Facebook and multiple-personality syndrome

A recent commentary piece by Alice Mathias in the New York Times says Facebook should really be called “Fakebook” — at least for the student users who first made the social-networking site popular. As she describes it:

“Facebook did not become popular because it was a functional tool — after all, most college students live in close quarters with the majority of their Facebook friends and have no need for social networking.

Instead, we log into the Web site because it’s entertaining to watch a constantly evolving narrative starring the other people in the library.”

She describes the use of Facebook as being like online community theatre, with users putting on different masks depending on which groups or individuals they are connecting with, and what impression they want to give of themselves. This aspect of online behaviour may be more prevalent among younger users — as sociologist danah boyd has described in her research into social networks such as Friendster and MySpace — but I don’t think it’s unique to them.

I think we all have different personas we use, depending on where we are and who we’re interacting with, whether it’s work or home, co-workers or neighbours, family or old friends — people who have only known us as adults, vs. people who knew us when we were teenage hoodlums. The tension between those different personas is why some of us feel a little uncomfortable when we run into our boss wearing a grungy old T-shirt and surfer shorts with a two-day growth of beard and a wicked hangover.

Scott Karp thinks that kind of thing is why Facebook may never really work as a business tool. I’m not convinced that’s true — but it’s certainly going to make things a little more complicated (or interesting, depending on your point of view).

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