Rachel Blackwell - Ethnography

Face(book)less. An honest glimpse.

Introduction

Facebook’s role in my life began during my junior year of high school, at the age of 17. I was first introduced to “The Facebook” because the majority of my friendships were with upperclassmen and boarding school students who attended a local, private school.

My dilemma, at the time, was one of inclusion: all of my friends were getting Facebook and using it regularly; so in an effort to “keep up” with the pathetically clichéd social scene (keep in mind, this was in high school) of weekend beach and garage parties, I created an account. Back then, I remember feeling trapped living in a small town that was most well-known for its annual oyster festival; a place where riding in trucks and stealing beer was expected of us. In all honesty, I became fanatical about the idea of a “social profile.” Facebook was taboo and, of course, incredibly desirable to me.

I think it’s important to mention Facebook’s difference from Myspace, which was then the primary online profile website. The shortcoming of Myspace was that literally anyone could have a profile. Facebook’s advantage was its user requirement of a college email address. This resulted in the majority of the account holders being students and/or future college students. Basically, Facebook was a preppier and snobbier version of Myspace; it was “exclusive.” So, Myspace accounts were quickly deleted, and new blue and white online pages were suddenly plastered with pictures of friends’ road trips to out-of-town colleges, red-cup good times, and other acts of pure debauchery.

That was then, and now, six years later, the pages are still blue and white. Party pictures continue to filter into my newsfeed, and social affiliations are clearly evident, but alongside the similarities, are changes. My friends’ parents have profiles. There are baby pictures, lots of baby pictures. Professional companies, fan pages, various brands, stores, movies, products, celebrities, television shows, and other various groups all coexist. Facebook went from an ordered list of time sensitive profile changes (remember when you changed your picture or something else on your profile, it would bump you to the top of the list of updated profiles?) to a complete newsfeed, grouped in photographs, posted articles, “likes”, tagged pictures, relationship status updates, etc. In comparison today, it’s a clusterf#*%, but it does work effectively.

Hypothesis

I propose that my daily use of Facebook has molded my thinking patterns, self-perception, and social motivations. UPDATE: I do think that its use affects my motivations: this can include anything from debating if I should attend a certain social event to how many jobs I have. This hinges on the fact that most of this information will be shared with others via pictures posted or job titles listed.

In an effort not to include all Facebook users in an over generalized manner, I choose to apply this hypothesis solely to myself. However, I do believe my hypothesis could apply to other social networking sites and their users.

Current Perspective + Fieldwork

I honestly wonder: has four years of using Facebook changed the way I think? I was interested to find out. I’m a transparently honest person, so in order to conduct my fieldwork, I recorded and monitored my daily usage of Facebook in a journal document.

Week One, February 7th-13th: Account Activity

February 7th: 6:30 AM: I woke up, immediately reaching for and dismissing my high-pitched alarm on my Blackberry (http://reviews.cnet.com/smartphones/rim-blackberry-storm-verizon/4505-6452_7-33311850.html). I had to squint my eyes to bear the brightness as my thumb quickly slid across the screen and pressed my Facebook app. With one quick push, all of my friends’ “news” filled the small 2 by 3 inch screen. I lay there in the darkness, pouring over the links, status updates, and tagged pictures. My search ended once I reached more familiar posts that I had previously read the night before (yes, just like a pair of bookends, I did this before I fell asleep, too.) I scrolled back up the page with a quick thumb flick—making sure to reread anything that deemed a little bit more of my attention. My awakening brain analyzed every angle and motive of the information I read, whether such motives were intentional or not. (Yes, this probably seems extreme, but not really, considering this is how my thoughts have always operated for as long as I can remember!) Now, I could start my day.

7:45 AM: Walking on my way to class, I returned to my Facebook app, just to distract my mind from my own thoughts. Sometimes, I just like to read someone else’s…

8:05 AM: I turned my computer on, connected to the internet, and opened Facebook. I can see if I have any new notifications and enjoy discovering who has “liked” any of my posts, pictures, etc. (There’s something so addictive about those little red notifications on the top bar! I wonder if the contrasting/complimentary colors are used on purpose… probably.) I periodically hit one of my “hot corners” (http://www.usingmac.com/2008/3/27/display-hot-corners) throughout class just to take my mind off things.

Noonish, all afternoon, into the evening: Walking…talking…at work…in class…on the couch…bored… I’m always refreshing my Facebook app on my phone. It’s literally effortless and mindless, as natural for me as blinking; it’s a constant part of my day, and as I mentioned earlier, I end my day in the same fashion. Just like clockwork.

February 8th: *In an effort to avoid redundancy, I am not going to repeat the activity mentioned above for today and other days to follow. It is basically the same activity; however, I will mention anything additional.

February 9th: A Moment of Honesty: I’m feeling a little more comfortable sharing more of my thought process with regards to Facebook. With that said, I admit that the majority of my activity is spent analyzing my own profile. From pictures, to “likes”, my favorite quotes, and everything in-between, I pour through my visible information and silent classifications. Do I say I’m a Christian and also Conservative? What message does this send? How would a new Facebook friend, maybe someone who doesn’t know me very personally yet, perceive this? I actively consider all angles. I look at my pictures (but not in public) of myself. I consciously have tried to have profile pictures that give my online personality a certain depth: there is a flower garden, one of me in my kayak on the river, pictures with my sister and other dear friends I love. At this point in my life, I purposefully select photographs that are not revealing or questionable—so that anyone of any age could look at them and think… Respectable. Feminine. Kind. Gentle. Tasteful. You get the idea… I literally think to myself, “What words would someone think if they saw these pictures?” When it comes to my quotation section, they change just as often as my thoughts… even though I strive for consistency and permanence (for some reason, I think that it’s a good thing to have the same quotes for a while; it means you must know who you are…something that I’m always in pursuit of.)

February 11th: I love coming across quotes that inspire me. Motivation looks very different to every person, but to me, words mean something. They hold the power to capture my thoughts and direct them forward in a purposeful way. I actually am such a sucker for pithy and deeply meaningful “words of wisdom” that I buy books full of quotes. Friends know this about me, so I now often receive such books as gifts. For my birthday, it was Oprah’s Words that Matter (http://www.amazon.com/Words-That-Matter-Little-Lessons/dp/0061996335); for Christmas, it was The Best Advice Ever Given (http://www.amazon.com/Best-Advice-Ever-Given/dp/0762756799). I’m sure you get the idea. So, a status update for me usually looks like one of these quotes, matching my mood like an umbrella to a rainy day. My status updates usually possess undertones of hope and encouragement. And a part of me silently wishes in the same way listening to a song or some music can lift someone’s mood or make them really think, the quotes I post will have the same effect. Wishful thinking perhaps, but I truly believe what you send out into the world will come back to you.

February 13th: As this week ends, I am noticing that I’m paying a lot more attention to my online activity in general. Overall, I spend 75% of my online time, on Facebook… I’m so tied up in it. I’m kind of looking forward to getting away from it for the next two weeks (the designated time I assigned myself with Dr. Collier.) I wonder what I will do with all that time!

Week Two, February 14th-20th: Time to deactivate!

February 14th: I have officially deactivated my account tonight. I’m not quite sure how I feel about it; I didn’t tell anyone I would be “leaving.” It’s really weird not having it up on my computer. It somehow makes me feel more connected to what’s going on in the world, at least what’s going on in my world. (Oh yeah, Happy Valentine’s day!) There is a sense of power in stepping away…

February 15th: Can I just say how weird it is not to wake up and check my Facebook? I can’t even remember how long I have done this, but let’s just say I’ve had my Blackberry since September 2009…

February 16th: I broke down and reactivated my account. Going cold turkey was a little too much of a change for me. I’m just going to try again next week! (I can sense the judgment coming from my weakness. It’s okay. I’m actually surprised how difficult this is.)

Week Three, February 21st- 27th: Deactivation across the nation…trying it again!

February 21st: And so it begins, I’m really going to stick with it this time.

February 22nd: I’m not using my computer very much. I am only using the internet for Scholar and banking and email. Lame. That’s ok. I am watching TV a lot more now. Still in the process of wanting to be constantly distracted from school work, my thoughts, etc.

February 23rd: I’m honestly not missing the constant flow of other people’s information as much as I thought I would. I actually started reading a novel last night. Do I hear violins? My sister called me today to ask if I was ok because she couldn’t find me on Facebook… whoopsie.

February 24th: Well, today I finally began to explore the World Wide Web. Celebrity gossip sites are now my new favorites. Sadly, it’s kind of turned into my FB (Facebook… abbreviating now!) replacement…

February 25th: No news is good news. I’m going out of town for the whole weekend so won’t be using my computer anyways.

Week Four, February 28th- March 6th: No Facebook, por favor!

March 2nd: Someone actually told me (in person) that they missed me and my status updates on FB today… (maybe the quotes were really reaching people?)

March 3rd: This is a pretty uneventful week. On a positive note, I finished that novel…and it was 400+ pages. Not too shabby.

March 5th: SPRING BREAK

March 6th: This is my last official day without my Facebook. I can reactivate tomorrow… if I want.

Week Five, March 7th- March 13th: Setting sail…

March 12th: Breaking News! I could officially CARE LESS about having a Facebook. It’s been so refreshing not to feel tied to everyone else’s lives. Call me selfish, but I could easily stay deactivated. There. I said it. Mark Zuckerberg would be so disappointed in my newfound independence. The only downside of not being “connected” is the social side of having an account; at least three people have asked if I’ve gotten an invitation for this or that, to which I reply that I haven’t because I’m not on Facebook. (It’s actually been a whole extra week!) But it is about to be wedding season—visions of Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn dance through my head—and I simply can’t keep up with all of the showers and extra parties without my account! Truth time: the past few weeks have very much changed my perspective. It feels like I’ve been buried in a shadow, and I’m finally stepping out into the sunshine. (Corny, I know. I know.) But I’m in a place where I’m more in tune with myself and less with the “idea of myself.” I can perceive the difference of who I am and who I am online; it is not the same and will never be an identical match. I find comfort in the fact that no one will ever really know who I am if they don’t have a relationship with me in person. I can see that I was putting so much needless pressure on myself, my pictures, and my words…

March 13th: I have reactivated my account but don’t feel the same with my obsession over any of the available information. In fact, I’ve deleted the Facebook app from my Blackberry and now don’t even have a bookmark for it on my web browser toolbar! (Who woulda’ thought…)

UPDATE as of May 1st, 2011: I am using and checking Facebook just as much as I was before. It's back on my browser toolbar, in addition to the app on my phone. All I can say was, it was a good faith effort! I found the article, "30 Days Without Facebook: One woman’s journey to deactivating her life, Part 1" (http://idesignyoureyes.com/2010/09/22/30-days-without-facebook-one-woman%E2%80%99s-journey-to-deactivating-her-life-part-1-2/) and I can sympathize with her. Luckily, I did not have trouble logging in with my correct email, no trauma there!

Closing

Well, if you’ve made it this far, congratulations. Whether you wanted to read my innermost interactions and long-term relationship with Facebook or not, you have now. Through my fieldwork, I now more accurately understand the way this technology has shaped my perception of myself, and in connection with my hypothesis, yes, I believe Facebook has molded me. Surprisingly, I’m not really disturbed by this; in fact, I wouldn’t change a thing that has occurred during the last six years. Facebook and I have literally grown up together; it’s not only been a reflection of myself and interests, but I now more clearly can see where, what, and who I have devoted myself to in my past. More importantly, I can now see where, what, and who I am investing my time and energy to in the present. I have only one final question: is Facebook a mirror looking back at me or am I a mirror looking back at it? I can honestly say I think it’s a little bit of both. But I now realize whether I have a Facebook or not, I’m never going to be faceless—I just can’t become lost in the noise and get overly emotionally invested. Lesson learned. Tip of the hat to you, digital technology.

UPDATE: I realize that the majority of the jobs I have worked, while in college, I did for my resume, but I also signed up for them to pad my Facebook "job section." Does this matter? Yes. It clearly proves that this form of digital technology has a high percentage of control over my life. Perhaps I'm letting it have this power over me. Either way, a shift has happened and I don't see much of an end in sight.