I try to restrain, but I sometimes hear the words come out of my mouth: “What do you do?”
“I’m an accountant at Some Prestigious Firm,” this guy told me.
“Oh, I haven’t heard of it.”
It’s not that I don’t want to know what someone does; I just don’t want the answer to matter, or to be someone’s most vital statistic. For example, look at Facebook. Sitting right below the name of any filled-in Facebook profile is one’s job title and place of occupation. Curiously, I just noticed the latest status update from Joshua Radin, a folksy singer-songwriter: “People’s first question in la? What do you do? First question in NYC? Where do you live?” His fans have added the questions of different locations. In Scotland: What are you drinking? In Minnesota: Are you single? In Utah: Are you Mormon? But “What do you do?” is dominant on the pages of Facebook’s 6 million users.
I thought about this after reading danah boyd‘s “Why Youth ♥ Social Network Sites: The Role of Networked Publics in Teenage Social Life,” in which she argues that social media provides teenagers with a space, a public of their own. For Emily Rutherford, a first-year student at Princeton at the time of writing an entry called “Thoughts on Facebook and Identity,” social media sites are a place “to broadcast, to declare, to pontificate, to make some statement about who we are and what we value.” She writes about social media’s power as a “shaping agent of our cultural norms and expectations”: “Mark Zuckerberg determined the makeup of our vital statistics, and these in combination with our profile pictures become the sum of our identities.”
Facebook now has twice as many users worldwide than Myspace, according to Newsweek. If Facebook is teenagers’ new public, the place “where norms are set and reinforced, where common ground is formed,” it may impose the superficiality of our culture. Even when just glancing at someone’s page, it’s easy to judge. “She’s a Wench at Medieval Times?!”
Myspace pages, on the other hand, give prominence to the user’s music choices, interests, and personal description of themselves, rather than the user’s job, education, and relationship status. Myspace users infuse their profile with what they want to define them, rather than their status as unemployed, single high school students. It seems Myspace provides a better public for those working through their identity, while Facebook, created in the Ivy League, exposes its users to a constrained view of what’s important—at any age.