Faces in the virtual crowd

A couple of my mates use the social networking site Facebook to keep in touch. Like MySpace and others, you can create your own profile page, post messages and photos, and link your profile to other ‘friends’ (real, virtual, or merely imagined) on the network.

I think half the fun of these sites, is spending a little while following the forking paths of links, from a friend, to a friend’s friend, to a friend of a friend of a friend. Suddenly you find yourself browsing a page or two of photos, of a fancy dress party you did not attend, populated by people you don’t know. There’s a similarity to all these pictures – guys and girls lean in, drink in hand, for the pose. The snap shot is taken in haste: It is poorly composed; the automatic flash invariably over-lights the moment; and the subjects strike a ‘wacky’ pose, with tongues out and peace V-signs galore. I’ve taken dozens of pictures like this myself over the years. Its fun to wait a few extra seconds, to see how long the poseurs can maintain their, erm, posture.

One noteworthy aspect of these Facebook profiles is the choice the users make for their profile picture. Bizarrely, hundreds of people choose just such a party shot as their ‘face’, invariably one which includes other people as well. How are visitors supposed to know which face belongs to the profile they are reading, and which is that of some random punter who happened to fit their gurn into the shot as well?

I know there is a wealth of psychological extrapolations to be made from examining different people’s choice of avatar or profile picture. It is a chance to portray an aspect of yourself to the world. I notice a good proportion of bloggers keep their mug-shot off their site. Others, in common with those Facebook users, choose an impromptu snap, which suggests they wish to convey a modest yet carefree attitude – any old picture will do. But what does it say about a person when they add other people to their profile photo? Are they lacking a coherent identity of their own? Or merely showing us that they are so goddamned popular, that they cannot even find a picture of themselves that does not include some other fawning reveller.

I suppose the choice to portray yourself in a certain way is influenced by the tone of the site itself. In contrast to the naïf choices made by many Facebook users, the images displayed on the American site Spring Street Personals (which powers The Onion Personals) are all carefully chosen. Each is carefully cropped and displays a good looking young person who effortlessly exudes that counter-culture cool, which is central to the website’s brand. When similar images appear on Facebook, however, they seem arrogant and misplaced. And as with online virtual spaces, so it is in the real world. Design (whether graphic, interior, or fashion) frames the way we see ourselves, and how we interact with others.

8 thoughts on “Faces in the virtual crowd”

  1. “Or merely showing us that they are so goddamned popular, that they cannot even find a picture of themselves that does not include some other fawning reveller.”

    I think it’s not that they don’t own a presentable picture of themselves but that, like a lot pf people under 35, they have a horror of being seen as single, friendless, or unpopular. More to do with the demographic of the average contributor than anything else. I’ve only seen those sort of sites in passing (as it were), but what I find ironic is that in an effort to create a very public individuality, they make everyone look the same.

    Suggest you read Irving Goffmans “The presentation of self in everyday life” it’s pre mass media, but his ideas on dramaturgical theory and “managing your masks” are as valid now as they were when it was written.

  2. I agree with Matt on reading Goffman (Asylums and Stigma are also recommended), but I’m not sure about the demographic claim about appearing non-friendless. Livejournal, or at least the sliver that I’m familiar with, doesn’t seem to be dominated by “party pictures”, or, indeed, the straightforwardly representational avatar.

  3. Yes. From my experience of LiveJournal, the images generally seem to be more abstract and ‘avatarish’ than some of the others. It is a much earlier innovation that Facebook, and so I might suggest that LiveJournal users are more ‘early adopters’ of social networking tools than Facebook users. With that comes a more general interest in Net Culture, gaming, etcetera… and hence a less photorealistic tendency…?

  4. One of my friends on Facebook commented that he found it ridiculous that the segment of your profile where you define your “political views” was limited to a drop-down menu. For me, his comment summed a lot of things up about online networking. The experience can be fun, especially on Facebook because they offer a good product, but your profile is barely a shadow of who you are. The self-imposed photo “rules” are one thing, but what Facebook encourages and does not encourage as information fit for sharing is ultimately even more revealing. The early adopters establish and maintain the norms (acceptable profile photos), and the creators of the software impose the framework for interaction (political views as a drop-down menu).

  5. The problem with face book is that one of the ways you “choose” your friends is that it sends a request to your address book – that’s lazy and it doesn’t make the contributors “think” enough about who is in their inner circle. I have been invited on to a number of sites and my face is far too old and wrinkly to be considered – frightening even amongst all those partying shots of the beautriful young people

  6. I agree, I think that letting Facebook skim your address book is a very lazy way to add friends. Related to your objections to certain silly profile photos, there are also other problems which prevent one from knowing who’s who and making intelligent choices about who is in that “inner circle” – fake profiles and aliases being among them.

    Facebook is pretty good at eliminating fakes. The first social networking software I used was Friendster, and it overflowed with fakes. Some of my “fakester” friends included Ryerson University (my alma mater), Gauloises cigarettes (my brand of choice during my smoking days), and Dupont Street (a street in Toronto). Fakes like those aren’t tolerated on Facebook, and though I found the fakesters fun, I like this Facebook policy. There is always a real person behind the fake, which creates some small social confusion (will Shawn be upset if I reject a friend request from his fakester?), and besides, the whole fakes phenomenon rendered the concept of social connectedness absurd. Can I really be friends with Dupont Street? Of course not.

    Re. aliases, I’ve had a couple of friend requests where I had to send a message to clarify who they were exactly since they weren’t using their “real name”, and their photo didn’t help to identify them. There’s always a good story – one was a long lost high school friend who had changed her appearance a bit, and the alias (her stage name as a singer, a new career I didn’t know about) threw me off. Another friend using a nickname (that I was unaware that she had) was wearing sunglasses in her profile photo, rendering her unidentifiable. A brief exchange revealed who she is and how she knows me, and then she was added as a friend.

    Etc. etc. etc., that’s all a long winded way of saying that the way I operate my online social networking has changed since Friendster. I don’t add just anybody (fakes, randoms, people I can’t identify), and I am not shy about asking people who they are and what reason they have to connect to me. Just being present there has reconnected me with many folk from my past who I am grateful to be back in touch with. I think the reason I’m finding so many long-lost friends there as opposed to on Friendster is three-fold: (1) social networking has matured as an idea and is more “mainstream”, (2) Facebook offers a good service, (3) Facebook takes itself semi-seriously, meaning no fakes allowed. I suppose it inspires some who use its service to take the whole endeavour semi-seriously as well.

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