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Is this honesty thing so good?

Andrew Nesi | Thursday, October 16, 2008

They don’t give me 800 words every other week to state the obvious.

But sometimes, when the obvious is so different from what it long has been, it’s important to make sure everybody gets what has changed.

“It’s a very 17-year-old American view of the world to think that you should tell someone you love everything and somehow the world will be a better place,” a friend told journalist Phillip Weiss in New York magazine.

Of course, it’s not just “someone you love,” today. In some ways, we are honest with everybody. We say things online that we would not say in person or on the phone. People we’ve never met know who we are, where we live, who we know, and what we did last weekend.

We trust this will make the world a better place.

We are a generation that worships authenticity. Even as we grow up, we will continue to be the 17-year-old American kids who think we should tell most people most things.

We want honesty, openness, and self-consciousness. We’re hyper-conscious of advertising and manipulation. Our politics are the politics of Stephen Colbert: ironic and self-aware. We share some of the most intimate details of our lives on the Internet, accessible to just about anybody if they try hard enough.

I’ve written before that the Internet “means that we’ll be able to talk more frankly about our experiences and their social implications. Judgments-political and personal-will be informed by an acknowledgment of the reality of peoples’ behaviors, not by denying their existence.” Because of the Internet, I wrote, maturity will no longer mean shaping a public image of yourself separate from the reality of your past.

In many ways, this is true-we will have to be more open about ourselves because more information will be instantly available. This is still a good thing. We won’t be able to as easily sugarcoat our pasts. We will have to acknowledge complexity and mistakes, and admission will become normalized. From the top down, our policy and interactions will be governed by these acknowledgments.

But I was wrong, too. This openness won’t be-and shouldn’t be-as absolute as it might sound. Yes, the Internet means that more information about each of us is available. But college still encourages-or, at least, allows-us to bracket our private and public selves. Increasingly, even those with whom you are closest have lives beyond what you know of them. We’re becoming adults, and adults have secrets.

Today, college and our maturation into adulthood are paradoxical, balanced against the ethos of Facebook and nearly-anonymous online conversation.

College and emergence into adulthood begin to create entirely separate spheres in which we operate. Before, we operated in small spheres – in general, one or two social groups dominated our social and academic activities. Most people in our lives knew most other people in our lives.

Now, we have professors who do not have yearly meetings with our parents to facilitate a well-coordinated effort towards our growth. We have friends from home, friends from school, friends from summer jobs. We will all move on to the real world, develop new social circles, leave behind the people we know here and the identities we’ve created with them.

Think of it like Bug Juice-style camp friends versus home friends, super-sized.

I don’t only say this to boast about my many friends. Because we begin to exist in separate spheres in college, it represents a time we can define ourselves differently for different people.

This is not earth shattering. Freshman year has always represented the ability of people to recreate themselves, without preconceived notions. And adulthood has always facilitated further expansion of these different public and private identities.

But for us-unlike for our parents or even older siblings-this is mixed with a need to be partially honest about what we’ve been. Now, your first impressions of your roommate aren’t the body of your experiences with them. Instead, your first impression is a somewhat filtered, pre-packaged virtual self. It is a self over which we have limited-and definitely less-control. It makes it more challenging to define each other based solely on our experiences with each other.

This is the paradox of a Facebook world. Just as we come of age to define ourselves, we are tied to our past.

Andrew Nesi is a senior American Studies major from Fairfield, Conn who thought we needed a respite from election columns. In fifth grade, after preparing a lengthy biography of Lucille Ball for class – a subject choice that no doubt raised the eyebrows of his parents and teachers – he misspelled “Lucille” on the accompanying poster. He can be reached at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.