[Dave Heal's] Observations & Reports

Ur Doin’ It Wrong: Why Your Facebook Status Message Sucks

One of the great contributions of the past decade to the social theory of the Internet is John Gabriel’s Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory, which states that the proliferation of “Shitcock!”−shouting “Total Fuckwads” on the Internet is the natural result of giving relatively normal people anonymity and an audience. I submit to you that there’s a related, parallel theory that explains or at least describes the behavior of otherwise circumspect people who use their Facebook status messages in order to share things they would never dream of sharing with a group of people that often comprises best friends, sworn enemies, forgotten acquaintances, and that guy they dated and contemplated marrying but who then slept with their French teacher at their graduation party.

These people would be better off if, having learned from Odysseus’ leisurely sail past the Sirens, they recognized that inviting blank box as the alluring but dangerous thing that it is and swore off completely. Unfortunately, Facebook doesn’t allow us to disable the status update, and even if they did few would do so. And even fewer of those people would be the people who would most benefit: those for whom their status message is a menace to themselves and others.

Facebook and its insidious use of the term ‘friend’ encourages a kind of willful self-deception that results in a massive amount of what today’s youth call ‘overshare.’ This oversharing can be about the boring details of daily life or the spicy, intimate details of what, at least for law students, could not possibly be daily life, but the result is that lots of stuff that would be better off kept a mystery is broadcast to hundreds of people via the News Feed.

Given that even the ersatz-friendship of Facebook is reciprocal⎯in that you have to accept someone’s friend request and in doing so generally also allow them to follow your status messages⎯it makes sense that people who are not committed emotional exhibitionists in the land of bricks and mortar but still have a desire to share how cool or sad or ironically lame they are would find the Facebook status message seductively appealing. Unlike Twitter, which is explicitly designed for communicating things to a known blend of friends and strangers, Facebook embeds the status message in your profile and then sends it out the back door via the News Feed. This allows people to engage in diary-like confessionals for the benefit of a few people while maintaining the barely tenable illusion that the dumb or embarrassing things being shared aren’t going directly to everybody else as well.

Once Facebook moved from isolated profile pages to its current news feed/gossip aggregator format, it implicitly asked an important question of everybody that uses the service. Because you are likely Facebook friends with people that play different roles in your life, and because you can’t negotiate all those relationships at once, will your Facebook presence tend towards a reflection of the lowest level of friendship or the highest? Will you act on Facebook as if everybody is your actual friend or as if everybody is that creep from the snack bar who tried to sit on your lap and then made you accept his friend request on your iPhone before he’d let you go?

One of the unfortunate consequences of the News Feed is that lots of people that you are friends with for reasons other than actual friendship are receiving your status updates. Facebook allows you to change this away from the default, but restricting the flow of your status updates requires either creating and diligently maintaining friend groups or manually adding individual friends to a list that is allowed to view your updates. Because most people secretly want non-friends to be able to read at least some of their status messages (when they are being studious or winning awards or having sex with someone above their station), most people are content with the default setting of free and open sharing. This is generally bad. It’s bad because for a whole host of people who may not care about you and may not even know you, patterns begin to emerge and conclusions drawn based on infrequent expressions you may view as trivial. For students, who are virtually obligated to form Facebook relationships with lots of people they aren’t actually friends with, this badness can manifest itself regularly. With that said, I’d like to give a few examples of status messages that might deserve a second thought the next time you think about putting them up.

The “I Am Smarter Than A Supreme Court Justice” Status Message

Well, for starters, you almost certainly aren’t. But even if you are, your very public acknowledgement of the fact makes you a jerkoff. Any status message that bears even a familial resemblance to “LULZ Scalia’s conception of agency deference is TOTES STUPES!!!11” is probably best left to class or your blog. Everybody that’s friends with you from law school knows you’re in law school, and your other friends probably think your law school status messages are insufferable. There’s a difference between taking learning seriously and making your seriousness a performance piece. Do you ever find yourself in public places engaging in the elaborate pantomime of the Serious Law Student? Do you always read casebooks on the airplane? Are they sometimes upside down? If so, I’m talking to you.

Relatedly, there should be a blanket prohibition against having a citation to the Federal Reporter anywhere on your Facebook page. State law citations, however, are sufficiently plebian to warrant occasional but judicious usage.


We get it. It’s Law School and there’s a curve. We’re all in competition with each other and you’re studying RIGHT NOW no matter how nice it is outside. Nobody cares.

Keep in mind, though, that the less explicit the declaration, the worse it is. So, for instance, if your way of announcing your constant presence in the library is, “At least the green carpeting is keeping me in the St. Patrick’s Day spirit!!!!,”then your status message is more reprehensible than if you merely said, “I used to love binge drinking green beer in college but now I’m in the library. Gee, isn’t this a lamentable state of affairs?!” Any similar message that purports to be about something besides your need for validation of the amount of time you do or do not study is presumptively lame.

The Self-Pitying/Soul-bearing Status Message

Not much needs to be said here. If your message is a cry for help, or an attempt to prompt your friends to ask you how you are, try to find a way that’s less like spam. If, as is more often the case, what you’re doing is more like public self-flagellation, start a blog, which will let people opt in, an option that Facebook currently does not offer unless I don’t want to see any status messages in my News Feed. And clearly that’s not a world I want to live in.

We all acknowledge that we’re not actually friends with everybody we’re ‘friends’ with on Facebook, and the sooner we all acted in a way that reflected this reality, the better off we’re going to leave the world for our children.

Bombs Over Baggage Claim

[More law school column reprints.]

This week we’re taking a break from my usual dose of earnest law school-related babbling and moving on, temporarily, to some earnest national security-related babbling.

Like most students I went home for Christmas break. And on Christmas morning I was sitting on my couch, in front of my TV, unwrapping the Roomba I won’t be able to use until I move out of AA and into a dwelling that more closely resembles something an actual adult would live in. You know, the kind of place that’s amenable to being cleaned by a robot vacuum. I was just about to show my Mom a video of a cat riding a Roomba when the newsman started telling me that a well-educated Nigerian guy tried to hide some rather sophisticated but temperamental explosives underneath his testicles.

And like a lot of people I went out later that night with a bunch of my buddies to a local bar with no sign, cheap drinks, and lots of TVs. Eventually the conversation turned away from the fact that our Christmas haul seems to be asymptotically heading towards a stocking full of Brazil nuts & wool socks. One of my friends had seen some mention of the attempted terrorist attack scroll along the bottom of the TV, and after uttering a bunch of expletives he managed to squeak out an indignant sentence or two about how let’s just get us a bunch of those damn full body scanners and plant them down in every major airport in the country and let’s get those TSA fuckers to pull on some rubber gloves and start flippin’ up some balls! I was going to check to make sure alien bodysnatchers hadn’t kidnapped my friend and replaced him with Cletus the Slack-Jawed Yokel before I realized that it’s not only the rah-rah America crowd that feels this way.

This kind of thinking also represents the consistent policy of band-aid security that the government employs every time the terrorists come up with a new way to sneak explosives onto airplanes. And while the measures that are passed in the wake of these attacks don’t represent the entirety of our security efforts, the resources that are devoted to preparing for tactics that have already been used would be much better spent on gathering & sharing real intelligence, the kind of intelligence that will stop more than just the next guy who thinks it’s a good idea to strap a bomb on or around an erogenous zone.

This isn’t to say that our emotional reactions to these attacks aren’t entirely valid. But we need to get better at separating out our immediate, visceral reactions to what amounts to a shocking but still rare event and base our security reaction on actual data. History shows that terrorists are really good at finding new and interesting ways to blow things up. Hell, I’m constantly surprised that a terrorist hasn’t targeted the already miserable security line itself or planted a bomb in some other large and mythically American institution like the mall or the Porn & Karate Supplies store on I-80. But at the rate that air travel is trending towards something out of Demolition Man (minus the omnipresent Taco Bell), if terrorists were to change their targets completely it would become patently obvious that our standard response is completely inadequate.

We have a cognitive bias that makes us fixate on the horrific event, no matter how rare, and we not only overestimate the risk of future events but frequently insist on preparing for something just like them. This is especially true when the events in question involve activities like flying that are not only outside of our control but are already really terrifying to a substantial portion of the population.

The American psyche has been bombarded with the images of terrorism, and our anxiety about bombs on planes is already at Kierkegaardian (!) levels. So the public is primed to not only abide but demand a bunch of showy stop-gap measures in the wake of every attempt, whether successful or not. And one of the unfortunate side effects of placing all this power in the hands of the Department of Homeland Security is that officials have the peculiar incentive to stoke fears of terrorism in the interest of appearing to do something. But actually, one of the under-mentioned aspects of the Christmas Day attack is that the “antiquated” pre -9 /11 security measures actually succeeded in forcing the bomber to make kind of a crappy bomb.

The solution is not to merely “do something” in the interest of appeasing people like Maureen Dowd, who wants Obama to pat our collective head and tell us it’s going to be OK, but to direct the majority of our efforts towards combating the general threat of terrorism and not trying to patch up tiny holes in our security infrastructure after the fact.