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.
The “I AM IN THE LIBRARY ALL THE TIME AND LAW SCHOOL IS SOOO HARD” Status Message
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.