We are a bullet point on a time line, lurching forward, holding tight, looking over our shoulders at what just happened. In a dark room, life's PowerPoint flashes along. Next slide! Prom. Fraternity. Friend's baby shower. Us in Barcelona. We track change: 40 is the new 30, Oprah is fat again, little sis is a mom, mom has a blog, Democrats are in charge, sleeping more or less, sad, happy, reinvented. Our value fluctuates.
They used to talk about You, the brand. Now it's more like You, the investment. It's not just about knowing you. People must choose whether to buy into you. Time, love, attention — aren't they commodities?
So perhaps that's why we invite people to the somewhat-approved versions of ourselves online. It's our prospectus. It's what we choose to reveal, and how.
And in that way, our online selves are the new public art. We fight for minimal resources, search for meaning and strive for beauty, expressing ourselves desperately, inevitably. We must be relevant. We are statues on Monument Avenue that yearn to be more than too-familiar objects in the median that get hit by bird poop.
We curate our lives through sites such as MySpace — through Facebook, Flickr, Lifeknot, Reunion.com, LinkedIn, LiveJournal, Ning and on and on — says Bill Martin, director of the Valentine Richmond History Center. We create exhibits, build wings and fund expansions from our sofa. And we want visitors.
“People in many ways have complete control over their environment and communications that do not require that you actually have any physical contact with the world,” Martin writes in an e-mail answer to our question sent to Style Weekly's Facebook members (see?). “While the opportunities for discovery are unlimited, there is a part of this that is less random and less spontaneous.”
Unlike life, your online image offers an element of control.
See our presentations on Facebook. Just joined a new group, got tagged in a photo at that party. See how much fun I was having? If you have a sec, Google me. Here's my Twitter feed — would you like to be a follower? Hey, 537 others can't be wrong, right? Let me just grab my iPhone so you'll know my longitude and latitude. I write this blog, it's RSS'd to a bunch of places. You may have read about my recent breakup. Did you comment? Yes, that's the one. It was painful, but we stay in touch on MySpace.
That famous Obama print by Shepard Fairey (see page 21) made the street artist a household name. Now any one of us, or our pets, can be rendered in Fairey's red-and-blue scheme, care of Paste Magazine at www.obamaconme.pastemagazine.com. You as art.
Like museum curators, we make discoveries too.
Myra Howard, vice president of external affairs at Housing Opportunities Made Equal, is one of the Facebook partisans: She, like many of us, had those conversations: Are you on Facebook? Why not? “So ultimately, I caved,” she writes, “and now find myself in regular communication with people I can't remember ever having a real conversation with in high school.”
Who were those people? Turn left down that hall to visit the special wing on the high-school years. Just up ahead, the Shockoe Slip bar-era exhibit.
When Mariane Matera set up her Facebook account, she attracted everyone she'd ever met since 1993, she writes: “The '90s crowd is the same people I used to bump into down in Shockoe Slip at night, so it's like the bar scene, only on the computer and we're all a decade older. And there's no beer. It is less intimate than e-mailing back and forth. Intimacy with distance, what a combo.”
Yet, she adds, “I find myself knowing more about what my Facebook friends are doing than my own family.”
“With Facebook, the sadness of faded friendship seems to be a thing of the past,” writes graduate student Becky Shields, a former Style contributor. “Everyone you've known and liked is now there on your computer screen, unblushingly and ostentatiously in the present.”
But of course we don't want to remember everyone from our past, even as postage-stamp images on a screen. Relationships gone sour can linger forever online.
In order to get over something, Shields continues, you need time and distance: “And, perhaps, a little amnesia. These things are precisely what Facebook obliterates, barreling through them like a Mack truck freewheeling down the Alps.”
But curators are supposed to uncover truth and meaning. And that's the problem with curating our own lives. We're still here, living. We're not objective and we haven't had enough time to look back. Only rare souls can reveal themselves wholly and truthfully to the world. And that would be the true public art.
And what about the real museums?
Martin says online curating makes them all the more valuable. “I think that people continue to need to find ways to physically connect with others,” he writes. “It is why I think that museums may even be more important in the future as real places, with real objects, and real ideas where real people can come to be inspired and challenged.”
Like Twitter asks each one of us, waiting with a blinking cursor and a blank box to hold our 140-character answer, “What are you doing?”