Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Facebook Lists

If you're on Facebook you've probably come across a "25 Random Things About Me" list. I'm on Facebook. I've read twenty or more lists. I've written my own list. Recently, The Philly Inquirer published an article about the lists. The article offers two perspectives: "Facebook list: Narcissism or a social shift?"

The "social shift" perspective argues that the lists:

"...reveal a decisive shift in our society...Many of us - younger, mostly - take a distinctive view of private and public, in which a permanent, always-connected audience trades personal, even intimate, information as part of having friends and being social. That hyperconnected life is here to stay. Call this narcissism, but it might be that the train left and you weren't on it."

The "narcissism" perspective argues, in the words of Christine Rosen of the New Atlantis, that the lists:

"For all of their apparently casual tone...are not filled with random things. They are carefully and deliberately crafted efforts to market their makers as quirky and appealing people. The revelation of one person's quirks can be endearing, but the broadcasting of hundreds of thousands of people's quirks quickly devolves into tedious mass solipsism."

At the risk of advocating narcissism, I advocate the lists. To me, the lists are not merely an indication of a "generational shift" (one of my favorite lists was written by a fifty-something friend.) Nor are the lists merely narcissistic.

offers a surfeit of daily information. Some of it is narcissistic, and much of it, I think, is purposefully crafted. Craft implies attentiveness to an audience (attentiveness to others); it implies deliberation. Craft can be a potentially positive force that reaches out and touches others. Craft implies self expression.

I think Christine Rosen is confusing self-expression with narcissism.

I like Charles Baxter's definition of narcissism from his essay "Unheard Melodies" (published in The Art of Subtext). He cites the narcissist as part of the triumvirate (with egomania and psychic vulnerability) of the "Tower of Voluntary Deafness"--people who "can't stand to absorb what is being said" by others. For the narcissist "nothing gets through that does not directly address oneself."

"The true narcissist," Baxter writes, "feels the pain of a perpetual wound" and "this pain makes him or her distractable." The narcissist's conversations, therefore, "have a lengthy, free-floating, and often witty complaint built into them. One of the only forms of conversation that flames the true narcissist into attentiveness has to do with reparations. The narcissist is always waiting, in one stance or another, for the world to offer its apologies."

The narcissist, in other words, doesn't just say, "Look at me." The narcissist cries, "Cry for me."

This narcissistic sentiment is alive, I think, in my own Facebook list. I write of my early drug-use, for example, and I imply that this drug-use might have led to my later illnesses. I also write extensively of my illnesses. What am I looking for if not sympathy?

Then again, number 25 on my list is: "At least once or twice a day I stop dead in my tracks and think: I am lucky. I am so fucking lucky. And then I just go on, and try to do what I have to do."

When I write this I am trying (and maybe, admittedly, failing) to express something essential about myself, something that I need others to know: I try, really hard. In this, I am not asking for sympathy. But I am crafting a persona, quite deliberately.

Does my crafting imply an inattentiveness to others? When I write about myself with an audience in mind am I mired in narcissism?

Often, I do feel like my own on-line crafting of a persona crosses the line from mere expression to narcissism. But self-expression, to me, is worth this risk.

The Facebook lists, true, range from artful to narcissistic, and many offer both at once. What I find in many lists, though, is a unique celebration of self, a celebration closer in spirit to Whitman than Narcissus. One of my favorite lists (read it here; #13 is my current favorite snippet of writing), written by my friend Tommy Kim, offers a mix of celebration, laughter, and self-effacement--a self-effacement that inspires celebration and laughter. To me, his list is not narcissistic at all; it's simply expressive and damn well-written.

To me, the bottom-line is that friends find meaning in these lists--in writing them, in reading them. Friends become closer. Importantly, people write. People express themselves in new ways--ways that they may have never even attempted before. And they do so in a new, confusing forum.

The implicit agreement, of course, is that you don't have to read the lists. You don't have to participate at all. Simply wave goodbye as the train leaves without you.