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Anthropology in Practice

Anthropology in Practice


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Facebook as a MMORPG? Playing Pretend Online

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Fairy? Rockstar? Why not both? How do you present yourself online? | Chickpea by Kristina Killgrove, 2011. Used with permission.

“Go ahead,” he said. “I know in a little bit you’re going to go post some smart ass comment on Facebook.” He could not keep the scorn from his voice. “And everyone will sympathize with you. And I’ll look like the bad guy.”

Her jaw tightened. “I have never called you out on Facebook,” she said evenly. “I make it a point,” she continued as her eyes narrowed, “to never name you on Facebook.”

He rolled his eyes. “No,” he agreed. “You don’t use my name, but you say things. And I know—I know what it means.”

“So what? No one knows that I’m angry with you! You should know what it means because you were there. No one else does. No one is symphathizing.” Her control had disappeared and her voice was rising. “I have never made you look bad in public! Show me an example!”

“I can show you dozens.”

Honestly, I knew what was coming next: The set of her chin called his bluff. “Show me. I have never strung you out on Facebook. The world thinks you’re perfect!” (I have never seen someone spit a word out before, but “perfect” was perfectly spat.)

“So why do you say it?!”

“Say what? Hint that I’m frustrated?! Because it’s my space! I can say what I want! Why do you have to friend every half-dressed intern that joins the company? Or participate in the sexist jokes your colleagues make? What should I say about that?” She was rolling now. “Nothing! You’ve told me to say nothing! That I shouldn’t watch your page too closely. That’s your space, now isn’t it.”

“Yeah, I guess it is your space,” he said. And an uncomfortable silence ensued.

The pair seemed resigned to argue, and the disagreement rolled seamlessly on from one topic to another. The Facebook jabs sounded like the end of the line, though. It had a tone of exhaustion about it, and the stress and frustration and hurt that rolled off of the two of them was palpable. Still, in the back of my mind, I kept asking myself, “Are they really arguing about Facebook?

Ah, Facebook. A source of tension for so many couples for so many reasons from that co-worker you’re friendly with to the old boyfriend or girlfriend who wants to reconnect to evidence that you’re not reaching your potential based on where your age-mates have traveled, or what they’re driving, or where they’re living or that corner office they just snagged. Or how unbelievably, undeniably content they are with their lives—with every single excruciating detail of their lives whether it’s the pancakes they ate for breakfast or the new belt they just bought or the degree of love and affection they have for their significant other. The connectivity of Facebook has spawned what I have previously called the Hydra Profile—a joint profile that mixes friends, interests, and allows couples to monitor each other’s activities closely on the social networking site.

It can be too much, sometimes.

And if you don’t feel you match up to the vacations, job promotions, house buying, shopping trips, and the otherwise perfect life that everyone seems to be living (online), it can make you unhappy. Seriously unhappy, according to a recent study.

But, given all the talk about the nature of what we share online and all the warnings about posting drunken photos or bashing our bosses, we’re actually fairly selective about the content that we’re posting. At the end of the day, we want to be perceived as happy, well-adjusted people. Facebook is the new grapevine, and while we might look for signs of discontent even as we drink up the good fortune of others and measure ourselves, we’re also increasingly aware that you don’t engage in Facebook feuds with your significant other—at least, perhaps, not if you’ve graduated from high school. You also don’t want to whine incessantly about the bad day (or week or month or year) that you’re having because people will stop listening: They’ll stop “Liking” your statuses. And isn’t that what Facebook has become about? Obtaining validation for your shared accomplishments via the ever ubiquitous “Like” button? Comments might be gold, but “Likes” are a serious currency in terms of self-esteem. And to post negatively, to hint that anything might be wrong with the carefully crafted image of our fabulous lives of parties and relaxation and happiness, would mean that people would have less to Like. And if there is less to Like digitally, then our real world selves are exposed.

In short, we work hard to maintain the illusion of perfection. We play pretend.

Massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) are online experiences where players assume identities and interact with each other virtually. Players are typically free to craft characters/avatars that reflect who they are or what their interests might be (yes, that includes half-naked women). These characters have their own personalities and their own lives. They allow players to pretend—to project a perfect experience.

In many ways, that’s what we’re doing on Facebook. To some degree there is a recognition of visibility. Facebook is indeed a performance. We pick the profile photos that show us at our best—hopefully. We highlight the amazing restaurants we go to, the awesome parties we attend. But Facebook isn’t a MMORPG. As much as we’re trying to maintain an illusion of perfection, real life creeps in whether it’s by way of a snarky inside comment or a bald accusation or a frustrated outburst. “It my space,” she said and if Facebook is indeed a personal space—not private, but personal as in belonging to an individual—that feeling of possession may lead us to behave more protectively than we might otherwise. And given the rate of shared connections, those snarky insides may resonate farther than we think and impact the carefully crafted images of perfection others have honed.

What happens then, when someone you love tells you that your content is questionable or that there’s too much of it? Your space suddenly seems less yours. And even while we might know to some degree that this is a largely public forum, suddenly it seems more in need of defense—and perhaps more in need of censorship? When that person threatens the sense of perfection that you have so carefully crafted online, and intimates that he knows that things are cracked in reality, how do you respond? When he views your space as a threat to his version of perfect, what do you do?

Krystal D'Costa About the Author: Krystal D'Costa is an anthropologist working in digital media in New York City. You can follow AiP on Facebook. Follow on Twitter @krystaldcosta.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. JDahiya 7:24 am 03/6/2012

    Simple! You both move to different social networks. One of you on FB, and one on Google+. :)

    Link to this

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