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The Two Faces of Facebook

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In ancient times the two-faced god Janus adorned the lintel above the front door of the prosperous Roman gentry. He was a reminder of how our perception determines our precarious place in the world and what we take to be true -- inside and out, coming and going, the future and past -- but most importantly public and private. Fittingly, the transitional month of January, named in his honor, is a time for both "Auld Lang Syne" and New Year's resolutions. In our age of diminishing perspective how are we to become self-aware of our own viewpoint without the aid of the gods? The answer is two faces of Facebook.

Prevailing wisdom has it that Facebook has replaced general neighborliness, authentic intimacy and even filial piety with coffee klatch gossip and smarmy sloganeering -- hurray for [your cause goes here]! OK conversations do sound more like one-liners and zany zingers reminiscent of the Hollywood Squares. But let's be honest, you weren't supposed to remember the answers to the inane questions because the real show was the lively banter between Wally Cox and Paul Lynde or some other long forgotten prisoner of the cube. You were in on the joke.

This is your First Facebook Face. The one you show to the world to impress others -- your personal brand. We all do it. Truth is things have been leaning this way since the Florentine Renaissance -- portrait painting, engraved cufflinks, and customized ring tones. Technology will set you free to express the real you -- until you realize that reality places you in the inbox on your smartphone just like everyone else. No worries, its outsmarted most of us.

The thing is that this is the face that launched the perpetual motion machine where spin begets spin. The dominant logic of the group takes over. Sure the faces and names of your "friends" look like a mosaic of the American Dream but take a closer look and you will see a few clear über-patterns - your high school graduating class, that alt band you love, glassblowing or unicycle enthusiasts, whatever brand of politics you smoke and of course the ever present true religion you practice. As Crazy Hair Schopenhauer put it, "Every man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world." So your face becomes just another pretty face in the micro-segment where it's easy to find you, sell you and reinforce everything you already think -- all the while making you believe that you are swimming in a virtual ocean of diversity.

The point is that while these groups give the appearance of range they actually represent very narrow interest groups. Of course your friends are reasonable, intelligent and balanced. Why wouldn't they be? They believe the same stuff you do in the same way. As for the other guys, well their friends are fanatical, ideologies and believe in the worst kind of non-sense. Better keep an eye on them -- they are starting to look like a cult. The unorthodox disappear on the dark road on a dark night. The unfriended is the new excommunicated. The Spanish Inquisition couldn't have done it any better. Can the new untouchables be far behind?

Though our First Face may be superficial and smarmy it gives Janus a second line of sight to the interior of our abode where we dwell deep -- loving to grieving -- our inside voice. The tenderhearted and ne'er-do-well alike can find us home when they come asking for support of one type or another. There is no fence that can keep out a boundary-less world. So we are constantly on guard to hide our Second Face -- the vulnerable one -- from the unnecessary, unfamiliar and uninvited. But every now and then even the most vigilant of us are surprised by something that is unexpected and true -- right in front of us the whole time but never before seen. The girl from the neighborhood where you grew up who you never really knew is worried about her son soldering in forbidding land and asks for your prayers. That fellow from work who you thought had it all together falls apart in front of everyone when his mother has a stroke. The yoga instructor from the club has lost her cat and is frantically forming a posse to search and rescue the displaced pet.

A troubled child, a failed marriage or a debilitating addiction used to be something that was never shared. It was too personal  to announce -- the opposite of TMI -- too much information. But how could we say back in the day that we knew someone when the really important stuff was hidden -- pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. I used to be astonished by the intimate secrets strangers sitting next to me on a plane would reveal -- anonymous and just passing through -- that they wouldn't tell their spouse or coworker or imaginary friend. Now Facebook has become the de facto confessional of choice.

My parish priest once remarked that "Humor is public but pain is always private." Maybe Aristotle said it first in the Poetics or it was lifted from a play by Gabriel Marcel or it can be attributed to George Bernard Shaw like all anonymous quotes. But I believed the axiom to be true -- until now -- courtesy of Facebook. We see the First Face of Janus -- humorous and kitsch -- when we post our placards and scribble on the walls. This only reinforces our sameness -- our togetherness -- our safety in numbers. But look again for the Second Face -- the unpolished and unsaid -- and you will see where we are separate and different. And here we find the supreme irony of the information age -- in the words of my friend Bob Quinn -- "That which we believe to be most unique to ourselves is that which we share most with others." We give money to charities we've never heard of and pray for people we have never met simply because we can emotionally relate to the personal struggles of others. We too need help, hope and prayers. We see ourselves in them -- a most virtuous form of self-reflection born out of a self-centered point of view -- which brings empathy and gratitude. So in the end we are two-faced -- just like Janus -- and Facebook.

Jeff DeGraff is a Professor of Management and Organizations at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. To learn more about his book Innovation You and PBS special by the same name, visit his website at www.innovationyou.com or follow his blog on innovation at www.jeffdegraff.com.