sharing (and thus engagement) is maximized by this view of identity – it implies that people who don’t share as much as they can with everyone in their lives are bad people!
But I’m more interested in the personal reasons for this belief. You can’t really blame him as he’s only really had one identity. He went from a HS computer wiz to the same at Harvard. Exeter and Harvard, where many people are classified as archetypes early and irrevocably, are two of the most conservative educational institutions in America. I give him credit for knowing what he was interested in and what he was good at at a young age, but mustn’t he feel, at some level, that there was only one path he could take. And going to great schools is not a bad thing, but has he been in an environment conducive to experimenting with his identity? Is it really any surprise then that he thinks people should have one coherent identity?
Which brings us to Timeline. It implies a linear, deterministic view of the world. It’s not a tree with multiple possible paths, wrong turns, multiple threads that weave in and out over time. We are who we were.
Except most of us are not.
Most people go through phases, change their friends and style or take years to figure out what they’re good at or passionate about. People have been able to create narratives to make their past coherent with their current self-conception or were simply able to let them go. By putting everything up on the internet, changing our identity becomes much more difficult. Our community has a part of defining who we are and Facebook gives them a inaccurate representation. And when we look back at ourselves, Timeline presents us with aspects of our past in naked detail, without room for reinterpretation. Psychologically, people strive to be consistent and present a coherent identity. In the worst case, Facebook makes us lose the ability to reinvent ourselves over time. Timeline gives us no distance, and the facts when we look back on them, remain there, too vividly. It becomes harder to reinterpret our past without simply deleting what is there. I can’t imagine this what Facebook wants, but perhaps they will come up with a more malleable way to capture the self.
So how should we use Facebook, if at all? The fact remains that our current (lack of) technological sophistication prevents us from even remotely capturing the richness of the self. So don’t try to. Don’t share too much and keep some space between you and your online identity. In essence, do exactly what Zuck says not to. Your online identity should serve your narrative of the self – not the other way around. Don’t be fully transparent. Any representation of you will be a flattened version anyway. It is all artifice, so recreate public and private separation through this distance. This will force you to be more mindful of what goes on Facebook and also help minimize the other negative affects is has…but that is a story for another time.
N.B. on “The Self”
Defining selfhood and identity has perplexed humans since there were humans. Whether we embrace the dualism of the Body and Soul, the Behaviorist view that were are all just “meat”, or Buddhism’s Five Aggregates (rūpa (form), vedanā (sensory reception), saṁjñā (perception), saṁskāra (mental processing), and vijñāna (consciousness)), an argument can be made for their validity. I’ll discuss my views in more detail elsewhere, but for now, here’s my view in bullet point form.
Where I come out:
- Body is ever changing
- Mind and body are not separate
- Part of family, community, species, universe
- Actions, reactions
- Emptiness at our core
- Defined by separateness/solitude/secrets
- We need space between ourselves and others or we flatten out
- Arguably flattening out is what Jesus and Buddha did – they gave themselves to others completely. I wouldn’t use FB to achieve enlightenment though
 Also, the whole thing is a little depressing in parts. Lots of posts and comments from people I haven’t seen or spoken to IRL in years. I highly recommend looking at yours. (http://www.facebook.com/help/?page=116481065103985)