Leg warmers. The Atkins diet. Furbies. People get swept up in fads on a regular basis, but a Facebook note? In merely a few weeks, over 5 million “25 random things about me” notes were posted on the social networking Web site Facebook.
That’s 125 million “random” facts, according to ABC News.
The gist of the note was to write 25 facts, goals, or habits about yourself, and then tag 25 people, including the person who tagged you. It’s a little like a chain letter, but without threats of impending doom or recipes for bread dough.
Facebook spokeswoman Brandee Barker told the New York Times that she’d never seen a note in such a manner.
The originator of the note has yet to be identified, but one theory holds that the “25 things” started out as “16 things” in late fall 2008 and morphed as memes tend to do. People increased not only the number of items on the list, but the number of people they tagged. Slate, the Washington Post magazine, suggests it was a matter of hitting the right number. Sixteen perhaps was not enough and 100 was just overwhelming. Twenty-five was, in the immortal words of Baby Bear, just right.
The note exploded in popularity the week of Jan. 20. January turned out to be one of the biggest months in terms of traffic growth for Facebook, according to Slate.
The reason? No one is really sure. Theories range in complexity. Was it attention seeking? Peer pressure? A deep-seated need for human connection?
“Mostly, I think I was bored,” sophomore music business major Jameson Elder said.
Similarly, English and Spanish double major Kindall Duke was just trying to get people off her back.
“I’d been tagged by so many people that I felt that if I make my own note, then they’d have to leave me alone, then I’d at least not have to do anything if I was tagged in the future,” Duke said.
Beyond the mechanics of filling or saving time, for some it was also an opportunity.
“I got to let people know a bunch of weird things about me that don’t come up in daily conversation,” sophomore music business major Sarah Brockman said. Brockman got on board while the note was still in its “16 things” form.
Of course, then there’s the psych analysis. Social networking platforms have generated plenty of commentary as to whether the constant, often superficial, flow of information helps, hurts, or whether it might perhaps be replacing personal interaction.
“They’re really 25 things that you wish somebody knew about you if you had that deeper relationship, which we don’t because we’re always communicating on Facebook,” said Melissa Larkin, a social entrepreneurship major.
Larkin wouldn’t be the first to take note of the shift in how people relate to each other. Time.com published an article in which the writer, Lisa Selin Davis, talked about a friend who she hadn’t heard from in the past year. She has, however, been poked on multiple occasions and received virtual gifts.
After 24 years of friendship, the two find Facebook is the only way they can keep in touch while juggling children and life in general. The ease of communication might just be the key.
Senior business and Spanish double major and residence assistant Hannah Miller, who didn’t write a note because she “didn’t want to be like everyone else,” sees the benefits of Facebook when it comes to contacting the women on her floor.
“I find it convenient with getting in touch with people if you have a relationship already,” Miller said, though she noted that it “does take some of the relationship out of it.”
In Miller’s eyes, it’s the impersonal nature of Facebook that minimizes pressure— a concept Davis called a “digital veil.” Information can be conveyed without personal interaction.
“I think people have the desire for other people to know about them,” Miller said, but it’s not always mutual.
“I want to know my friends well,” she said, but Miller draws a line at the people who tagged her who she doesn’t know so well. “It’s annoying.”
That in itself raises a whole other issue. “25 random thing about me” runs the gamut from reasons behind unusual pet names to tales of childhood pain to stories of boneheaded drunken exploits. All of that information is out there for anyone to read.
Notes, pictures, videos, status lines— all these elements allow users to form an identity for themselves online.
However, the amount of information people post about themselves prompts questions about decreasing personal freedoms and long-term ramifications of having questionable content readily accessible to potential employers or prospective graduate schools.
“Students are not using the privacy settings,” director of career services Patricia Jacobs said. While traditional methods for screening job candidates are still used, like checking references, Jacobs says that more and more employers eliminate candidates based on “digital dirt.”
This could be any type of inappropriate content posted on social networking sites. The career center provides a job search checklist that warns of “potentially offensive and/or character damaging pictures or phrases.”
Jacobs noted that awareness among students regarding this issue has grown, but there’s still a ways to go.
“I don’t put anything online I don’t want the general public to know,” Elder said with regards to filtering what he posts.
So, how to judge? Jacobs suggests asking yourself if you’d be uncomfortable with your grandmother looking at your Facebook, She noted that with the job market being as tight and competitive as it is, students need to think more about their future and be careful as they share their lives.
That circles back to the question of why people feel comfortable or even compelled to disclose so much information in the first place.
Persuasion psychologist BJ Fogg at Stanford University told the BBC, “What (social networking sites) are tapping into are some fundamental drives and it makes it easy to satisfy those drives. Things like the need to be socially accepted …”
Or, as several students put it, “Everyone was doing it.”