The Facebook “25 Random Things” sensation is the first legitimate pop culture phenomenon of 2009. And it’s almost universally regarded as stupid. And yet in the last week, five million people have posted notes on facebook containing 25 cute and painstakingly worded facts about themselves that apparently need to be known by the world. Exciting tidbits like: “I have tattoos in secret places,” “I can touch my nose with my tongue,” “I love to cook flan,” and “I unabashedly love Frank Peretti novels.” Yeah. Enlightening stuff.
Though everyone seems to preface their note with some sort of “I’m better than this” phrase (“Okay okay, I’m finally succumbing”… “This is the dumbest thing ever, but I might as well get it over with”…), the majority of people secretly love it, because—let’s face it—the majority of us secretly (or not so secretly) love talking about ourselves and making as many people as possible privy to our every action in existence (ahem, Twitter). The “25 Things” epidemic is simply the next logical step in our increasingly trivial and self-obsessed society.
This latest “bout of viral narcissism,” as Time magazine described it, gleefully nebulous though it may be, seems to me to be a sort of resounding trumpet announcement of the coming death of Facebook and all that it represents. “25 Things”—like 90 percent of all status messages, tweets, and Facebook apps—is utterly pointless and nothing more than a distracting way for us to be vaguely familiar to a whole lot of people. If this is the best Facebook can do, it will not last.
Of course, this is wishful thinking. It will in all likelihood last, at least until the “next facebook” comes along. But I’ve never been a fan of facebook, and I’d be just as happy if it collapsed in a spectacular implosion of uncool irrelevance over the next month or so. In my dreams.
In the meantime, there came more frightening news of narcissistic technocalypse this week, from Google of course! Their new “Google Latitude” application provides us with the “maps” version of the Twitter mindset. Now, it is no longer just about updating the world as to your minute-by-minute activities, but also your minute-by-minute locations! Attention, world, I am now at the gas station on Westwood & Santa Monica. Just so ya know! What’s next? A technology to broadcast to the world what we are thinking in real time?
Here’s my problem with all this stuff: in addition to stoking the coals of our inflamed narcissism, all of these technologies make it easier for us to control every aspect of our identity as it exists in relationship to other people. It makes “communion” with people little more than highly self-conscious, intricately schemed, situational performances wherein we control what, when, where, and how much of ourselves people can know. Whatever happened to that wonderfully unsteady sense of mystery, that awkward flubbing around in relationships that used to characterize “getting to know” someone? That is all dispensed with in the Facebook world, where we can “know” someone just by spending some time poking about their various profiles, blogs, and pictures, or just by googling them. We never have to meet them in person, really!
A friend of mine, who miraculously isn’t on facebook and avoids the Internet in general (but is nonetheless one of the smartest and kindest people I know), recently posed this question to me:
“Do you think that people who do a lot of online networking become that much less able to relate to people in a way that leaves room for inklings about people rather than making decisions based on profiles which are essentially ingredients listings?”
The question immediately resonated with me. Yes, it’s true. I think Facebook has done much damage in the way that we conceive of “knowing” a person. Does it really only amount to how much we know of their favorite music or movies? Or what their status updates report about their day-to-day activities?
I feel like I have false notions of so many people, just because I know them only or primarily through the Internet. It’s so much more interesting and enlightening to get to know someone in reality, without all that. I like being able to discover things about people by asking them, hearing from them, having mysteries and encountering little discoveries along the way. I like seeing the dissonance between someone’s facial expression and or body language and what they are saying. When we all have control over what we look like and how we define ourselves on the Internet, it removes that mystery. And it turns "friendship" into something that has less to do with knowing people deeply than just knowing whatever bits and pieces of them they want to reveal (which happens in real-world relationships too, but moreso on the Internet).
Human beings are far, far more complex and wonderful than their status updates and “ingredient listing” profile pages. And it is far more rewarding and profound to get to know someone in an unsafe, slightly uncertain and awkward way than to rigorously research them and pretend to know them via all the accumulated Internet data on them.
So let’s take a step back from “25 Things” and think about this. Do we really think that sending out mass notes with carefully selected tidbits about ourselves is making anyone more known? Who are we kidding? As a mindless diversion and exercise in classic facebook self-love, it’s fine. But as a commentary on the uses and practices of online social networking (which I think it pretty much is), “25 Things” is nothing if not a warning sign that the end is near.
What do you think of the 25 Things phenomenon?
Check out Brett’s blog at http://stillsearching.
Brett McCracken is a Los Angeles-based writer and journalist. He is the author of Gray Matters: Navigating the Space Between Legalism and Liberty (Baker, 2013), Hipster Christianity (Baker, 2010) and has written for The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, CNN.com, The Princeton Theological Review, Mediascape, Books & Culture, Christianity Today, RELEVANT magazine, IMAGE Journal, Q Ideas and Conversantlife.com. He speaks and lectures frequently at universities, churches & conferences, and is a regular blogger. You can also follow him on Twitter @BrettMcCracken.