“If there is a complete lack of excitement in my social calendar, I avoid updating,” says 24-year-old Kinsey Schofield, who won’t touch her Facebook profile, Twitter account, and YouTube channel if she doesn’t have something exciting to share. “I try to only talk about cool events or people I’m hanging out with. That way, my audience assumes that this is a typical day in my life.”
Schofield, a marketer and television personality from Los Angeles, CA, describes herself as a homebody but hides that part of her personality from her online friends and nearly 25,000 Twitter followers. She says, “I do not like to drink. I do not like to party. But everyone thinks I’m a raging Hollywood club girl.”
Home-schooled from fifth grade until college and part of a family that has frequently relocated, Schofield had few opportunities to create lasting relationships with her peers.
Attracted by the possibility of friendship, AOL chat rooms and early forms of social media became her outlet. She says, “I am much more confident online and much more positive! Like attracts like in the universe so I try to stay as uplifting and positive online because I know I will attract similar people.”
Even before she moved to Los Angeles, while chatting and blogging from her bedroom in Scottsdale, AZ, Schofield referenced Hollywood. From an early age, she cultivated an image for herself and now believes that more people recognize her on the streets of Los Angeles than they would in Scottsdale, where she lived for 10 years.
Emily Liebert, author of Facebook Fairytales: Modern-Day Miracles to Inspire the Human Spirit, was so fascinated by the ways people act and interact on Facebook that she wrote a book about it. Her 25 real-life stories describe people who have connected and helped one another in unique ways.
“In some professional and social circles, people can be mean and unwilling to help, but it really shocked me how generous people are on Facebook,” says Liebert. “They are willing to put you in touch with connections and help you. In a world where everyone is overwhelmed and stressed out, Facebook is a happy place.”
Liebert believes that the kind of content shared on Facebook encourages a relaxed mood and an encouraging, safe environment. Says Liebert, “The site is very human, and that’s what makes it as successful as it is. People are connecting with friends and family and seeing photos. To a certain extent, everyone wants to put their best foot forward on their Facebook profile. All of that fosters a happy environment.”
“I generally don’t say negative things on Facebook,” says 28-year-old Mikey Rox, owner of Paper Rox Scissors, a creative consulting company in New York City. “I reach out to people to say nice things to them, and I try to be a good person online. I think it’s certainly a reflection of my real personality, but I feel like I have a bit more control. In life, sometimes circumstances dictate the outcome.”
On social networks, users learn by example. When positivity is the norm, those who post negative comments with regular frequency are generally ostracized, “defriended”, or blocked.
“Who wants to hear people whine about their girlfriend or boyfriend, medical problems, or money woes? Deal with that stuff privately, or, if you want to handle it publicly, at least lighten it up,” says Rox. “I know several people on my Facebook list who consistently update their profiles with the most dreadful details. Every day is worse than the last for them.”
However, as 28-year-old Arash Afshar has learned, creating a persona using social media can be more about breaking cultural stereotypes and less about satisfying other people’s expectations. Raised Iranian-American, Afshar felt he was challenging cultural norms by using the Internet to express his opinions on film and music.
“This is a culture where people tend to gossip and put you down if you’re not a doctor, lawyer, or engineer,” says Afshar, who is passionate about the arts. “I did go through a phase where I was pretty much raging against the machine by being more ‘outrageous’, but I have since developed a healthy middle ground.”
Afshar’s parents eventually embraced social networking tools like Facebook but only with the purpose of getting to know their son better. According to Afshar, his mother joined Facebook with the intention of spying on him. He shares almost everything with her, but she always thinks he is hiding something. Recently, his 65-year-old father also created a Facebook account. Says Afshar, “I hesitated adding my dad as a friend, but then I remembered one of my mantras: better to be loathed for who I am than loved for who I am not.”
His social media presence has even affected his relationship with his girlfriend, who maintains a blog as well. He admits that she has fought with him over things he has revealed online about their relationship, but he encourages her to embrace social media. He wishes she wouldn’t be so “proper”.
Social networks have encouraged these young people to highlight aspects of their personality that are already well developed. Says Rox, “Sometimes I feel like a narcissist for promoting my own work or things that I have going on in my life. But based on the feedback I receive from my online community, I feel like they’re genuinely interested in the sort of stuff that I choose to disseminate on Facebook and on other social networking sites.”
Afshar has received compliments as well. An old fraternity brother admitted that he had no idea how talented and creative Afshar was before connecting with him on a social network. A prospective employer commented on Afshar’s writing capabilities, and a jealous best friend finally admitted to himself that Afshar is indeed talented.
Afshar has been lucky enough to avoid negative feedback. He says, “If they’re out there, they’re keeping silent.”
However, as Liebert maintains, social networking tools like Facebook are very “human”, meaning that people showcase their best and worst qualities, despite all efforts to portray a consistent image.
“I cuss, I drink, I smoke. I’m a real person. But that doesn’t mean I can’t also be a positive person,” says Rox. “As positive as I try to be on Facebook, there are times when I need to vent. I can scream, yell, and throw a tantrum with the best of them. But those faces are better left behind closed doors. The only one you’ll ever see on Facebook is the one with the big smile.”