As I write this, a few weeks before my deadline, Lent is about to start. Though I don’t consider myself a practicing Catholic, the lingering effects of a K-12 religious education have me convinced that the act of giving something up is beneficial to one’s character. So come Ash Wednesday, I’ll be committing the most controversial act a member of my generation is capable of — I’m going to deactivate my Facebook account for 40 days and 40 nights.
Don’t think this decision comes easily to me. While I’m not someone who posts multiple status updates about eating a sandwich (unless it’s just a really phenomenal sandwich), I do take advantage of all Facebooking has to offer.
I know I’m going to miss the little thrill that comes when someone unexpectedly “likes” my new profile picture. It’ll be weird not being able to leave random comments on my best friend’s page referencing inside jokes. I’m not sure what I’m going to look at in line at CVS now that I can’t turn to the news feed on my iPhone.
But I’m anticipating that after a week or two of withdrawals, I’ll get over missing the supposedly social interactions that Facebook offers. After all, I’ll still have texting, phone calls and email, as well as the option of occasionally venturing outside my room for some person-to-person conversations.
What I’m really afraid of is that in losing my Facebook, I’ll somehow lose myself.
Yes, I write statuses so that other people will “like” and comment on them. But another reason I post them is that doing so offers some concrete evidence of who I am. Posting links and commenting on pictures is a way of defining myself.
I can’t always say the perfect thing in real life, and my self-esteem walks a curious tightrope between irritating ego and crushing self-doubt. But by constantly adding and subtracting quotes and favorite movies on my profile, and posting links and tagging photos that best exemplify the person I think I want to be, I’m able to create a public, virtual version of myself that is easy to like. In the aftermath of rejection or frustration, Real-Life-Blair creeps on Facebook-Blair, and it’s cathartic. She feels better about life.
What does it mean that I need that kind of masturbatory verification that I am indeed a worthwhile person? I’m not sure, but from the looks of pop culture these days, I’m not the only one.
It’s no ground-breaking stretch to connect reality shows to social media. They’re the community colleges of stardom — nobody’s first choice as a means to become a celebrity, but these days there’s little stigma attached to them, and they can lead to much bigger things. Heidi from “The Hills” and Snooki from “Jersey Shore” don’t have any marketable skills — they’re famous for being famous — so they’d better make themselves entertaining to observe. Reality shows are all about deciding who one wants to be and then synthesizing that image, so it’s no surprise that their heyday coincides with the age of Facebook and blogs.
But it goes deeper than that. Focus on the self has permeated American popular culture. David Sedaris’ comical stories about his daily life always top bestseller lists. With the success of books like “Eat Pray Love” and “Running With Scissors,” the memoir has caught up with the novel as being a standard leisure read.
Even scripted television series are all about their stars. Tina Fey plays Liz Lemon on “30 Rock,” a thinly veiled account of Fey’s own experiences working on “Saturday Night Live.”
In a similar vein, Larry David and Louis CK both play pseudo-fictionalized versions of themselves in their TV shows. The personalities are the same as those of their characters, though. It’s only the plot lines surrounding them that are false. The comedians aren’t acting — they’re just being themselves in an alternate, filmed universe.
Marshall McLuhan famously declared that “the medium is the message,” and the self is increasingly becoming a legitimate medium. So what’s the message?
People can’t shut up about themselves, and I’ll confess that I can relate. And the thing is, most of the works I’ve mentioned (with the exception of “Eat Pray Love”) are really, really good, probably because people are writing about what they know best — their own lives.
But still, I wonder if the focus on the self can produce any work of lasting merit. One hundred years from now, will people want to read David Sedaris’ account of his experiences cleaning rich people’s houses?
Sedaris has been called a modern-day Mark Twain, but Twain wrote fictional stories with characters very different from himself. What’s a more insightful representation of culture: the diary-esque but true observations from one man, or the made-up tales that are meant to imply something much deeper about society?
I don’t have an answer to this, except to say that there’s probably room for both, especially given the extremely fragmented nature of popular culture today. Good entertainment is good entertainment, and how it’s made matters more than what it’s about.
That being said, it’s worth noting that Mark Twain’s autobiography was released last year. Per the author’s orders, it was not released until 100 years after his death, and was met with much praise. Imagine if every Facebook post took 100 years to process before it appeared. Somehow, I’m not sure that future generations would care much about my awesome sandwich.