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Online Social Networking and the Quarterlife Crisis

Posted: 10/22/08 02:19 PM ET

For a few months a couple of years ago, I thought I was in the throes of a "Quarterlife Crisis". I had just quit my first real post-school, grown-up job and realized that I wasted my first year out of college doing something that wasn't what I really wanted to do with my life. After the initial relief and relaxation that came with unemployment, I started to panic. Like many people my age, I considered every possible new career, from truck driving to teaching to professional revenge-exacting (ala Dirty Work--the cinematic masterpiece penned by Norm MacDonald and directed by Bob Saget). As a carefree 23-year-old, though, I decided I was young enough to hold off making any significant decisions about my future. But now, two years later, after celebrating my 25th birthday with a full day of crying for no apparent reason, things have changed. I blame Facebook.

The "Quarterlife Crisis," or the QLC as we call it in the biz, has gotten a lot of attention since Abby Wilner and Alexandra Robbins' 2001 book Quarterlife Crisis, the Unique Challenges of Life in your Twenties. I can't help but think that the anxiety that some of us Quarterlifers feel about our lack of direction and success is being exacerbated by our ever-growing obsession with online social networking communities and the "upgrades" being made every day to sites like Facebook and Myspace(1). Remember that person in middle school (or, what I like to call the One-Eighth Life Crisis) who, no matter how oppressive your braces were or how awkward your puberty-ridden body was, always made you feel better about yourself simply by virtue of being worse off than you? It may not have been conscious, but you probably looked at that person and used the "at least I'm not so-and-so" consolation when things weren't going your way. But now, thanks to Facebook, you can see that so-and-so is getting his PhD (it doesn't even matter in what) at Making It University, has a really good-looking fiancé, has somehow become good-looking himself, and who will probably be way more successful than you.

I remember the way my friends and I treated these sites when the online social networking craze first hit us. It was fun to look up random people we hadn't thought about for ten years, glance at their profiles, find out where they went to college, and forget about them. Since their inceptions, though, social networking websites have gone through massive changes. Most notably, both Myspace and Facebook have added a "live feed" that informs people of changes made in their friends' profiles. Everything from an engagement being called off to the removal of a misplaced comma from a list of favorite books is broadcast for all to see. This means, of course, that every time I sign on, I'm greeted with a slew of little briefs about everybody else's good news in everything from their awesome careers to their passionate love lives. These briefs have become so ubiquitous that I find myself scoffing when someone sends out a mass email announcing their good news after Facebook has already shoved it in my face. And even if they haven't enabled their live feed or didn't post their good news, don't they realize that I already know about it from the ka-zillion wall posts congratulating them?

At this point, signing onto Facebook is almost subconscious when I'm up late at night, unable to sleep because I'm busy thinking about how terrifying and uncertain the future is or (more likely) because I spent all day playing Wii and somehow threw my back out in the process. In these vulnerable hours, the last thing I need is to see on Facebook how many of my former classmates are married. And on the rare occasion that I get really bored and sign on to Myspace (which, a young whippersnapper recently informed me, is basically obsolete by now), I'd rather not be inundated with pictures of featured bands, comedians, and PhD candidates who are all my age or younger.

It's interesting to hear about all the great things happening to everyone around me and it's always fun to get the occasional email or newspaper clipping from mom telling me about the success of an old classmate, but I can't help thinking that ignorance might be preferable. I'd rather be able to remember that middle-school peer and think, "I might not have a job or an idea of what I want to do, but so-and-so is probably still tripping over their own feet, getting gum stuck in their hair, and going into work the next day with a mullet they accidentally fashioned while cutting out the gum." Before online social networking, these were the kinds of thoughts that got me out of bed in the morning.

In these uncertain times, one thing is for sure. Facebook is here to stay. For ever and ever. So, what can we do to combat those semi-regular thoughts of "my life's going nowhere", "I'm never going to make it", and "even if I try to get a PhD in something, I'll probably be too old by then to do anything with it anyway"? I try to remind myself that the internet has the uncanny ability to make things seem more impressive than they really are. It's like that soft-focus lens so-and-so's wedding photographers used. I'm sure someone out there is looking at my Facebook profile and cursing me for being so clever and having such a funny "about me". And they probably don't suspect at all that the jokes in my profile were stolen directly from Norm MacDonald's straight-to-VHS stand-up comedy special.

1--For those of you wondering why I didn't include Friendster in my analysis, you most likely made it through your Quarterlife crisis several years ago and should consider moving on to your Mid-Life Crisis. Or at least your One-Third Life Crisis.

 

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