facebook personae

Over the weekend I have become fascinated by the social networking site, Facebook. I week ago, I lumped it together with My Space, as a realm a respectable professinal, especially a professor, would never deign to enter. It’s one thing to blog; it’s another thing to have one’s profile out there for all to see. But is it?

Last week at a meeting I spent some time with a long-time acquaintance and now friend, Taylor Willingham, who runs Texas Forums and works closely with the LBJ library and the rest of the library system. She’s one of the most brilliant civic entrepreneurs I know. She start talking up Facebook and I started quizzing her: why would anyone want to do this, blah, blah, blah. By the end of the night, way past my bedtime, I decided to check it out. A few days later I went to the site, and against my better judgment offered up the contents of my address book, and it tells me who all of my friends are on facebook. It’s stunning. It’s a hell of a lot of people. Very few of my academic friends, but very very many who are involved in public issues, public media, and public policy. So I click to start inviting some of them to my circle of friends. This is weird. “Will you be my friend?” I never utter that, but I invite them with other words. And they respond. And suddenly I have this whole other facebook world.

It’s strange to go to someone’s Facebook site, someone I know and who I know is widely admired, and see that in facebook land someone “has no friends.” That’s a person who joined on a whim and never bothered to follow up, forgot about it. and is now listed as friendless. There is clearly something awful happening here to the very concept of friendship. It can easily become about who I’d like to be seen and known as being friends with rather than who I’d like to have a cup of coffee with or invite to take part in my next project.

But not really. I find out about what my past acquaintance and now facebook friend, Mark Sandell, is thinking about as he produces BBC’s World Have Your Say. I find out that someone I admire who runs a major production company has just had a pedicure. I learn that another colleague in public media is jetting off to Japan. Another colleague is at the optometrist’s office. This is cool.

When people go on these sites there’s a deep pull to pull away from the professional persona, to show a little bit more spark. There’s the picture of a think tank leader with Jimmy Carter, but he’s grinning like crazy. There’s my intellectual friend with her new baby. The other with his dog. This morning’s paper warned about the soft and blurry line between professional and personal personae, waking up to find that your colleagues knew what you were doing the night before. This problem calls for better management. Watch the lines, but don’t mind them too strictly. Don’t let the world know how smashed you got the other night. Do let them know about your intellectual pursuits. But it can’t be entirely the latter. Otherwise you’ll come off as a suit in a world of blue jeans.

By Noelle McAfee

I am professor of philosophy at Emory University and editor of the Kettering Review. My latest book, Fear of Breakdown: Politics and Psychoanalysis, explores what is behind the upsurge of virulent nationalism and intransigent politics across the world today. My other writings include Democracy and the Political Unconscious; Habermas, Kristeva, and Citizenship; Julia Kristeva; and numerous articles and book chapters. Edited volumes include Standing with the Public: the Humanities and Democratic Practice and a special issue of the philosophy journal Hypatia on feminist engagements in democratic theory. I am also the author of the entry on feminist political philosophy in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and well into my next book project on democratic public life.