Whether you’re acutely self-conscious or not, I’m sure you’ve wondered from time to time what other people think of you. It’s odd to think that you can never be completely sure how others perceive you. I’ve certainly thought it’d be convenient if I could just jump into someone else’s brain from time to time to see how I shape up. Which is why I find Facebook’s “View As” feature so interesting, philosophically speaking. The feature lets you type in the name of one of your Facebook friends to check how they view your profile. It’s technically there to help you control your security settings- you can confirm whether people have the level of access that you intend them to have. But I can’t resist imagining that feature as something more profound: a virtual identity viewer. Type in a friend’s name and POOF. Up pops a snapshot of how someone else sees your virtual self.
I’ve written previously about how I consider online profiles a curated display- each user can pick how he or she is portrayed online. Every profile on Facebook is the result of explicit choices about which photos to include, which posts to display and how to share information. So that “view as” feature intrigues me. Every now and then I like to type in someone’s name simply to see how my profile appears to people other than myself.
The truth is, the controls I have in place about what gets published to my profile aren’t complex enough to make my view and someone else’s view that distinct. And if you never modify your settings, there’d be no difference at all. But the intrigue of “view as” isn’t so much in the actual action of seeing your profile a different way. For me, it’s more of a mental exercise, wondering how someone else looks at and interprets my profile. It gives me a bit of a mental kick as I think about how someone else would use my profile to try to understand my life. Does Facebook make us all cyber anthropologists? Not really. But it does give us tools and data to try to build a picture of someone else’s existence. And while that picture may be curated or incomplete, it is nonetheless fascinating.