Disturbing reports about the confessions and extreme self-exposure of young people on social-networking sites like MySpace and Facebook have become routine fodder for the evening news or anybody else looking for a sensational story to tell. "As younger people reveal their private lives on the Internet," New York magazine declared not long ago, "the older generation looks on with alarm and misapprehension."
But most devotees of those sites know the truth: What looks like exhibitionism isn't quite what it seems. By and large, the versions of self-identity that young — and not-so-young — users offer up on these sites aren't so much confessional as calculated.
Maybe you've met people in person after making "friends" with them online. Did any of them turn out to be, say, better looking in person?
I didn't think so. The Web self tends to be a marketed version of the real thing, more an example of how thoroughly we've all internalized the branding process than an outbreak of revelation. This was crystallized by
a Newsweek report that one of the founders of MySpace — Tom, the guy who materializes as every MySpacer's first "friend" — has been lying about his age. Apparently, he's five years older than his MySpace profile claims. And he's not the only fibber: A Pew Internet and American Life survey found that almost half of teenagers with public profiles include "at least a little and sometimes a lot of false information."
Tom's troubles made the rounds right around the time that Facebook unveiled its much-anticipated plans to unleash the marketing industry upon its millions of users. A core proposition of its scheme is that Facebookers fork over plenty of personal data marketers can use to target their pitches more precisely. Not (we hope) ad messages related to pictures of you binge drinking with friends, but rather pitches based on basic demographics (age, gender, location) — plus your publicly expressed interests, such as the bands you list as favorites on a site, or the television shows and clothing brands whose groups you join.
It's the latter set of disclosures that might really pay off as a potential-consumer portrait. Or will it? That stuff is all optional and at least a little unreliable. Maybe you've guffawed through Dumb and Dumber 10 times, but is that the film you want to announce to the world as your favorite? And even if one of your primary "interests" happens to be losing 50 pounds, you're probably not going to declare it. Even a lie-free profile probably falls somewhere between incomplete and highly idealized.
Scanning the News Feed of what my own Facebook pals are up to recently,I learned that one has some new stuff for sale on Etsy, another has started up a Facebook group for his band (which I knew, having gotten the solicitation to join it), a third has posted a video promoting his business, and a fourth has put up a link to her appearance on a TV show (in which she offered her opinions about Facebook). Nobody declared fandom to a consumer brand of any kind.
All of which suggests the real challenge for marketers: Social networkers don't sign on to expose their true consumer selves. We sign on to promote our own agendas.
Rob Walker discusses marketing and consumer culture at murketing.com/journal; he also writes the "Consumed" column for The New York Times Magazine.
A version of this article appeared in the March 2008 issue of Fast Company magazine.