The love song of J. Alfred Prufrock’s avatar

There will be time, there will be time

To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet …

- T.S. Eliot

Yes, now I see it, the next great affliction to bedevil the self-consuming American psyche: avatar anxiety.

In the current issue of the New Yorker, John Cassidy writes about the business and sociology of community web sites, looking in particular at the origins and development of the vast student site Facebook. He describes how the moves Facebook is making to expand and become profitable may undermine what made it popular in the first place. By inviting in high school students, for instance, it has – surprise! – alienated some of its original college-student members. And by allowing members to upload photographs of other students, it has muddied the privacy protections that many members cherish. In short, as it pursues and emulates industry-leader MySpace, Facebook is becoming a less intimate, less exclusive, less protected place.

Monetization changes everything.

But that’s not what I found most interesting about Cassidy’s piece. Rather, it was his discussion of the motivations of the people who join social networks and create online identities. What does our eagerness to construct symbolic selves – what the knowing call “avatars” – say about us and where we’re headed?

Cassidy quotes the sociologist Duncan Watts on the broad appeal of community sites: “Now everyone is used to the idea that we are connected [through the internet], and that’s not so interesting. If I had to guess why sites like Facebook are so popular, I would say it doesn’t have anything to do with networking at all. It’s voyeurism and exhibitionism.” Cassidy sees other forces at work as well, suggesting that “the success of sites like MySpace and Facebook may have less to do with the opportunities they provide for self-expression than with peer pressure” and the sites’ “power to confer social standing.” He quotes a Facebook member: “I tried to hold out and go against the flow. But so many of my friends were members that I finally gave in.” Adds Facebook cofounder Chris Hughes: “If you don’t have a Facebook profile, you don’t have an online identity … You don’t exist – online, at least. That’s why we get so many people to join up. You need to be on it.”

In what may be the most revealing passage in the article, a member named Matt, a recent Yale graduate, describes the Prufrockian anxiety he feels in constructing his online identity. “I want to seem self-aware,” he says, “but not a pretentious asshole.” He goes on to explain why he chose to portray himself with a photograph that shows him “with his eyes closed and his mouth stuffed with cookies”:

“I think it’s something of an achievement to fit six Oreos in one’s mouth, and, more to the point, it relieves me of having to put up a picture with which I’m actually trying to convince people that I look good. In short, I wouldn’t put anything up that I wouldn’t want everyone to see, and I want certain people to get much more out of it than others, and for those certains to be impressed by my cleverness tempered by restraint.”

Do I dare to eat a peach?

To hear that people are vain, even obsessively so, is not surprising. Still, though, there’s something sad about this – funny-sad, anyway. Your online self, like Matt’s, is entirely self-created, and because it determines your identity and social standing in an internet community, each decision you make about how you portray yourself – about which facts (or falsehoods) to reveal, which photos to upload, which people “to friend,” which bands or movies or books to list as favorites, which words to put in a blog – is fraught, subtly or not, with a kind of existential danger. And you are entirely responsible for the consequences as you navigate that danger. You are, after all, your avatar’s parents; there’s no one else to blame. So leaving the real world to participate in an online community – or a virtual world like Second Life – doesn’t relieve the anxiety of self-consciousness; it magnifies it. You become more, not less, exposed. To again quote Eliot’s Prufrock, it is:

as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen.

If I were of a mind to launch a Web 2.0 business today, I wouldn’t rely on advertising or subscriptions or try to maximize my page views. I wouldn’t worry about technology at all, in fact. I’d become a personal avatar consultant, helping nervous people construct and manage their menagerie of online selves. Or else I’d become a psychotherapist specializing in “avatar issues,” maybe even renting an office in Second Life with a little virtual couch. I’d tell Matt, for instance, that perhaps that Oreo picture wasn’t the best way to fulfill his Facebook aspirations. I would, in short, find a way to capitalize on what promises to be a lucrative epidemic of avatar anxiety.

What makes me confident of the success of such an endeavor is a recently announced Facebook feature that, as Cassidy describes it, “allows users to create a second profile that omits some of the content of their original one.” Here’s how the site is promoting the new feature: “Would you prefer that your vegan friends don’t see that photo of you eating a giant steak? You can establish a Limited Profile that will create a limited view of your Facebook profile for selected people. These people will not be informed that they are not able to see certain profile features.” You see where this is going, of course. You’ll have not only your Facebook self and your MySpace self and your Second Life self and maybe your TagWorld self and your Doppelganger self, but within each of these communities you’ll be able to formulate various alternative selves tailored to different audiences. And you’ll have to suffer the social consequences of every decision involved in every act of self-formulation.

So many faces to prepare. So many decisions and revisions. Oh, J. Alfred, you died too soon.

And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,

When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,

Then how should I begin

To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?

And how should I presume?

5 Comments

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5 Responses to The love song of J. Alfred Prufrock’s avatar

  1. ordaj

    Nothing more than projecting our personas in real life. We are becoming more analog because that is what we know.

  2. And blogs are avatars for grown-ups.

    Seems to me your earlier premise that technology is amoral applies here. Social sites may enable the second-handedness of kazillions of teenagers, but there is plenty of authenticity out there too. It’s the individual’s choice.

  3. leaving the real world to participate in an online community … doesn’t relieve the anxiety of self-consciousness; it magnifies it. You become more, not less, exposed. To again quote Eliot’s Prufrock, it is:

    as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen.

    Yes. That’s precisely how I felt when I started my work blog – and I had another bout, coincidentally, when I saw what your reference to my blog had done to my hit-counter (daily hits averaged over last week: 54; over previous week: 12). All those people! They’re looking at me!

    It’s a strange medium – stranger than we realise most of the time.

  4. I love your post. Finding it is akin to finding a shard of mirror, saying how, how is what i was thinking reflected in this object i never knew was even here?\

    Seriously, I think mEgos, our product due out in October deals so directly with what will naturally be the next dialog in terms of online profiles. I would love to show you, chat with you about it. We’re a funded start up, with an optimism for our future and the future of our egos…i think that we are at the beginning of a great revolution in identity, and that the more knowledge we have about ourselves, the more informed the choices, which includes people’s choice to say more than they eat oreos – or at least be able to quickly know the crazy story behind that strangecookie.

    Cheers,

    ariel

  5. Facebook and the like is a bit of fun and is useful and quick to keep in contact with like minded people. Avatar is a spiritual term and masterminded by Cameron, watched the film, enjoyable and informative. Used here is maybe a bit misleading for a glorified form of texting.