Virtual Popularity Isn't Cool—It's Pathetic

If you're staying up late "poking" other guys on social-networking sites and trying to collect online friends, it's time to reevaluate.

Sadly, stories like Jeb's are becoming all too familiar. In a few short years, Facebook has leaked out of the college dormitory like some rare tropical disease and has begun infecting grown men in disturbingly vast numbers. The fastest-growing demographic among Facebook's 64 million users is those over 25. More than half of MySpace's 110 million users are older than 35. The hosts, once infected, exhibit a tendency to "superpoke" each other, hyperventilate over friend counts, and share their thoughts about the latest episode of The Hills with hundreds of near strangers—behavior normally associated with teenage girls, not men in the middle of their fourth decade. Somewhere tonight, a man with a successful white-collar career and a family who needs his attention will log on to his MacBook to see who "trout-slapped" him and left him a "zombie hug"—hypnotized by the soft glow of the LCD screen into thinking his online popularity has some kind of bearing on his life.

"I'd say 90 percent of my friends have that silly page, putting 'funny' pictures of themselves half-naked and drunk on them," says Michael Lupo, 26, a marketing director in Manhattan who says he's never given in to their pleas to join them. "There are so many bad attempts at being quasi-famous. These people who have like 10,000 friends? I'm like, 'But they're not your friends—you do realize that. You don't hang out, and you don't know anything about them besides what's on their Facebook page.'"

Sure, it's difficult to resist the allure of a site that everyone with Internet access seems to have embraced with open arms. But that appeal might be worth scrutinizing if the same site causes otherwise judicious adult-male converts to behave like 13-year-old girls.

"There's a sense that you're actually accomplishing something when you're on these sites," says Dr. Jerald Block, an Oregon psychologist who studies Internet addiction. But the truth is, other than the adolescent joys of Scrabulous and Alias trivia, there aren't too many benefits to this site that can't be realized via e-mail and telephone. Take a good, long look at your friend list and ask yourself how many of these people would meet you for a beer—or how many you would actually want to meet for a beer. And did you really want to reconnect with that awkward kid from boarding school who drew battle-axes on his Trapper Keeper?

Of course not, but once you decide to join Facebook don't be surprised if you're no longer in control of your self-image. For Michael, a 24-year-old private-equity associate in Chicago who decided to delete his profile, the promise of social status just wasn't enough for him to make that kind of sacrifice.

"You really don't get to control your own identity on the site," he says. "Other people can put pictures of you up there, tag them, write on your 'wall'—and all of a sudden you've got the one 'hilarious' buddy from high school to deal with, who you love but who maybe doesn't realize that you've got colleagues looking at your profile."

Forty percent of employers say they'd consider Facebook profiles when screening potential employees, according to a 2006 survey conducted by the University of Dayton (some companies have even rescinded job offers after seeing profiles). And we've all heard the stories about high-profile firings that stemmed from bad photo decisions on MySpace—that weatherman in Roanoke, Virginia, who got canned for posting nude shots of himself stepping out of the shower, or Carmen Kontur-Gronquist, former mayor of Arlington, Oregon, who lost her job after posing in her underwear for her profile (her defense—"That's my space; that's why they call it MySpace"—sadly, did not fly). But to object to social-networking wonderlands on these grounds is almost too obvious, the kind of censoriousness that serves only to produce more converts. This is about more than lost productivity and cautionary career tales. What's at stake here is nothing less than the mass infantilization of our culture.

"All my friends said, 'You need to get on there!'" says Lupo. "They're like, 'You can find out what's going on with us any time you want!' I said, 'Well, then I could call you or we can meet up for dinner—you don't need to send me little messages online and poke me.' It's too time-consuming. It's like a 24-hour obsession that you have to update and take care of. Why don't I just get a puppy and take it to work with me all day?"

The conviction that you're somehow missing out if you don't buy in—that you'll be left to wander alone in some kind of pre-technological hinterland—is as misguided as the notion that your ego is tied to the testimonials left on your comment wall. There are far more dignified avenues to regression, and most of these involve actual friends. These sites are the digital equivalents of the high-school cafeteria—except without Rib-b-que Tuesdays. Why the hell would you want to go back?

And while Jeb admits that the little Facebook catfight that consumed two of his friends didn't cause him to delete his profile, he does approach it with a measure of disgust that might be healthy for all of us.

"It's a little ridiculous, isn't it?" he says. "I'm just sort of waiting for everyone to be over it."

Rest assured: If you resist, you will be vindicated. Like the popular kids, Facebook will end up living in a trailer —just down the gravel road from Friendster.

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