By Jade Sylvan
I have tons of Facebook friends I’ve never met in real life. These friends engage with my Facebook personality, which, as I’ve written it, is a pretty cryptic, absurd voice. They like its statuses. They comment on its photos. They argue with it over the (lack of) artistic merit of Jesus Christ Superstar.
Most of them friended me because they’d heard about me as a writer and musician. A lot of them have read a poem or two of mine, or maybe seen me perform or heard my songs, but they’re not as interested in exploring the other art I’ve put out as they are in interacting with Facebook Jade as an entity. A few of them have never read my writing or listened to my music at all.
Their comments usually reveal quite a lot about how they view Facebook Jade, and, more specifically, their own individual relationships to it. But Facebook Jade is, of course, fictional, as are all of its friends. Every time you post on Facebook, you’re creating an abstract dramatic character.
When Facebook first started, the status update was a formal writing prompt. “Jade Sylvan is_____________.” This invited the use of gerunds that told the audience what your ostensibly real-life self was doing at that moment in time (Jade Sylvan is waiting for her egg to be done), or if you were feeling especially declarative, you could stick a literal or metaphorical noun or adjective on there (Jade Sylvan is excited for summer break – Jade Sylvan is a rock). Statements like these are examples of the simplest and most uninteresting form of direct characterization.
Then the status prompt kept the subject, but dropped the linking verb. “Jade Sylvan _____________.” This could be a verb in any tense, but still forced the Facebook face to characterize itself in the form of action. (Jade Sylvan read a book – Jade Sylvan wants a cookie). This simple grammatical nuance conflated (and confused) the Facebook self with the real life person. “Jade Sylvan is eating curry” suggests the embodied me sitting elsewhere in the room while her pixilated avatar glows on the computer screen, underlining the separateness of the two entities. A directly active status update like “Jade Sylvan hates washing the dishes” blurs that line.
As Facebook became less a way of stalking the cute boy or girl in your biochem lab and more a quotidian means of accepted human interaction, our online avatars needed to develop voices. The convention of having the name serve as the subject was dropped completely. They pontificated about love. They had heated debates about reproductive rights and cinema. They planted digital kohlrabi on Farmville. They were no longer telling the Internet about what their fleshly counterparts were doing, they were actually doing a thing themselves and establishing their own identities in the process. (The ability to “like” was probably a significant marker of some sort. Nothing says agency like expressing judgment.)
Just like a character you write, your Facebook face is defined and constructed by its actions, not just what it says about itself. These actions include what you like, who you regularly interact with, and how.
While I’m writing this article, my Facebook page is open, and I’m having a lively conversation about the preparation of a turnip with half the Boston music community. Here, the subject matter is as human and mundane as you can get (a vegetable that belongs on the chopping block of the simple cowherd protagonist in a Grimm Fairy Tale), but the fact that I’m having this conversation with “cool” people, who book music venues and get their songs played on local radio stations and have their pictures in the Dig or the Phoenix wearing eyeliner and looking obliquely at the camera holding musical instruments says something. It says that Facebook Jade and the Facebook versions of our community’s microcosmic “rockstars” can engage in good-natured, pan-spatial verbal feints and parries RE: the most analog of human functions. (You don’t get more “real” than cooking and eating something you dig up out of the ground.) The vegans can go head-to-head with the bacon-supporters! Someone can recall a recipe from their upbringing in Southern Ireland! Someone can point out (since the original poster posted a picture of the vegetable) that it’s actually not a turnip at all, but a kohlrabi! How shamed are we all!
It’s really stupid and I can’t believe it’s how I’m expending my mental time and energy, but as my Facebook friend, musician and social media artist Michael J. Epstein, said in this really smart article, no one’s going to care about your music in the current cultural climate unless they care about you. Or at least the Facebook you. Believe it or not, someone out there really does want to know how Facebook Jade prefers to cook turnips. They might even care about that more than how well real Jade can write a song.
Writers (should) know how to manipulate the fuck out of language, and, by extension, people. People on Facebook perceive me as successful because I choose to post when something good happens. I don’t post when I play a gig out of town and four people show up and they’re drunk and talk over the music. I do post when a local radio show plays one of my songs, or a poem of mine gets published, or they put my picture or an interview in the newspaper. I run into people sometimes who I barely see in real life who congratulate me on some minor achievement from three months ago that I’ve nearly forgotten about. Whatever post they’re remembering might be all they’ve seen of me for a year. Extrapolations follow.
This perception becomes its own reality. Because I present my character as successful and legitimate, I’m offered more gigs, I’m mentioned in more articles, and I’m invited to more cool parties. People can only see what you show them, and what you show them is way easier to control when you get to author it yourself.
But you can’t hide everything negative. No one’s excited about that artist who only ever posts, “Show tonight!!!! Come on down!!!!” or “Thanks to everyone who came out last night!!!!” Your Facebook character needs to be fairly layered and relatable.
Facebook Jade does cross over into my personal life, but only selectively. I don’t post when the guy I’ve been seeing tells me he “can’t do this right now.” I do post when I get a creepy OK Cupid message from a polyamorous ESL couple. I don’t post when a member of my family is in a severe house fire and no one’s been able to get a hold of the burn unit doctor. I do post when a lightning bolt strikes the earth about five feet away from where I’m standing.
I do post when I have to go on food stamps, but I present it in a cavalier, bombastic way that mythologizes the mytho-poetic character of the starving artist. I don’t post how shitty it feels in the check-out line to be a twenty-nine-year-old college graduate who has to buy her kohlrabi with food stamps. I’d rather be seen as an Arthur Rimbaud than an early-21st Century recession victim, so that’s the image I try to put out, at least on Facebook.
Of course, if the thousand or so people on my friends list who I don’t know in real life thought about it for more than a second, they’d understand that we all have rich inner lives, and there must be way more to real Jade than the pithy piffle Facebook Jade spouts out twice a day. The thing is, most people don’t want to think about it for more than a second.
That’s fine. That’s what Facebook is there for. To give thousands more people than you could realistically interact with in a given day a shallow character splash page of something sort of like your life.