Recently, Facebook has begun sample-testing personalized status prompts. So while the prompt at the top of my news feed currently reads “What’s on your mind?” it may soon read something like “How are you doing, Ben?” or “What’s happening, Ben?” Most of my Facebook updates are news stories, whether they focus on the banality of Taylor Swift’s love life or an Italian town decimated by the low morals of a steel company. Facebook feels much more like an obligation than anything else, these days, and I find it much simpler to click the “Share” button while filling my news-junkie needs than relate to forgotten high school friends or people whose purpose in my life is either fully dried up or abandoned like so many houseplants.
But the news of the pending status prompt update had me thinking about the purpose of sharing online. When we received essay prompts in high school or college, they informed us of the purpose or goals of the essay. Facebook statuses are mostly meant to update your friends on what you are doing, but most of us are not doing anything all that exciting. My days, especially, are filled mostly with housecleaning and web surfing, leaving my mind to resemble that of a male, millennial version of Betty Francis nee Draper. What exactly am I supposed to respond with?
What’s on my mind? This pain in my upper abdomen, whether I have enough time to make a Crock-Pot dinner tonight, whether I should just push it off to tomorrow and bread those three drumsticks I have, the doctor’s appointment I have to check out that pain in my upper abdomen, the inanity of leaving the news on all day, whether I should switch to NPR, whether I should wear those new Crocs I got for Christmas to the doctor, whether I should be ashamed of wearing Crocs even though they’re the loafer kind, not that spongy, neon kind. Needless to say, if I actually posted what was on my mind, it would be a dull mess. What’s happening? Our beagle is snoring, the girl-child is growing crystals, the boy-child is playing Skyrim, and I’m trying to find meaning in social network micro-marketing decisions all while we sit on a relatively small-yet-lively rock hurtling through the vacuum of universal existence. How am I doing? Terribly. I can’t remove my mind from this pain, I underperformed in my housekeeping duties, and my incompetent and tax-dodging landlord just stopped by to remind me I’m behind on rent. Thanks for asking.
When Myspace first became popular, I put forth a Caulfieldian theory of how people behave online: People put forth the person they want to be, not who they are. While this is usually true IRL, the internet provides the time to foster a fake identity actual conversation does not. This is not exactly an award-worthy original thought these days, but it still rings true. When I post an NPR story on Facebook or Twitter, only half of why I do it can be contributed to a need for others to be educated. The other, less-public half is I need people to think I spend my days pouring over educated and well-researched news stories and not, in actuality, purveying the Buzzfeeds of the world.
There’s a more specific reason Myspace died and Facebook rose to be the publically-traded powerhouse it is today. While it’s easy to look at the Myspace of 2007 — a horrid, dystopian vision of GIF backgrounds and your ex-boyfriend’s death metal band — and simply call it a disorganized slob of a website, there is more to the death of Myspace than visuals. When you opened the home page of Myspace, you were brought to your own profile. In order to see what your friends are up to, you had to visit their page or they would have to update you on yours. The site worked on the assumption — correct or not — that we are self-centered and will take priority in how we present ourselves as opposed to taking in the exploits — however mundane — of those we know or once knew. Myspace was a funhouse mirror we could bend and fold to our own liking.
Looking through my Facebook news feed currently, I see someone celebrating a Walking Dead marathon, someone changing their profile picture to them in kendo robes, someone reiterating that they lost their phone and begging friends to email or tweet them instead, someone mourning a massive sinkhole in the center of 4th Street in Harrisburg, and an invitation to the Gertrude Stein Prize in Fiction. So in one short scroll of the mousewheel, I have someone who’s bored, someone with a sense of humor, someone who needs help, someone trying to help others, and someone trying to help me. Facebook more fully realizes the complexity of the social experience than Myspace ever could simply because it pulled you away from your own life and allowed others to project theirs onto you.
And this is why the personalized status prompts strikes me as both innate and ingenious. Some people are fully willing and able to splurge the entirety of their worries and fears and, therefore, may be more willing to answer the question “How are you doing?” Some have daily lives that demand too much of their attention for that much introspection and may prefer “What’s happening?” And some will still prefer their thoughts over those of others and enjoy “What’s on your mind?” Myspace left the digital conversation too open, creating a void that felt all too much like an awkward silence. Facebook is attempting to move closer to stating its real purpose: if your father dies suddenly in a car crash, you aren’t going to post it to your Facebook feed just as you wouldn’t tell your barista (at least Facebook remembers your name). Facebook manages to allow anyone to define who they are online while limiting them in a possible direction. You can define your life by content, by causes, by the simplest joys in life. And it’s not because these things are very exciting to others; everyone and anyone will talk about food all day but suddenly your presumptive and pretentious if you post what you had for breakfast on your Timeline? Frivolous content may be a waste of time, but is every conversation you have full of deep meaning and resonance for everyone involved? Of course not. You talk about The Walking Dead because you like The Walking Dead. Not because it’s going to change the life of the person across from you. And Facebook is realizing this. Sure, we can call it a “News Feed,” but the true story is it only supplicates the conversations we use to have more often. You know. Before Facebook.