You can’t do anything quietly on Facebook.
Most recently I tried to quietly change my profile picture.
For years I’ve been hiding behind an avatar of Peggy Olson, but with a book due to be published I decided to own up to my real face. I uploaded one of the only selfies I have on my computer. (The fact that I don’t have a photo library full of selfies should tell you how old I am.)
As soon as I hit ‘post’, I realised my mistake. The photo was about eight years out of date and it was heavily photoshopped. If people met me in person their first words would be, ‘Jeez, what happened to your face?’
People would be expecting this.
And they would get this.
It would be like a perverse digital version of Oscar Wilde’s, The Picture of Dorian Gray.
Which is why I immediately wanted to change the photo to something less airbrushed and more recent.
But it was too late, people were already ‘liking’ photoshopped me in a constant, steady stream of affirming ‘pings’. Not since I accidentally posted a video of a cat batting a frog knick-knack off a shelf with its paw have I received so many hard and fast likes on anything.
And while it was nice of everyone to give me the affirmation en masse, the photo didn’t even look like the real me. So it was something of a Pyrrhic victory.
It also gave rise to an uncomfortable murmuring from my insecurities: do people only like me if I look good?
Further to that: are humans as basic and ‘look-ist’ as peacocks and those monkeys with the red bumholes?
And as though in answer to both of those questions the likes kept coming.
People invited me places. Old friends from school told me I hadn’t ‘changed a bit!’ Someone said they’d just been thinking about me.
It was a frenzy of connection that I hadn’t expected, all based on an airbrushed image.
And meanwhile I was like Olivia Colman in The Favourite. ‘Look at me! Look at me! How dare you look at me!’
Worse still, now I was hoist on my own false advertising petard. If I changed my profile picture again, for something more honest and recent, Facebook would again tell everyone in one of their trumpeting notifications.
She did it again everybody! Look over here. She’s uploaded another photo of herself!
A quick Google of ‘how to change your Facebook profile pic privately’ brought forth a torrent of forums full of people bitching about the fact that it’s actually impossible.
People claimed to have ‘work-arounds’, which were mainly some very complicated methods whereby you needed to refresh the feed at lighting speed then quickly switch the photo to ‘private’ after uploading it. Then you had to wait a few days before switching the photo’s status back to ‘public’.
Even with this method I wasn’t confident Facebook wouldn’t send out a notification that would expose my vanity once again: Penny Flanagan just made this photograph of herself public!
But I think my personal favourite out of all the complex solutions offered in the forums was this one: ‘Wait until 4am when no one is on Facebook.’
Because within that daffy solution lies the Facebook paradox.
We all want to be seen on Facebook but none of us wants to be seen to want to be seen on Facebook. And with that, Facebook has our primitive peacocking instincts snookered in every corner of their algorithm.
Me: ‘Scuse me Facebook I’d just like to do this one thing privately.
Facebook: (Laughs uproariously)
Me: Really, just this one thing and I don’t want you to tell everyone about it … please?
Facebook: C’mon buddy. You know the deal.
Me: I know, but just this one time.
Facebook: A deal is a deal, buddy. I give you free connection to everyone you’ve ever met in your life – I make all of your triumphs visible to those people so that it seems as though you are living your best life – and you sell me your digital soul. Capiche?
Me: Um … (Squeaks) I’d like to renegotiate the terms please?
Facebook: (Chuckles) You’re so funny!
And so, my ageless visage is frozen in time, caught forever in a moment of visual perfection. And while I say I want to change it to something more realistic, I still haven’t done it yet.
What would Oscar Wilde make of that?
An edited version of this article first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald website.