False Expectations and 2-Dimensional Personalities

I’m not entirely sure where to begin this conversation, so I’ll start with Chuck Klosterman.

I recently read Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs, and a recurring theme in his essays centers on the way in which movies, music, television, and other popular media have popularized common 2-Dimensional character types. Klosterman argues that whether it’s The Real World, a John Cusack film, or a Coldplay song, popular media in the last 30 years have frequently simplified the complexities of real life situations and personalities into often trite and unrealistic characatures of individuals (e.g. the hopeless romantic, the angry black man, the ditsy girl, the emotionally unavailable guy). At this point, a couple of generations have grown up watching these 2-Dimensional images of people and situations, and increasingly one can see real life individuals attempting to play these roles and expecting others to fit into a predictable model of personality and behavior.

Unfortunately, these personalities are completely fictional, and, at least in the media, are the result of video editing, contrived situations, and oversimplification. With the rare exception, human beings are incredibly complex, with conflicting motivations, diverse backgrounds, and infinite capacity to surprise. Sadly, by trying to fit a specific personality mold and expecting others to do the same, we lose the richness and mystery that makes life fascinating and creates a reason to ‘get to know somebody,’ a concept that largely disappears when we make assumptions and fit people into boxes.

Which brings me to..

Facebook and Me

First a disclaimer: I’d like to point out that I have no problem with Facebook and am not anti-Facebook. I have a number of friends who work for the company, and I think that they have admirable ambitions. That said, as far as websites and social phenomenon go, I don’t think that Facebook is a positive or negative creation, but like a telephone or a phone directory (probably the closest pre-tech utility it resembles), the site serves as a means of communication, which can have positive and negative effects on people’s lives. I’m mostly interested in having a better understanding of the increasingly integrated role that it plays in our lives.

I have been on Facebook for six years or so, and I’m not going to remove myself, but nonetheless, I have always found it a little bit off putting, primarily in the process of creating my profile. I took an American Studies class as an undergrad once, in which the professor asked us to examine dorm room walls and write a brief essay about how a specific dorm room’s decor reflected the personality and individuality of the resident. Now, I thought this was an interesting assignment, primarily because I feel that the choices made in decorating a room, while certainly based on personal preference, are usually part of an attempt to construct and project a certain personality. We could have a long separate discussion regarding whether this constructed personality is a person’s real personality, idealized personality, etc, but regardless, it’s impossible not to see that to some degree a balancing act is being performed between an individuals personality and how they wish others to perceive them.

A discussion of individuality goes down similar lines. Art made by the resident is original, and the choice of materials and arrangement are all expressions of individuality, but often in dorm rooms, one saw the same posters, clippings from magazines (see above), and other popular culture items. While these again express an individuals interests, they also are signals of one’s position in popular culture. Displaying advertising (Absolut Vodka ads, etc) and buying a mass produced poster of a band can be a means of developing social relationships through pop culture identification.

“Nice Incubus poster! You like Incubus? I love Incubus! You’re going to be my best friend forever!”

Again, I’m not saying these things are bad or they don’t reflect a part of our personalities and serve a useful purpose, but they are not the entire package of an individual and are also frequently calculated and constructed to create a specific image of our personality. Many of us are smart people and recognize these distinctions, but I think, as discussed above, when we start assuming and acting out over-simplified societal roles, people don’t see the distinctions.

I think your Facebook profile is like your dorm room wall, but even more so. Unlike a dorm room, which you live in and hopefully decorate for your own pleasure as well as the amusement of others, the Facebook profile is constructed for the other people, and therefore it is a purely constructed personality. Similarly, whereas before you might put up a poster to indicate your enjoyment of a popular artist/movie/show, now you explicitly list your interests and can share  your common consumption of popular media with your friends. Many of us do this every day in our conversations regardless, “Hey man, did you see last night’s Lost? Wtf? I have no idea what’s going on.” Yet I don’t walk around wearing a sign that says, “I like Lost.”

(For all the Vonnegut fans out there, this is the phenomenon that makes me think of granfaloons. I’m totally open to meeting new people and making connections, but I find it interesting in life that we so often assume common interests and connections draw us together, while in fact, frequently we are drawn to people in inexplicable situations for bizarre reasons. Additionally, most of my deeper friendships have evolved over time through personal interaction far from the internets, although, I will admit that some have begun through very superficial interactions: I’m thinking of you Alex, and our first conversation regarding the Grateful Dead).

And this is where I have difficulty with Facebook. While its mostly harmless, I find the process of projecting myself through a list of popular media difficult. In the end, I try to put a few items that I hope will make people think I’m a little bit weird, give somebody food for thought, and mostly just keep it incredibly brief. Nonetheless, I don’t really feel like my Facebook profile is me or could even come close to representing me, and I hope that other people feel the same way, as I try not to make assumptions based on the profile’s of others.

So What?

Okay. I have written all this, and I’m also starting to wonder, What does it matter? Well, I think it matters when we look at how we relate to one another. As a young man, I have been especially interested in how this relates to the dating world, but I think it has an array of implications for how we live our lives.

1) It becomes easy to oversimplify individuals and situations. In the apparent ‘dumbing down’ of our society, you see a frequent tendency to ignore the complexities of situations, whether we are talking about politics or relationships. While the process of projecting one’s personality isn’t necessarily bad, both the individual attempting to maintain a certain image and those viewing said image must recognize that there is more going on and be willing to react to situations in a genuine manner. Unfortunately, when we act in a prescribed manner we frequently go against our real interests, create situations, and hurt other people.

2) We forget how to relate to one another and respect complexity. Similar to the first point, when one expects others to fit into a specific role (based on their dress, accent, skin color, gender, age, whatever), we often make assumptions about who they are and forget how to properly interact. (Hint: ask questions and listen to answers). Sadly, this is the area where I find it frequently difficult to have conversations with people. Once an individual has assumed a personality type, they may be funny or entertaining for a moment, but they tend to run out of conversation very quickly.

3) We develop false expectations based on projected lives. This is the implication that I really find most interesting and that led to my creating a blog after discussing with a friend. This partly came from my observation that many young people I know seem very confused and dissatisfied and are constantly looking for that next exciting thing to do (myself included at times). I have many friends and acquaintances who seem very uncertain regarding what they want (out of life, out of relationships), and they are frequently disappointed with their lives, holding an expectation that they should be doing something more meaningful/adventurous/rewarding at any given moment.

This expectation has often vexed me, for while I have occasionally felt it as well, I also try to recognize that life isn’t always a party, and I try to appreciate and enjoy the slow, quiet times. As I result, I wonder where these expectations of excitement and constant fulfillment come from.

I think there are a variety of sources, including an individual’s personality, upbringing, and of course, the media. Yet, I also think a great deal of it comes from our constant viewing of projected 2-Dimensional personalities. I have found myself looking at a friend’s pictures from an event on Facebook and thinking, “Man, he is having SO much fun. Is my life really not that exciting?” But I step back and recognize that what I’m viewing is a distillation of one moment in my friend’s life and similarly that it is a projection, his desire to show his friends the fun times he’s having. Interestingly, people rarely want to project their loneliness and struggles. But nonetheless, this process of viewing tiny segments of other people’s lives can build up an impression that somehow our lives are less exciting. We are fully aware of every boring detail of our own lives and frequently of those physical world friends with whom we regularly interact, but its very easy to assume only the best and most glamorous about the lives of others, especially when seen through a limited portal, such as Facebook.

This can operate in a variety of manners, including building pressure to travel, to find your soulmate, to throw a party, to find your perfect job, and so many other circumstances, but everybody needs to remember:

Facebook isn’t the real world, and your friends are probably as miserable as you!

It’s true (well, maybe not miserable, but we all deal with the same realities), and maybe this only addresses a small sliver of our complex social interactions and processes of personality construction, but I hope people can remember that life doesn’t need to be (and really shouldn’t/can’t be) constantly exciting (no matter what your friend’s Facebook pictures tell you). The slow times in life are beautiful times.

We are all incredibly interesting and complicated people, and we shouldn’t try to simplify ourselves or lower our expectations of others.

Remember, superficial connections are interesting, but it takes an open mind, conversation, and patience to discover the true members of your karass.

I think perhaps I tried to address too much here, but so it goes…

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About Tony

Lives in Austin, Texas and likes music, art, philosophy, and random stuff.
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5 Responses to False Expectations and 2-Dimensional Personalities

  1. eryn says:

    Here’s some thoughts, in reply to your blog post

    “1) It becomes easy to oversimplify individuals and situations.”
    I have a lot of “friends” on FB. Some percentage of them are friendships in which I’m willing to invest energy to maintain and improve and the rest are acquaintances, colleagues, or formerly closer friends.
    My take is that:
    For many of us there is a population of friends we truly know, like, love, need, and sometimes admire. Those people probably have FB profiles and those profiles can be, most likely are pretty poor expressions of why these people are so incredible. Yet, FB give provides means of communication in which friends-in-the-real-sense-of-the-word can annotate, editorialize, abbreviate, and sometimes misrepresent their lives.

    But that doesn’t mean the people I truly care about are oversimplified nor are the situations they find themselves in whether or not these things are posted on Facebook. My real friends wouldn’t become 2d versions of themselves — paperdolls? — because of FB, but everyone else probably is a 2d representation in my mind (whether or not they have a FB profile to make them so) because I haven’t spent the energy to know them as anything else.

    • Tony says:

      I agree with you. I didn’t intend to speak only to facebook. I just fear that the process of conceiving our own personalities in a 2-D format has potentially negative implications. Facebook just frequently seems like a further encouragement of this sort of perspective on identity, but it’s all how you take it. Facebook itself as a means of communication is fine, as long as we actually connect and interact with the individuals representing themselves on the website. The fear I have is that instead of using Facebook to enhance our interpersonal relationships, sometimes we use it as a proxy and even worse, occasionally we start viewing our real life relationships through a Facebook lens.

  2. Ian says:

    You are a swell and thoughtful individual, Tony. Gladwell’s latest piece reminded me of your post:

    http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2010/02/15/100215fa_fact_gladwell

    (Paywalled, unfortunately.)

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