By: Shelby Sveiven
Despite jokes about how Facebook has become a platform reserved for those middle aged and above to swap casserole recipes and conspiracy theories alike, its founder Mark Zuckerberg’s position in the uncanny valley, or valid criticisms over privacy breaches and just how much data its parent company Meta has on all of us, there’s no denying the impact the social network has had over basically every aspect of our lives.
Though the exact origins of the platform are somewhat contested (re: The Social Network), since its creation in the winter of 2003 and 2004, Facebook has maintained its standing as a pillar in nearly all interactions on the Internet. It spread like wildfire throughout college campuses, and it’s almost impossible to go on a website login page without seeing “Log in with Facebook” as an option.
Like I mentioned above, its origins are spelled out in a 2010 feature film starring Jesse Eisenberg and Andrew Garfield, with timelines alternating between their time as undergraduates at Harvard to the legal proceedings where Eduardo Saverin sued Mark Zuckerberg over his shares in the company. Zuckerberg has also maintained his position in the cultural zeitgeist. From SNL appearances and Congressional hearings to questionable Metaverse graphics, he has strode the line between awkward Millennial and out-of-touch billionaire for over a decade.
For the 15th anniversary of the launch of Facebook in 2019, one of Zuckerberg’s former classmates, journalist Alexis C. Madrigal, published a sprawling piece in the Atlantic, titled “Before It Conquered the World, Facebook Conquered Harvard”, chronicling the platform’s effect on the campus those first few months by students and professors there at the time. This editorial, along with a rewatch of The Social Network in October were what first propelled me into this topic, and I knew I had to cover it. Madrigal cites how TheFacebook (as it was known at the time) used the intimate college environment to its advantage, and essentially lowered the defenses of its user base in order to, “make this fairly radical step away from privacy feel safe. So people at Harvard, and then elsewhere, started giving more and more of themselves to the web.” This surrender of self to the Internet has of course become the norm, as almost everyone has some sort of social media presence, from Instagram to TikTok to Twitter. Madrigal also powerfully synthesized the feeling at the time of being pulled into the frenzy of the online social sphere, saying “Who had time to think about the theoretical relationship between one’s online persona and the offline self?”
I also wanted to gauge how current college undergraduates feel about social media and this performance of self. I spoke with Sara Ali Bukair, a sophomore at Stanford, and Rachel Mobaraka, a SOAR alum who’s currently a sophomore at UCLA.
One of the first things Sara pointed out is how social media keeps students, especially on a larger campus, connected. Rachel echoed this sentiment, saying, “Social media and young adulthood go hand in hand. There is no meal, friend hangout, party, library session, or post-exam debrief left unposted. It's impossible to get around without social media, especially when everything is advertised.”
Anyone who is on social media or even adjacent to it is always aware of the very present pressures to maintain a specific image of their lives online. Sara references her own experiences with this at Stanford, saying, “There's also something called Sitting Duck Syndrome, [where] everyone appears fine at the surface but just like a duck, if you go under the water everyone's paddling their feet really quickly and struggling to stay afloat, and so that whole experience I definitely think is exacerbated by the presence of social media.”
When I brought up the tech industry, Rachel and Sara had different insights to share. Sara’s experience at Stanford, situated right next to Silicon Valley and Facebook headquarters, she says, “100% changed” the way she views technology, and how her proximity to it was the push to realize how it is “ingrained in everything.” Rachel, on the other hand, cited the experiences of her friends who are seeking internships and work experience in the industry, and ultimately competing with each other for work. She described technology as both “a blessing and a curse.”
Even at SOAR, I know many people, including myself, who try to maintain an outward appearance of stability and calmness even when they’re under great amounts of stress. Or, inversely, use their stress as a way to demonstrate how hard they work. Especially as a senior, my mindset around this idea has changed as I consider my future, and even though I am not very present on social media, I do try to be more mindful of the behaviors I’m encouraging in my junior friends, and try to check in with people who I know are struggling.
So, where do we go from here? Where social media has ultimately become a performance and technology is both an asset and a tamper on everyday life? How do we stay connected, without giving away our attention and time to algorithms?
To be entirely honest, privacy no longer exists. Whenever we, or someone we know, goes on the Internet, our data is up for grabs. In 2018, it was revealed that over 87 million profiles were accessed by the British consulting firm Cambridge Analytica, which also happened to be connected to the election of Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign.
Social media has ultimately become a place where all reasoning and accurate information is null, and power is achieved through disinformation and selling data to advertisers. The once utopian ideal of the Internet is gone. Rather than Facebook being a place for Harvard students to connect, it is for casserole and conspiracies.
Basically, we’re all Zucked.