The Age of Early Self-Conception

On Facebook the other day I viewed a profile of a "friend" who's in college and she typed this as her bio:

me? hmm. well, i'm a fighter. i'm a little crazy, but i'm passionate and i love hard when i do let myself love. when i'm upset, i need ice cream and to have my back rubbed. i'm restless by nature, and am happiest when i'm moving. i'm athletic but not a jock, musical but not a musician, and neither side of my brain seems to be dominant. sometimes i find comfort in words, and sometimes in numbers, but always in the smell of spring and my best friends. i'm bad with change, but get tired of staying the same. i'm contradicting and i think too much, but i'm told that it's cute. i believe in things that happen for a reason, and i hope that Vassar is one of them. i am extreme, i am loved. i am hopeful.

When reading her rather self-conscious, careful bio (though the lowercase letters and opening phrase "me?" attempt to signal the opposite), I was struck: When else have so many millions of people under age 22 been asked to write their "biography" for public consumption? When else have hundreds of millions of people been asked to (essentially) publicly list their interests, favorite quotations, religious views, and political views?

Imagine the tens of millions of 15 year-olds who go to set up their profile and see a big white text book that says "Bio." As the cursor blinks, they ask themselves, "What is my biography? What are my interests? What are my religious views? What is my relationship status? Am I sexually interested in men or women?"

Social network people say that the profile we look at the most is our own. We are very interested in how we present ourselves to the world. But perhaps more important, we are interested in trying to figure out ourselves. As younger and younger people set up profiles, they end up confronting some of the central angst-inducing identity questions early in life.

Insofar as this all prompts reflection on issues, I say 'tis a good thing. But there's also a risk of people too quickly pouring cement on their identity. A 15-year-old selects from a drop down menu "Liberal" and views his page a few times a day. What does that do to his willingness to evolve his mindset?

There should be a checkbox at the top of your profile labeled "Keep Your Identity Small" and it would keep the "bio" box open but disable the other drop-downs. There should be a drop-down option for "Uncertain" in each category.

(A hat tip is owed to somebody for talking to me about this, but I cannot remember who.)

18 Responses to The Age of Early Self-Conception

  1. Kevin Burke says:

    It might be smarter to do this simply because most people’s bios are boring, and it’s hard to meaningfully distinguish yourself.

  2. Mthson says:

    Re: “What does that do to his willingness to evolve his mindset?”

    The forces controlling our temperaments seem too strong to be influenced by much, IMHO.

    “Our fundamental political framework is shaped by gut feelings with deep biological roots. Much of the research into political ideology points to the central role of the limbic system, which contains some of the brain’s oldest structures, in an evolutionary sense, and is responsible for such instinctive functions as smell, sexual response, and fear.”
    http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2008/11/02/born_to_party/

    Until we can influence those temperaments through technology, I’m respectfully skeptical folks with unreflective natures can be made reflective, or that reflective folks can be made unreflective.

  3. HRITweet says:

    Ben…Great thoughts…Over the last few months, I have been interviewing college interns and new college grads and have had similar thoughts as it relates to their resumes…Why even give me one? I don’t have big expectations. I want to know how you think. Are you creative? Driven? Ethical?

  4. DaveJ says:

    I think it’s all good – that political choice will stare them in the face every day and they’ll start exploring all the other things that people with that choice believe, and they’ll determine whether they really like it or not.

  5. Krishna says:

    The biggest advantage IMHO is that of seeking a wider endorsement of self-beliefs, minus the fear of influencing a potential outcome (say, getting a job – and we know how boring CVs are). Most people are not comfortable at confessions, no matter how balanced and upright they are fearing reprisals. On a social network, they enjoy the liberty to be brutally candid with their Bio’s because it doesn’t influence any outcome (say getting a job). Sometimes it gets you people that harbor similar beliefs and the resultant bonhomie is a big pat on the back that is hugely motivating and help cement a conviction.

  6. Dan says:

    “I believe in things that happen for a reason”. Me too. Things that don’t happen for a reason scare me.

  7. Jil says:

    I fear that putting out too much about oneself when young could have repercussions in the future when one’s views may be completely different. The fact that a pre-college person embraced communism may be unearthed years later when his ideology has completely changed and he is running for political office.You know how these days people look for the slightest excuse to be negative. Also, employers now look up the bios of potential employees and may find things it would, for the employees sake, be better they not know. Sometimes too much knowledge can be a dangerous thing.

  8. Ben Casnocha says:

    Disagree. I've blogged about "mutually assured embarrassment"…

  9. Kevin Cassidy says:

    Ben – I disagree with you, people will be willing to take someone else down and believe that it won’t be as bad for them. Even worse, you are talking about a single person who may not emotionally correctly value the results.

    We already have photographic evidence of the past 40 years, but we still see politicians throwing mud. I don’t think judgementalism will be bred out of the human pysche as fast as facts about people’s past will come to light.

    I don’t know how this is going to play out, but there will certainly be some really ugly results from time to time. Remember this: http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,315684,00.html

  10. Arthur Pepper says:

    Interesting point, but I don’t think that the example you’ve chosen fits your argument. This particular bio is just an empty bit of romantic daydreaming. “Athletic but not a jock, musical but not a musician, neither side of my brain is dominant” — look at me, I am sui generis. But what does it really tell me about this person other than that she believes herself to be unique, impulsive, unpredictable! We all like to think this of ourselves, but very few actually live up to such descriptions.

    By the way, great blog. I found you via Tyler Cowen but I am also a CMC alum.

  11. Mrteacup says:

    But there’s also a risk of people too quickly pouring cement on their identity.

    I’m confused about how something as trivial as selecting an option from a drop down could possibly be interpreted as cementing one’s identity. If anything, the problem is the opposite one. Social media promotes a vision of personal identity where nothing is cemented, no substantial commitments need ever made, they can all be quickly undone with the click of a mouse, which means all choices of identity are shallow, superficial and ultimately meaningless.

  12. Mary says:

    Hi Ben, I like your post. I’ve written pretty extensively about social networking sites and identity changes. I really enjoy the stuff danah boyd has written on the subject as well. If you’re interested this is a short essay about how the recent FB changes in terms of community pages has altered our presentation of self on Facebook: http://shesoverthere.wordpress.com/2010/04/28/shakin-my-ass-how-the-new-facebook-changes-will-change-the-way-we-perform-our-identity-online/

  13. Very thought-provoking.

    It’s always weird/good to go back to a profile you had years before (untouched) and realize that your bio matches nothing you are today.

    I guess I can say that we (the young) are forced to look at ourselves at a younger age than most. But lucky (sadly?) we also have short attention spans. Meaning that those views we write down… we forget about them and move on.

    And once in a while we go back, and peer into our past, recognizing nothing.

  14. Great way of looking at the whole thing. I know how much ppl hate txt speek, but I’d rather kids be playing Xbox and hacking CSS for their myspace profile than hanging out on the streets.

  15. Hi Philip, It’s a sad state of affairs when hanging out is bad. That’s real life. I grew up in Chicago and that was all we did was “hang out” at shops, parks, movies, museums.

  16. Arlie says:

    Avoid using the internet as a personal diary. You never know when something you’ve posted can come back to bite you in the butt. Since you can’t know what all the implications might be, you should err on the side of retaining your privacy instead of regretting an indiscretion later. Been there. Arlie Jarels

  17. Emmanuel says:

    There should also be an option for “Black.”

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