Michelle DeWitt: Living life online

By Michelle DeWitt, Editorial Page Editor
Published October 2, 2011

In what was perhaps the most significant example of meta-social networking in recent memory, Facebook users took to Facebook last week to comment on the changes made to Facebook. Most of these alterations were pretty minor — the giant photos that now show up on the newsfeed, the weird recent stories and top stories distribution — but that didn’t stop users from becoming, in many cases, irrationally angry.

And who can blame them? People form and build relationships on Facebook. They track where they are, who they’re with and what they’re doing on the site. Everything short of a bowel movement can be documented on the social network, so when changes are made it can be a difficult emotional blow.

Along with the visible changes recently made to Facebook, the company announced some future alterations at the Facebook f8 developer conference in September. These changes include swapping out the traditional profile with Timeline, which seeks to chronologically display users' complete Facebook history, and implementing a system called Open Graph that allows companies to synch their apps directly with Facebook.

In a nutshell, Facebook aims to share all the ways in which people are living their lives in real time, and this effort is already becoming visible. For example, Facebook users can synch their Spotify — a digital music service — accounts directly to their profiles, so friends can see what they’re listening to as they’re listening to it.

While Facebook executives like Mark Zuckerberg are enthused about the changes to come and view them as a logical progression for the site, I can’t help but wonder about the societal implications of putting virtually every aspect of life online. Before you chalk this idea up to melodrama, it’s important to consider the role social networking plays in modern life.

Facebook currently has 800 million users. The site has been credited as having a role in organizing the London riots this past summer and the protests in Egypt earlier this year. A recent study also indicated Twitter’s capacity to reveal trends in the overall mood of users. People are increasingly living their lives online, and with each post the line between one’s private life and the life they broadcast on the Internet becomes increasingly blurred.

So, what does it mean that Facebook wants to outline users’ lives on the site — the option will also exist to add pre-Facebook information — and link their actions with third-party companies instantaneously to a profile? It means that Facebook is becoming increasingly less intimate (though intimacy among several hundred friends was a stretch to begin with) and much more public. In a culture where the phrase over-sharing is a dramatic understatement for what information we choose to communicate, friends will now be able to see what you’re reading, where you’re shopping and what you’re watching as you’re doing it.

Making the decision of what to share is a problem unique for young people today. Unlike older generations that valued self-reliance and discretion, living on the Internet has turned personal triumphs and tragedies into conversation pieces for the masses. One of the chief stereotypes of our generation is that we possess a certain flair for narcissism, and our belief that every action of our lives is significant enough to be shared online with the world at large does nothing to dispute that stereotype.

This generational divide became evident for me this summer when I worked as an intern for a law firm and was responsible for teaching the lawyers how to use LinkedIn and social media to market themselves online. Most of the people I worked with were in their 40s or older, and they met my instructions with one of two reactions. Some marveled at discovering what could be done online, what could be shared and how they could apply it to their work. Others were skeptical and couldn’t fathom incorporating more advanced technology than e-mail into their day-to-day life. Both reactions pointed out a major generational gap. Members of older generations viewed social media as something counterintuitive, but members of younger generations — for the most part — couldn’t imagine their lives without it.

The question that exists now is how will people react to the changes in online living. I doubt Facebook’s modifications, which happen relatively frequently, will be completely life altering. However, I think they will force users to contemplate how much of their lives they want to put on the Internet and what, if anything, they want to remain private.

Michelle DeWitt is a co-editorial page editor. She can be reached at dewittm@umich.edu.