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Implications of Facebook’s Edited Reality

Gary E. Schnittjer
Copyright 2010
To create narration or tell a story means “editing reality.” The reality may be fictional or historical or some of each. When we tell stories we edit reality by selecting, arranging, reframing, adding background, suppressing elements, and then presenting a particular storied version of the said reality.
            Editing and presenting “reality” reached unprecedented heights through talking motion picture technology beginning in 1927. The classic Hollywood style, especially with the myth of “happily ever after,” made significant impact on the majority of Americans who went to the movies at least once a week. Movies continued to dominate media at local movie theaters, on television, and on household video playing systems at least until the turn of the millennium. Movies arguably have been among the most dominant forces of the twentieth century in shaping values, mores, and personal vision. Only within the past ten years have other media arisen to challenge the rule of movies in shaping values.
            The popularity of so-called reality TV in the past decade and the wide and enthusiastic embrace of Facebook are the first worthy rivals of the movies in terms of their value and behavior transforming abilities. Reality TV presents life as game and Facebook life as a party, or at least hanging out with one’s friends. Why do they work? If movies offer viewers temporary empathy, an ability to identify with the story’s characters, reality TV and Facebook offer ordinary persons opportunity to take the leading roles themselves.
            Director Robert Cohen says, “Editing is why people like movies. Because in the end, wouldn’t we like to edit our own lives? I think we would. I think everybody would like to take out the bad parts, take out the slow parts, and look deeper into the good parts.”[1] Maybe Cohen is correct; perhaps we want to edit our lives. While reality TV gives ordinary people the opportunity to be stars and try to win, the producers are the editors. The producers decide the “storyline” of each episode, and edit the relevant material to fill out the storyline. In Facebook we edit ourselves.
            We can say we have always edited ourselves. Anyone can see the difference between reputation and character, what people think of us and what we are really like. Still, image matters. We select our clothes, our manners, our speech, to suit our life’s episodes. But we have limitations. Many things we cannot cut or delete. We are stuck trying to manage these obstructions to the desired storyline we would like for this or that episode. The problems with reality include our limitations to edit ourselves fully. Where reality fails digital reality rewards.
            Facebook lets a person create an edited self. It helps people edit themselves for a permanent ongoing hangout session with all of their friends. Users exercise their limited sovereignty within the Facebook world to present themselves according to their own wills and their own good pleasures. While personal sovereignty is limited by the confines of the Facebook creators, users at least retain full power over deletion. Users never have to present themselves in ways they do not want. And, if they do, they are granted a second chance to delete words and images.
            Many Facebook devotees allow their Facebook identity to gain some control over their behavior in their external lives. This connection between Facebook and external life can be called “image management.” Some people choose their activities, in part, based on the desire to present it on Facebook. Those with the greatest commitment to image management may upload selected experiences as they are occurring or at least on the way home. An inadequate phone plan, of course, presents obstacles to immediately connecting external experience to one’s Facebook identity.
            The power of Facebook in shaping culture, especially youth culture, can be illustrated by the way new features create new measures of evaluation. The “relationship tab” now prompts new questions in the external world. You have a special relationship, but is it “Facebook official”? Without that digital symbol of mutual commitment, it is not a serious relationship.
            Some Christian Facebook users intentionally and self-consciously present themselves with an eye to their faith. Some who are “fans” of Jesus—thumbs up—may include details in their statuses to let people know what kind of persons they are. Their friends learn that they are offline to read scripture and pray with their children before bed. Facebook personas of Christians are often far more consistent in their Christian walks than the Christians themselves in external reality.
            Facebook narrativity is attractive because it is not passive. A person need not make the first move like one would have to at a party or while hanging out in the external world. When you log in Facebook greets you as your social manager, letting you know what happened while you were away and offering several kinds of immediate interaction with your friends. Facebook caters to you, and makes you the center of your hangout. Facebook will do all the work, all you have to do is show up. Your friends are waiting.
            The trailers for The Social Network (directed by David Fincher) present it as the story of the creation and fight for control of Facebook. After working with special effects on Indian Jones and making Madonna music videos Fincher has directed several provocative feature films including The Game (1997), Fight Club (1999), Panic Room, (2002), and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008). 
            Consider one of the trailers for The Social Network which reveals Facebook’s power for editing life. The trailer uses a surreal and powerful soundtrack. Read the lyrics and then watch the trailer.
Scala and Kolancy Brothers and a Belgium women’s band cover Radiohead’s “Creep.”[2]
I don’t care if it hurts,
I wanna have control
I want a perfect body
I want a perfect soul
I want you to notice
when I’m not around
You’re so very special
I wish I was special
But I’m a creep
I’m a weirdo
What the hell am I doin’ here?
I don’t belong here, ohhhh, ohhhh
She’s running out again
She’s running out
She run run run run...
run... run...
I don’t belong here...

Trailer for The Social Network

Reality has many good qualities and some problems. Reality can be slow moving, there are many things we cannot delete, and we cannot stop some people from being there. Sometimes reality can be a real drag compared to the edited reality of Facebook.

[1] Rob Cohen in The Cutting Edge: The Magic of Movie Editing (DVD; Warner Brothers, 2004).
[2] Radiohead released “Creep” in 1992. Scala and Kolancy Brothers and a Belgium women’s band covered it in a 1992 collection On the Rocks. The trailer’s soundtrack features a new rerecording of this latter version.
Thank you to Nick Schnittjer for insight and critical feedback.


Click here for comments on The Social Network by Chuck Colson.


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