Why social networks are making us all boring

Should we be ashamed of having an enjoyable social life?


Which is better to have online: a common name, or an obscure one?

I'm not sure. If your parents were unimaginative enough to give you a generic appellation like 'John Smith' or 'Jane Doe', there must be a certain comfort in knowing that you really, really have to screw up in order for your name to appear at the top of a random Google search.

You can safely slip into the haze of anonymity in any job interview or social gathering, knowing that those 10-year-old flamewars and that embarrassing party photo that a 'friend' refuses to delete from Flickr probably won't turn up to bite you on the bum.

On the other hand, should you be blessed (or cursed) with an unusual name, you're in trouble two ways over. First, your doings and indiscretions aren't likely to be buried deep in Google, but right there, on the front page for all to see.

Worse, if you do have a namesake, good luck protesting that it's the other Reginald Percy Featherstonehaugh who set up that photo gallery of transsexuals stamping on adorable kittens.

Even if it's clearly not you, it'll still be a mental image up there with finding a tapeworm colony in your spaghetti bolognese. Not ideal in the middle of a job interview, or when a hot date is trying to decide between packing the lipstick or an extra can of pepper spray.

Walled in

Ironically enough, the main advantage of services like Facebook is also one of the biggest complaints about them: that they're walled gardens. That traditionally refers to the companies walling our data in, but it can just as easily be a protective wall for us. Things still leak out, of course – if someone can see it on their screen, they can find a way to copy it – but at least we have some degree of control.

What's sad, though, is that, increasingly, it's the interesting things we feel we have to keep locked up. It's as if getting drunk at parties or having some vestige of an enjoyable social life is something to be ashamed of.

If everyone was more open about not, in fact, being some soulless automaton, maybe the occasional embarrassing photo or accidental slip of the tongue wouldn't be such a big deal.

Of course, by 'everyone', I mean 'everyone else'.

Seriously: you first.

Social-networking services as a whole are a good idea, but they suffer from this more than anything else. Facebook even lets you put your foot in it with a private profile, because you still have to pick an image to represent you if anyone goes searching.

After that, the increasing need to package up little bits of our lives just gets tiresome. Facebook for friends. Blogs to show off. LinkedIn for business. Last.fm for music. MySpace to make every other website look better in comparison.

We're out there

It's too much information to have spread out across the web, but increasingly we just don't have a choice. There can't be one supersite that holds it all for us, not because there's any technical reason there can't be, but because the world isn't ready to see us so completely exposed. Often for good reason, as a browse through some of the saucier keywords on Flickr quickly reveals. Brr.

The problem with rogue pictures isn't really one of content but context. A crazy party photo surrounded by other party photos is effectively irrelevant. A single embarrassing image, especially seen in cold isolation, can tell a different story.

One of the most ridiculous examples of this came in 2007, when a student called Stacy Snyder was denied her teaching degree due to being photographed, rather innocuously, wearing a pirate hat and drinking from a yellow plastic cup.

This was deemed 'unprofessional' by her institution, she was forced to become a nanny instead, and a whopping $75,000 lawsuit followed.

In a rather less cut-and-dried example of the problem, a cop in the US found himself in trouble when a suspect claiming foul play spotted that his Facebook profile had previously mentioned watching the movie Training Day to 'brush up' on police procedure.

While the remark was fairly obviously a joke, just having made it in public makes you think. And even if it doesn't make you think, it made the judge pause, and the suspect had their charges dropped.

Whether the face people present online is their true one or not, it's always going to be at least a fragment of their id laid bare – whether it's a geeky teenager revelling in the chance to be a god in some fantasy world, or a factory worker able to wax lyrical about the humour of Aristophanes without being shot down by academics in their ivory towers.

Or, of course, those same academics in ivory towers staying up all night discussing the fine art of plumbing supply manufacture. It takes all sorts. And just maybe, one day it'll be OK to be a few more of them.

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