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Best face forward

Navel-gazing on Facebook.

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"I think socializing on the Internet is to socializing what reality TV is to reality." — Aaron Sorkin

"Anyone knowing ********... She is trying to get MY MAN... Get em girls, she is a golddigger and homewrecker. We are going to marriage counseling because of her!! 8 years of her sh*T" — A Facebook friend's recent status update.

With the release of Aaron Sorkin's latest film, "The Social Network" (see Matthew Reed's review last week), there has been a surprising resurgence in the discussion of the nature of Facebook and how it's changing us.

In 1959, Erving Goffman published a book called "The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life." In it, Goffman was among the first to point out in print that there is the real, complicated, flawed self and the cleaner, clearer, ideal "role" we present to the outside world. There are the expressions we give and the expressions that we give off, the latter being expressions that are "symptomatic of the actor."

Goffman's concern seemed to be that we would get our act down, "our most sincere act," but in the process would lose our truer, more complex selves. He worried that we would "train ourselves from outside in" to the point that we eventually know ourselves only in the roles we play and dictated by the various social "scenes" in which we play them. Though Goffman could've never predicted the virtual selves we all now live online, Facebook seems to be the crowning moment of the theory he put forward more than 50 years ago.

Facebook is an opportunity to present only the portions of ourselves we want everyone to see. We set up our "likes," "interests," and "profile pics" as so much online jewelry and make-up, like one big eHarmony profile, auditioning ourselves to the world. Though now, we have moved a step further into an interesting contradiction.

Over the past two decades, we've reached a level of unprecedented voyeurism. There is, of course, reality television, where we turned the camera on what was supposedly real life, but quickly became life magnified and intensified, the people soon imitating actors from TV, groping for the semblance of drama they assumed an audience needed in order to tune in. Then came the cartoonish exploitation of celebrities in tabloids, holding up their dirty laundry for us to simultaneously idolize and mock. Finally, through Facebook and other social networking sites, we can control or not control our "selves" as we wish, even exposing ourselves the same way the famous are exposed if we wish. Take as an example another of my favorite Facebook status updates from the last few months: "WTF? Why do women tell you that your the daddy when they know your not!!"

If that weren't enough, the false intimacy of Facebook has seeped into a false intimacy of daily life. I was 15 minutes into a recent first dinner meeting with a professional colleague in Los Angeles before she told me that her mom and dad were getting a divorce after 40 years of marriage because her father's addiction to porn and strip clubs had eventually become too much for her mother to take.

Apparently, just being an actor or "projected self" no longer satisfies us. We only feel alive when we are properly revealed, subjected, vulnerable, as if laying ourselves bare provides us some legitimacy, pulling back the curtain to our uglier realities a form of social "I'll show you mine if you show me yours."

This all might be less distressing if living our lives through Facebook weren't so pervasive. This August was the first time in history that people spent more time on Facebook than they did on all the Google sites — Google, YouTube, Gmail — combined. In other words, research, communication, even forms of entertainment — most everything we see — is becoming dictated only by what we and our friends want us to see.

Think about what that means. As technology has finally gained us access to anything and everything, as the promise of new worlds provided to us in our living rooms has been fulfilled, we've become utterly overwhelmed. Rather than use the tools to gain knowledge, some cunning young men made a new tool, and we've chosen to retreat, simply and completely, back into us.

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