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.
I’ve always thought of Facebook as online community theater. In costumes we customize in a backstage makeup room — the Edit Profile page, where we can add a few Favorite Books or touch up our About Me section — we deliver our lines on the very public stage of friends’ walls or photo albums. And because every time we join a network, post a link or make another friend it’s immediately made visible to others via the News Feed, every Facebook act is a soliloquy to our anonymous audience.
It’s all comedy: making one another laugh matters more than providing useful updates about ourselves, which is why entirely phony profiles were all the rage before the grown-ups signed in. One friend announced her status as In a Relationship with Chinese Food, whose profile picture was a carry-out box and whose personal information personified the cuisine of China.
This is of course what danah has been saying for years:
Meanwhile, Jonathan Sanderson is explaining the art of video storytelling, and how to stop short of lèse majesté:
While some early adopters viewed Friendster as a serious tool for networking, others were more interested in creating non-biographical characters for playful purposes. Referred to as Fakesters, these Profiles represented everything from famous people (e.g., Angelina Jolie) and fictional characters (Homer Simpson) to food (Lucky Charms), concepts (Pure Evil), and affiliations (Brown University). Some Fakesters were created to connect people with common affiliations, geography, or interests. The most active and visible Fakesters, however, were primarily crafted for play. [...]
Fakesters had a significant impact on the cultural context of Friendster. In their resistance, their primary goal was to remind users that, “none of this is real.” They saw purportedly serious Profiles as fantastical representations of self, while the Testimonials and popularity aspect of the Friend network signified the eternal struggle to make up for being alienated in high school. Through play, Fakesters escaped the awkward issues around approving Friends and dealing with collapsed contexts, mocking the popularity contest. Their play motivated other participants to engage in creative performance, but at the same time, their gaming created a schism in the network resulting in a separation between playful participants and serious networkers.
I want to write about fakery in television, because there's something odd going on. None of these 'scandals', from naming Socks the cat to having someone stand in for competition winners when the phone line goes dead in the full glare of live transmission, is particularly shocking to anyone who's made videos. Not worked in broadcast, note -- made videos. When I get a bunch of 14 year-olds to make their first short film, they'll frequently assume they can fake stuff, cheat, and generally bend the resulting video to their will.
Now, all it takes is for me to stare at them for a few moments. The light will go off in their heads and they'll say 'Oh, right. OK, yes. Fine. We'll do it for real.' But the natural human affiliation with cheating is sufficiently powerful, it's often the first assumption.
Later in the day, when the same group is putting together their sequence, they'll find me and say 'If we change the order like this, the film makes more sense. But... that's faking, isn't it?'
...which is, of course, the crux of the matter, because all video is faked to some extent or other. Everything you do up to the point where you start editing is just collecting raw material -- your film is made, crafted, shaped, in the edit suite, not in front of the camera.
It has to be this way, because real life plays out excruciatingly slowly. The responsibility and skill in making films, then, lies in telling stories more quickly, and more engagingly, than real time. Which requires that you leave bits out, which in turn requires judgement about which parts are important.
Telling stories honestly is an aspiration, but not a requirement -- the temptation to cheat and edit the material in order to tell an even better story even more quickly is always there. If the story's better, and more people watch, that's a success, right? If teenagers hacking away in iMovie in a school lab face these sorts of dilemmas and compromises, you can imagine the discussions that happen in chic Avid suites in Soho.
We all live in the minds of others through telling them stories about ourselves, but we also live in our own minds that way too - the research on memory shows how we readily confabulate extra detail to flesh out a story, and that every time we remember somethign we reify it further, combining it with new experiences both real and confabulated, so that the tale grows in the telling.
As danah notes, the persistence, searchability and replicablity of these digital environments belie our self-constructed memories with awkwardly concrete virtual histories. Massively Multiplayer Online Truth is an interesting game, and one where we are still working out the rules.