Living Long and Prospering: Another Reason Why American Insecurity is a Renewable Resource

Another Reason Why American Insecurity is a

Renewable Resource

I’m going to take this in a bit of a different direction today — one that, on its surface, isn’t lit-related — so bear with me.

While I was scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed last week, I happened to stumble upon a kind of weird link posted by someone I went to college with. It included a funny little icon I didn’t immediately understand, but which became clearer to me once I noticed the name of the particular page being linked. The title (without using her name) looked like this: “Perfect GPA Lands So-and-So on Spring 2012 Provost’s List at SUNY Oneonta.”

I wondered, was this a local newspaper article? It seemed awkward and somewhat pointless to feature a student in a cheesy headline just because they’d received straight ‘A’s for a few months; but, as someone who now works for a newspaper, I figured that stranger things have happened. So I clicked the link to find out.

This took me to a website called readabout.me. And while the nature of this site wasn’t one that honestly surprised me too much, I can say that it — as with many other similar things — caused a very immediate response on my part. Which was: “Really?”

Basically, readabout.me is a site on which college students can further advertise to family members, friends and potential employers the fact that they are doing a good job. The so-called achievement might be getting excellent grades, completing a certain number of community service hours or studying abroad, among other things. Since the site is directly connected to reports released by each affiliated college, the notices of achievement come in the form of individualized — but, aside from the person’s name, identically-worded — pseudo-newspaper articles, which from that point forward appear both on the student’s readabout.me profile and, I guess, in any Google searches of said student.

The point being, according to the site’s homepage, to “build a positive online presence.” And, since “75% of employers check you out online — your profile makes you look like a star!”

Now, I admit that in some ways this might seem like a totally practical, helpful innovation. After all, it’s simply taking one step further the whole idea of making a good impression while one is applying for that crappy-yet-nearly-impossible-to-get entry-level job. And it allows college students — many of whom probably feel overwhelmed by the idea of entering the working world — to feel more confident that they are on some tangible path to success.

But we need to read between the lines when it comes to stuff like this. I start by asking myself why so many young people would begin creating readbout.me profiles (since, from what I can tell, a lot of them have so far).

Two things come to mind: a need for rationalization, and a corresponding need for emotional security.

We have here a company — readMedia, Inc., the creator of readabout.me — which has very directly taken advantage of the fact that a large majority of college students post unflattering, offensive and generally stupid things about themselves on the Internet. And it’s a very promising enterprise. Along with the American cultural norms that have made it both common and somewhat alluring to shamelessly publicize the minutest details of one’s personal life, we’re simultaneously bombarded with all the reasons why doing that is so dangerous and despicable. How many times, over the past several years, have we all been party to massive media crazes centered around a celebrity’s Twitter faux-pas, digital identity theft scams, or a politician’s dirty photo gone viral? All while happily continuing to play the game of social networking and communicational progress.

The underlying messaging accepted by American college students when they create a readabout.me profile is just an extension of that. It’s okay to continue acting like a nonchalantly superficial person — to post all those quotes about how time isn’t wasted when you’re getting wasted, to mindlessly share the KONY 2012 video, to tag that racy photo of yourself just to get a hilarious response — as long as you balance it with a positive online presence. The goal is simply to mask all the embarrassing stuff (which in many cases accurately describes your personality) under pages upon pages of academic achievements (which describe things you spent a relatively smaller portion of your time doing, and which you only did because you thought they would place you above another graduate in some corporate ranking system).

College students are also very sensitive and worried, mainly because they’ve been trained to act that way by movies, magazines and their parents. In most cases I found that college peers of mine were happy to party sans guilt for the first three years of school, but after that began broadcasting their fears about the “real world,” seemingly as if a certain button in their heads had been pushed, informing them that it was time to start “getting serious” about life. Getting serious, of course, didn’t involve changing anything about one’s actual behavior; it just meant telling people you eventually would, in order to potentially acquire employment and feel secure enough to continue enjoying post-graduation life.

A readabout.me profile helps students to assuage those intersecting feelings of freewheeling confidence and manufactured guilt. That’s the whole point.

But what’s also interesting (although simultaneously obvious) is that this is something that uses writing to most effectively achieve its goal. It’s not just about getting the readabout.me badges — the blatant equivalent of elementary school’s gold stars and stickers — which vary with each category of academic milestone. It’s about having our little personalized article published, for the world to see.

We now find a loosely related form of this personalized advertising in commercials for movies — which, I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to say, have become a primary source of cultural literature for Americans, especially younger ones. It isn’t enough to quote the film critics anymore; many of the ads feature recent Twitter updates from people who have seen the movie, calling it “the scariest movie I’ve ever seen!” or “f—ing awesome!” or something like that.

It’s not important for our testimonials — of ourselves or of the things we promote — to be genuine or accurate. It’s more important for them be practical, to be public, to serve a selfish purpose, to soothe a certain feeling of insecurity. How much further can these remedies be taken? To what ends can language be used to fill the gaps in our shallow, falsely personal fears?

 

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