Having ushered me into his office and made the perfunctory small talk, my interviewer is now sitting at his desk with his back to me, squinting at his computer screen. We are on the 20th story of a Midtown skyscraper in his windowless, bare-walled office. He is saying things like “Hmm” and “Really?” and “Oh right, I see.” Once or twice, he chuckles. On occasion, he throws a seemingly arbitrary question at me, though he never turns around. “Are you following the Petraeus scandal at all?” or “Where did you spend election night?” or “Did you celebrate Thanksgiving growing up?”
Behind him, I am answering his queries as best as I can while squirming in my seat, tugging at my blazer, and negotiating with my legs so that they will cross themselves in a flattering way. He is an editor for my favorite magazine and I want, desperately, to intern under him. I’m on my best behavior and, even with his back to me, he is making me very, very self-conscious.
I spent all morning in preparation for this. I printed out a copy of my résumé, and I brought it with me in a regal Columbia University padfolio (borrowed from a finance-and-consulting-type floor-mate). I brushed up my knowledge of the publication. I came up with story ideas that I would pitch casually, as if I were thinking of them on the spot. I pored over my interviewer’s LinkedIn profile, trying to anticipate the questions he would ask me. I Googled appropriate answers.
But, he hasn’t asked me for my résumé. He does not care to know my GPA. He couldn’t care less about what classes I’m taking or what type of writing I do or what my favorite book is. Instead, he has spent the last five minutes scrolling down my Twitter feed.When he finally turns to face me, he only has one question. Fortunately, it’s a question I always know the answer to.
“So, what’s your Klout score?”
“It was 66 until last night,” I smile. “But this morning it hit 67.”
“Klout’s vision is to enable everyone to discover and be recognized for how they influence the world,” explains Klout.com. “With the rise of social media, the ability to impact others has been democratized. Klout measures your influence based on your ability to drive action on social networks.”
The average Klout score is a 40. My most social media-savvy friends hover between 60 and 66. Mark Zuckerberg is a 63. Oprah is a 92, and Justin Bieber, who once warmed the Klout throne at an unbeatable 100, has since slid down to a 93. Barack and Michelle, arguably the world’s most influential couple, reign from a 99 and 89, respectively. Mitt and Ann, on the other hand, must accept defeat with a 90 and a 62.
Klout piqued my curiosity when a friend brought it up to me six months ago. At the time, she was interning for Digitas, an ad agency. The agency had promised that whichever of its interns displayed the maximum improvement in his or her Klout score over the course of the summer would win a prize. My friend wanted me to give her a boost.
“Like, if you share stuff that I post, my influence will go up. You get it?”
I only sort of got it, so more out of curiosity than anything else, I made my way over to Klout. I gave it access to all of my accounts: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, Google+ (mostly dormant), and YouTube (functionally nonexistent). After a few moments of computing, an orange box appeared on my screen with the number “46” flashing in big friendly, white digits. Some rudimentary research revealed to me that this made me more “influential” than the average person (at that time, a 20) but less so than most of my social media-happy friends (then falling somewhere between 50 and 55).
So, I tweeted about it. “Finally summed up the courage to check my @klout score. #egoblow.”
I posted a Facebook status about it. “Klout says that my friends only kind of sort of sometimes love me. But that isn’t true, right guys? RIGHT?”
I blogged about it. “Now that employers and recruiters both seem to be paying special attention to that score, Klout is no longer avoidable,” I wrote. “In the future, I predict … that the higher that number is for you, the more likely you ... [will be] to get that job you’re interviewing for … All I’m saying is, if it can get me jobs, promotions, discounts, and upgrades just for being mildly articulate and somewhat well-liked, then this is a bandwagon that I will jump on.”
I internalized it. After all, I had just been made aware—very explicitly by a bouncing icon, no less—of my mediocrity. What began as mere curiosity ended as a new challenge. I didn’t have to be the best—I just had to be among the best. Thus began the pressure to share, a new permanent item on my to-do list. Be more influential. Be better liked. Have more Klout. Climb, slowly and incrementally, to and through the 50s. Hit the 60s. Keep climbing. Soon, the conscious effort to tweet and to Instagram changed from effort to habit. Then, closely thereafter, from habit to instinct. And, of course, from instinct to compulsion. Obsession.
Now there’s an app on my phone that exists solely to keep me informed about fluctuations in my score. When I receive a notification about a drop, I spend the entire week subconsciously hyper-sharing to pull my score back up. When I receive a notification about a jump, I feel invincible. Rationally, I am well aware that this is a flawed psyche. But it’s easy to put rational thought aside when you’re being validated.
Joy Resmovits, an education reporter for the Huffington Post and a graduate of Barnard College, puts it as such: “Every time my phone makes the echofon sound, it makes me feel a little warmer. There’s nothing more exciting than knowing something that you thought of or found is gaining traction. That an idea is spreading, that people want to engage with you.”
I know exactly what she means. It feels damn good to be reaffirmed.
Facebook, the most-used, most pervasive social network of our time, is a 21st-century fairy tale, complete with good guys, bad guys, a princess, a fortune, and a world that’s been changed forever. In February of 2004, Mark Zuckerberg founded Facebook as an online social network for Harvard students. In January 2007, my middle school, tucked away on the southern tip of India—9,000 miles away from Silicon Valley—caught wind of it. One by one, my friends logged on and made the switch from existing in one dimension to existing in two. On May 15, 2007, I did, as well.
Now, using its Timeline feature, Facebook summarizes the last five years of my life by compressing the mundane day-to-day happenings and highlighting the big moments. Within minutes, I can scroll through years of birthdays, boyfriends, family vacations, and school trips. I can see graduation and prom, and I can see myself leaving home for college. I see my location switching from Chennai, India to Muscat, Oman, to New York, New York. I see hundreds of pictures with new friends. I see myself flitting from boy to boy, job to job, changing my college major, wearing my hair differently. I see my first snow. I see my dog dying. Sitting alone in my dorm room at 4 a.m., I only have to slide my fingers down my trackpad to revisit every formative event from the last five years of my life.While we had to piece together our grandparents’ lives through yellowing letters and crumbling photographs, our own lives are being preserved for posterity in indestructible high definition. Our voices, our choices, our opinions, our friendships, all chronicled in one scrollable, user-friendly interface. One timeline. Some see this as a hazard, others as a menace, still others as a threat. I see this as a luxury that no generation before ours has been afforded. The luxury to archive ourselves, as we are and as we wish to seem. The luxury to indulge our vanities, to narrativize ourselves, to reinvent ourselves.
On Oct. 4, 2012, Facebook reached 1 billion users.
According to TheSocialSkinny.com, 91 percent of Internet-using adults use social media on a regular basis, and 93 percent of American Internet-using adults have accounts on Facebook. Eighty-three percent of Internet-using adults say that they can or have made new friends on Twitter and Facebook. Twenty-five percent of Internet-using adults say the social web has provided them with a confidence boost.
Every day, Facebook users cumulatively spend nearly 20,000 years on Facebook (a total of 10.5 billion minutes). Of those, 24 hours belong to me, logged in to both Twitter and Facebook on my phone all day, checking both with frequency. Both are open in the background when I’m doing homework, or at work, or watching TV. Both spring to mind when anything even mildly noteworthy occurs. A sunset. A homework assignment. Anything at all.
I no longer know what it means to not be on Facebook and Twitter, even momentarily.
I know I’m not the only one. I know, every time a friend goes on Facebook and “checks us in” to the bar we’ve just arrived at, that I’m not the only one. I know, every time I’m waiting for a subway and everyone around me has their heads bowed devotedly into their iPhones, that I’m not the only one. I know, when I’m sitting behind someone in a lecture hall and they spend the entire hour and 15 minutes between Twitter and Facebook on their gape-mouthed laptop, that I’m not the only one. I know, when I’m out on the streets when New York City gets its first snow and iPhones rise into the air before umbrellas do, that I’m not the only one. Increasingly, a section of the world is getting in the habit of broadcasting every thought, sharing every event, photographing every last thing, be it a childbirth or a breakfast burrito. It is a section of the world that, to me, feels like home.
I asked Noel Duan, a senior in Columbia College and a friend and classmate, how much time she spends on social media every day. “That is impossible for me to say,” she responded, “because I’m always on social media … My phone lets me know when someone comments on my Facebook or tweets at me. I rarely set aside time for social media.” Duan, who has her own successful fashion blog and over a thousand Twitter followers, goes on to explain, “For social media to be effective, you can’t treat it like it’s a task or a job. You can’t pause your dinner conversation at Mel’s to say, ‘Hold on, let me check in on Foursquare.’ It has to be seamlessly integrated into your life.”
When I asked Resmovits the same question, she gave a similar answer. “I don’t think I’d be able to answer that question,” she said, “because social media is so integrated into my day.” When my boyfriend and I went on a picnic to celebrate our one-year anniversary, I spent a total of half an hour first finding various strangers to take pictures of us until I was satisfied with one, then picking the right Instagram filter, then coming up with a caption, and finally waving my phone around in arm-span figure eights until Foursquare let me check us into Central Park. When Hurricane Sandy wrecked New York City, I guiltily made it a Facebook status opportunity. When I stood in the middle of our college campus, experiencing President Obama’s re-election on a Jumbotron with hundreds of my peers dancing and hollering around me, chanting “USA! USA!” all of our faces were lit brightly in the glow of our little screens as we tweeted, texted, and Instagrammed the future of the free world.
I know that this obsessive over-sharing is a problem. I know it’s a problem because nearly everyone whom I know to care about me has told me, on several occasions, that it’s a problem. I also know it’s a problem because my eyes hurt. I sleep less and less. I’ve lost the ability to sit through a single meal without having to sneak glances under the table. It’s making me rude.
Last month, we were out drinking when a good friend told me, casually, that I check my phone too much. Tired of having had that accusation hurled at me, I snapped at him.
“You’re all reactionaries,” I said. “The world has changed, and it’s about time you all accepted it.”
“Oh, come on,” he rolled his eyes. “The world has not changed. This is not a generational thing. My world has not changed.”
“Yeah, well, what makes you think that’s a good thing? Social media keeps me well-informed and it keeps me well-liked and it keeps me well-networked professionally. I don’t know what everyone’s problem is. Move on already.”
“This isn’t about how well-liked you may be on the Internet. This isn’t the Internet. This is about you being rude when you’re out with friends and all you can do is fucking tweet about it instead of engaging in a conversation like a real person.”
“The world has, too, changed,” I raised my voice a little. “The world has changed because there’s no difference anymore between real life and the Internet, OK? There’s no line between them. The Internet is real life. I expect everyone to be as real and responsive on the Internet as they are in person and I’m not the only one. You’re mad that I can’t engage in a conversation at this bar, but I’m mad when someone doesn’t email me back within an hour. Pretty sure my feelings are as valid as yours, OK? Get off your high horse.”
“You’re insane,” he said, eyes rolling. “You’re actually just insane.”
When I ask Resmovits about the relationship between the Internet and the real world, she says, “They’re two different places ... But I think the Internet has affected real-world behavior ... I’ve noticed my sentences getting shorter since I started tweeting.”
Courtney Tatum, a senior in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, feels differently. In her opinion, the line between the real and virtual worlds has blurred. “My reasoning: My family no longer calls each other and sends pictures for family photo albums like we used to. It’s really weird to hear my grandmother say, ‘Did you see so-and-so’s page?’ when she used to only know about our family out of town if she had actually talked to them. The act of contactingsomeone and catching up is becoming extinct—it’s something I’m having a hard time coming to terms with,” she explains. “Nonetheless, I also know that people use the Internet to put on a persona, making it hard to say that the real and the web world are one.”
In a series of scandalous and incredibly public revelations, Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o recently discovered that Lennay Kekua, a woman with whom he had been in an intimate relationship for a year, doesn’t actually exist. She was a combination of Twitter handles and Instagram accounts, all of which relied on strangers’ imagination and pictures to, literally, create an individual. Lennay Kekua was in a car accident, she battled leukemia, she even died, all without ever having existed in the first place.
While this is an extreme case of the Internet invention that Tatum referenced, there’s a little Lennay in us all. A little disingenuousness. A little exaggeration. A little spice. And who can blame us? Thanks to our share-and-update culture, our lives are suddenly being played out for audiences of hundreds and thousands. You thought you were just going to an intimate gathering with a couple of your best buds? Think again. All 800 of your Facebook friends will be there, from your high school English teacher to your ex-boyfriend’s mom. You’d better look your best. You’d better do interesting things (within the limits of propriety, though, because your boss will be there too). You’d better be eating gourmet food (or, at the very least, food that looks gourmet under the right Instagram filter).
While this pressure to lead interesting online lives has led to lifestyle changes in some, it has others crumbling under the stress and resorting to cheating instead. Introducing CouchCachet, an app that will create fake check-ins and updates for you, therefore giving your network the illusion that you’re out and about, having a zest for life and an appetite for culture, while you’re actually at home, watching Arrested Development reruns in your underwear.
Duan, rather than resorting to outsourcing her updates, is on the other end of the spectrum: the social media high road. “I actually don’t want to update my social networks on all my activities or whereabouts or thoughts,” she says. “Let’s be real—the only people who know the ‘real’ you—other than yourself—are the people you’re closest to in real life. If you say, ‘Getting a blowout,’ people are going to think you’re high-maintenance. If you say, ‘I’m angry at my mother,’ people are going to think you’re whiny and ungrateful.”
She’s right. I know it’s a problem. I know it’s a problem that we have come to rely on external validation of experiences, relationships, even thoughts. I know that it’s a problem that, on average, I sleep four hours every night because I am so habitually obligated to check my phone. I know it’s a problem that we have found ways—albeit problematic and unsound ways—to quantify notions like love and support, friendship and influence. I know it’s problematic that, on any given day, I am on Facebook and Twitter more than I am not. That during the only week, all year, that I got to spend with my parents and brother, I spent hours just waving my phone around rural Indian skies, looking to pick up reception so I could Instagram pictures of our getaway. That the scariest thing about flying isn’t being suspended thousands of miles over oceans, but being disconnected for more than a couple of hours at a time. I know it’s a problem that I have to keep my phone in my lap through classes, checking it every 15 minutes at least. I know it’s a problem that I’ve switched from enjoying movies to exclusively enjoying TV shows because my attention span has shrunk. I know it’s a problem that my life has become a slavish pursuit of intangible statistics: likes, retweets, shares.
And yet, over time, it’s become a problem I’ve grown used to having. It’s exhausting. I am often shamed for it. But, at the end of the day, it’s a problem that keeps me self-assured and confident. It’s a problem that I choose to have. Still, in the months since that job interview, I have become more and more aware of my dependence, my habit, my addiction, and I’ve made conscious efforts to wean myself off it. These efforts have failed, often, and often they have resulted in more identity crises. I go on Facebook less than I did at my prime. I barely tweet anymore. I am slightly more selective about what I Instagram. It feels good, even liberating. But the last few weeks have brought a steady stream of Klout notifications about my score dropping. What was once 67 is now 64.
Klout allows users to view all of their friends, across all social platforms, in order of decreasing Klout score. Of my friends, the two highest are tied for 65. After them, four friends sit comfortably at 64. One 63, four 62s, six 61s, and so on. I know it’s a problem but, at the end of the day, there was always a bright orange square on my phone, flashing the number 66—or, on a good day, 67—telling me that I was doing something right. Now, that square flashes an offensive 64. Freedom in the real world flashes failure online. What was once uncontested is now slipping toward average.
The editor who asked me for my Klout score offered me the internship an hour after I left his office. An hour after I said the words “67” I’ve begun to believe that my social media problem got me my dream job, so it’s a problem that I was reluctant to try to solve. Ironically enough, that editor has a Klout score of 36.
Sixty-seven was a personal choice and a professional convenience. It was an identity and a project. It was the most honest and still the most disingenuous of autobiographies. Most days, 67 was a point of pride, but sometimes 67 was embarrassing. I was—and still am—reluctant to admit that I have embraced the mainstream, that I pander to it. I am reluctant to admit that I enjoy sharing personal details with thousands of strangers. I am reluctant to admit that, over time, I have made myself good at it. Most days, 67 was just a way of life, but eventually, I was forced to re-evaluate the fact that I had given in to a complete mathematization of emotions and relationships. In comparison, 64 feels much bet- ter. Some days, still, I am annoyed that I have to sneak a hand under the dinner table and check for notifications. I am frustrated when I miss a joke my professor makes because I was busy tweeting the last one. Sixty-four is easier than 67, but 64 is still an addiction. It is still a compulsion.
But other days, slumped at what often still feels like a mediocre 64, I am tempted to go on a share-bender, to chase the 67 high, to construct something extraordinarily like-able, just because I can. Some days, resting easy at a healthy but disheartening 64, I am wont to relapse. I do what I can to hold back, but all it takes is a social slight, a low grade, or a bad hair day to send me chasing the adrenaline rush of 67-level validation. Now, most days, 64 is just who I am.
But some days, all I really want is to be able to stop thinking about it: to go out with friends, to enjoy vacationing with family, to watch a movie in its entirety, to enjoy a picnic. Some days, balanced on the knife’s edge of 64-mediocrity, all I want is to be a good friend. Some days, all I really want is sleep.