I saw David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin’s excellent new film The Social Network today and have spent the time since it ended ruminating on the piece you’re now reading. The film put me on a train of thought I’m not sure the filmmakers intended but which has driven me to a point of distraction where I’m forced to put it down on (in this case virtual) paper before I can write about the film itself.
The train of thought is this: what are we all doing when we log onto the social network of our choice? Are we actually attempting honest social interaction? Is it all nothing more than blatant, unrepentant narcissism? Or is the answer somewhere in between those two extremes?
I realized as I took a break from writing a previous draft of this piece (a break to update my facebook status, of course) that what many, most, perhaps even the vast majority of us, are doing (whether consciously or not) is playing a role. A role we have created for ourselves. A role that we may claim (or truly believe) is an extension of our real life, or our real life itself, but is in fact no more reality than the character many of us have created on World of Warcraft or for the old-school nerds in the house, D&D.
The Zach Dahlem that people interact with on facebook or follow on Twitter, is not, in point of fact, Me. It is most certainly a version of me, or an extension of Me, but it is not Me. It is the version of Me that I have chosen to share with the world and that is not the same thing as Me. I am no believer in false modesty so I can say without feeling unduly arrogant that I am intelligent, perceptive, witty and perhaps even charming. I can say these things because I have data to back up my assertions. I believe I am intelligent because I scored well on IQ tests, did well in school and find myself able to grasp just about any concept I read about or am presented with. I believe I am perceptive because I have an ability to read between the lines of social situations. I believe I am witty simply because people laugh at things I say. I believe I am charming because, well, because I’m not a thirty-two year old, friendless virgin. So, obviously, at least the mother of my son and a few select others find me charming. While I may be and am all of these things, these attributes do make up the whole of Me. But they do make up the Zach Dahlem that you and others interact with online. I am witty, but I am probably not as witty as my facebook status updates and Tweets would indicate. I am also cynical, sarcastic, prone to bouts of antisocial behavior (not cruelty to animals or hate crimes, just a general asshole-ishness) and have a superiority complex that I battle daily to keep in check. Again, while I may be these things and exhibit these behaviors, they alone do not define who I am. But, if you only interact with me through facebook and Twitter, you may not (if I have played my role well) be at all aware of these sides of my personality.
My point is that I may have completely convinced myself just this afternoon of something I have long suspected. That Social Networking is to Socializing what Reality Television is to Reality: At best, a pale facsimile and at worst, a cruel parody. I believe the question is not “Have We All Cast Ourselves In The Lead Role Of Our Own Reality Show” but Why? Is it a genuine hunger for interaction and connection with others in an increasingly closed-off world or is it a genuine, if crass, hunger for our fifteen minutes of fame, even if it just fame amongst our “friends” and “followers”? And, perhaps more importantly, do any of us honestly think anyone gives a shit if we “LUV LUV LUV CUPCAKES” or if we just “checked-in” at our home or place of business? I don’t know the answers (except for the cupcake one) but I know I’ll be thinking a lot about the questions. And for that, whether it was what they intended or not, I want to thank David Fincher, Aaron Sorkin and everyone else involved with bringing The Social Network to the screen.
Oh, and the movie was great. Go see it.
Footnote – I somehow feel compelled to point out, my hypothetical reader, that I wrote this piece sitting in the sunlight of a gorgeous October day on the front porch of my house. Not in a darkened, artificially cooled room. My small but sincere attempt at genuine interaction with the Outside World today. An ant bit me on the top of my foot.