Fast Times at Make-Believe High

In the parallel universe created by Cambridge bred Facebook, identities can be reinvented with a few keystrokes, every kid gets a chance to be cool, and no moment is too risqué to be photographed for all to see. And, as our reporter learned when he spent time in the virtual halls of his alma mater, that’s made high school even weirder than we remember it.

College Square Pizza in Wellesley used to be called Joe’s, and it was lame. But now, because it sits next to the town’s new and surprisingly happening public library, it’s become a teenage hangout by virtue of proximity. On this Thursday night, the place is jumping, teeming with hyperactive middle schoolers—they’re the ones toting overstuffed L. L. Bean backpacks fit for sherpas—and high schoolers who bear conspicuously lighter burdens. Amid the chaos of 13-year-olds inhaling pizza, throwing change, and yelling out, “Niiice!” three Wellesley High juniors—Megan, Jack, and Colin (not their real names)—debate the social standing of a classmate named Dan (again, name changed).

“I wouldn’t really label him as a dork,” says Megan, a cute brunette with a bubbly manner and the cultural awareness of an anthropology professor. She picks at her grilled chicken sub. “I don’t think Key Club is dorky.”

“I’m just saying I’ve never seen him talk to a girl,” says Colin, a handsome, physically imposing kid with a mess of black hair jutting from underneath his Wellesley Hockey hat and a five o’ clock shadow that makes him look old enough to rent a car. “And then on his Facebook profile he’s all like, ‘These bitches are all on my jock,’ or whatever.”

“Yeah,” adds Jack, a lanky, even-keeled boy who is on the opposite end of the facial-hair spectrum from Colin. His light brown hair, blue eyes, and surfer-boy tan make him look like a wayward Laguna Beach cast member. “I want to be like, ‘Who are you?’”

Good question. At Wellesley High, Dan is a nobody, though not in a bad way. By all accounts he’s just a quiet, shy kid who keeps to himself. But in the complicated world of virtual Wellesley High, Dan has committed a major faux pas, a sin that wasn’t even possible before the advent of the social networking site Facebook and the parallel universe it created: He’s trying too hard online. He’s made Web Dan too exaggeratedly different from Real-World Dan, and in doing so accidentally tripped the silent social alarm, crossing the threshold between quietly nonexistent and exploitably dorky.

And Dan isn’t the only one guilty of embellishing his profile, of omitting details of academic achievements in favor of overt references to slaying brews and picking up lady friends. It’s part of life for Dan and Megan and Colin and Jack’s generation, the first to have its normal adolescent identity-forging at least partially driven by texting, instant messaging, blogging, friending, and YouTubing—a generation that, like the first native English-speaker in an immigrant family, does all these things intuitively.

For as long as there have been teenagers (the term was first popularly used after World War II; before that, they were called “cheap labor”), members of that age group have had extremely healthy imaginations. For example, when I was at Wellesley High in the late ’90s, I believed not only that I was obscenely handsome and fiercely tough, but also that—although barely 6 feet tall, lazy, and unable to master the left-handed dribble—I honestly had at least a 40 percent chance of making the NBA. Yet aside from my journal and a disbelieving girlfriend, these notions remained unknown to anyone else, locked up safely in my head. Nowadays, though, nearly every teenager—through Facebook or MySpace or some other social networking site—has an online profile in which the imagination can run amok, for all the world to see. Every boy’s profile, it seems, is crafted to make him a little cooler, a little crazier, a little more bad-ass. Online, every girl presents herself as a little wilder, a little more promiscuous, a little more provocative. And at virtual Wellesley High, as at virtual high schools across the country, social life as you and I remember it has been thrown out and reconceived, ushering in an era where kids have an alternative venue for engineering their images. And twice as many ways to screw it up.

Wellesley High students started logging on to Facebook in September 2005, when the website, already a hit on university campuses, began admitting high school students as members. It didn’t take long to catch on. “As soon as we could—especially the kids who had older siblings in college—everyone joined,” says Megan.

Facebook has always traveled fast. Created in a Harvard dorm room in February 2004 by 19-year-old sophomore Mark Zuckerberg as a way to check out other Harvard kids online, it spread through more than half the undergrads within weeks. A month later Facebook expanded to 10 other colleges, including a few more in the Ivy League. By June 2004 it was so successful that Zuckerberg left school to run it full time.

Although its 11 million registered users are far fewer than the older social networking sites’, Facebook dominates the youth demos, largely because it’s considered both cooler and safer than the others. While Friendster, with 33 million users, is the social networking trend’s geeky father, and MySpace, at 135 million, is its dodgy, really rich uncle—he lets you do anything you want, but you’re not sure if that’s okay—Facebook straddles the spectrum between the two, providing myriad options for screwing around (posting flirtatious messages or inside jokes, scrolling through album after album of photos) without the explicit creative freedoms and user interactions found on the latter (no changing fonts or background colors; hardly any requests to join pornographic webcam sites). Technically, you have to be enrolled at a school to access to its Facebook network—kids from other schools have to be invited in, and even then they can only view the inviters’ pages. That lends a sense of exclusivity. And protection. “Parents don’t care about Facebook,” says Jack, “but MySpace is sketchy.” He relates the social networking Goldilocks principle: “Everyone is either too old or too young on MySpace, but Facebook is, well, at least you know what you’re getting.” Almost every Wellesley kid I talked to has a Facebook page, and spends at least an hour a day on the site.

Megan walks me through a standard Facebook session. “First, I’ll sign in, and then see if I have any new friend requests or messages or event invitations. Then I click on my profile to see if anyone has written on my wall. After that, I click on Photos to see who’s uploaded new pictures. And then I spend the rest of the time just looking around, checking out whatever or whoever I want in the Wellesley High network. It’s a fabulous time-killer.” If she sees a guy she thinks is attractive, she might “poke” him to let him know. Or she might, that is, if she didn’t have a policy against that. “I don’t poke. Poking is lame.”

Social life at Wellesley High—at any high school, really—is built around its cliques. That’s not new, even if the categories seem to be. These days, according to Megan, Colin, and Jack, the social slots at Wellesley High are occupied by, along with the varying shades of smart kids and athletes we all went to school with, the Emo Kids in “black on black, dressing weird”; the Magic Card Club Kids, who are “like, super socially awkward and don’t like eye contact”; the Sketchy Kids, who “smoke pot before and after school but aren’t hippies”; the Hippies That Play Frisbee and the Hippies That Don’t; and the Step-Down Girls, “who are not that cool”—literally, a step down—“but pretend they’re into fashion.” The list goes on. But you get the point: The generalizations are broad. Membership in these groups is assigned by association; labels are affixed, in age-old high school fashion, on the basis of crude perception.

But online, the dynamic changes. Kids are empowered to categorize themselves—and they do so with a precision that borders on the mind-bending. Within the school’s broader Facebook network, there are hundreds of subgroups with which kids can align themselves at the click of a mouse, creating cliques within cliques within cliques that scramble the social order. Groups with names like Welle$ley’z Willy Wonk@ Chocol@te Crew and the Committee to Get Brian Mongeau to Stop Flipping His Hair could benefit from some explanation, but groups like Juniors with Senioritis, White Kids Fo Kanye, and Elite Bei Ruit Players are easier to parse. The hyperspecific litany seems endless. And while some are inside jokes, they all represent new ways for kids to align themselves.

The rules of the Wellesley High cafeteria—where, traditionally, the closer you sit to the windows, the more “in” you are—don’t apply in its digital equivalent. On Facebook, everyone can act as if they’re sitting near the windows. Everyone can posture with self-created images, winning respect or derision on their ability to market themselves. “Even if you are, like, a huge dork, you can just pretend online like you’re not by making yourself look cool and talking about parties and girls and everything,” says one junior boy. “And if the kids you’re talking to don’t go to your school, then how are they even going to know?”

But it’s not just kids trying to escape their place in the social pecking order who go online. Megan, Colin, and Jack all have the relaxed confidence (to say nothing of the facial symmetry) of those who inhabit the upper tiers of the social stratosphere—and they’re Facebook fiends, too. Even the most socially adjusted teens, those with the charm and the conversational gifts and no trouble using them, prefer to do their interacting online. And even when they’re hanging out in the real world in real time with real kids, they’ve still got the Web on their minds.

I had a pretty charmed high school existence. I went to the senior prom with an actual date; emceed a school pep rally, albeit humorlessly (okay, I bombed); and scored slightly above average on the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports sit-and-reach. Yet despite this ample supply of formative experiences, all of my photos from high school fit into a single album. Now compare that with the junior girl at Wellesley who in the past six months has uploaded the equivalent of 24 albums to her Facebook profile. The advent of digital cameras accounts for only some of that difference. For today’s kids, an experience isn’t really an experience unless it’s stored on a memory stick. The numbers pretty much speak for themselves: Every day four million photos are uploaded to Facebook, making it the number one photo-sharing site on the Internet. Either my high school years really weren’t all that sweet, or there’s something bigger going on here.

Everything, every social event that happens offline at Wellesley High (parties, football games, sleepovers, whatnot), is captured for public consumption online, often through several individuals’ cameras. So when you log on to Facebook, what you get are collages of what went down on any given weekend in any of Wellesley High’s different social cliques. And it gets even more surreal: It seems kids have begun to let their online personas dictate and exaggerate their real-world behavior. Click on a random album, and you may find some typical high school photos of homecoming face-painting and vacation trips with the family. But you’ll also see girls bent over each other in faux-sexual positions with mock-surprised, mock-innocent looks, and guys holding up full handles of vodka and throwing wannabe gang signs. Other girls sit around smoking hookahs, or pretend to make out Britney-Madonna style, or wear apparently well-thought-out, if ill-advised, costumes at intricately themed, fraternity-style parties like “GI Joes and Army Ho’s,” “CEOs and Office Ho’s,” and “Barbie Night”—which, I feel safe declaring, have not traditionally been part of the high school experience. (Says Megan: “We had a bunch of themes we wanted to do to make it more fun than just going to someone’s house. And are you kidding? Who doesn’t love theme parties?”)

And you’ll be shocked by the lack of inhibition, and maybe a tinge jealous because you can’t remember high school social life ever being this ridiculous or, well, organized, and you never knew any girls who got together to pose like models in Maxim or FHM. Then you start to realize that’s exactly the point. These girls, of course, aren’t models; they’re simply teenagers doing typical high school experimenting—but doing it in a way that’s orchestrated for the camera, doing so knowing it’s going online where people will view it. And this complete disregard for privacy makes you feel gross and a little guilty—not that that makes you stop scrolling through the hundreds and hundreds of pictures. And in a sort of disgusted, sort of impressed way, you start to understand why the creator of Facebook is going to be a billionaire.

During my high school days, when my friends and I wanted to meet girls, we had to leave our houses and go to places like the Natick Mall and the Atrium. On the off-chance that we succeeded, we went through the extensive screening period of talking to her friends (all while worrying about sounding overeager), and then, maybe, if we got up enough courage, finally calling the girl herself. This was less than 10 years ago but, according to the kids I talked to, it makes us dinosaurs.

“You mean, like, her land line?” a junior named Jonathan asks me, his face bunched up in dismay. “Oh God, I haven’t called a person’s house in, like, 10 years.” Jonathan, it should be noted, is 16.

“The draw of sites like MySpace and Facebook plays into everything that people don’t want to acknowledge,” says Dr. Joseph Viola, a licensed clinical psychologist at a prestigious private high school. “That, essentially, it’s fun to look at other people, especially attractive people, without fear of face-to-face rejection.” This benefit—that at virtual high school, you can flirt and joke and be suggestive with a lower risk of embarrassment—isn’t lost on the Wellesley High crowd. “It’s so much easier to find a cute girl through Facebook, poke her, and plan out the wicked funny things you could say to her, than it is to go up to her at a party, out of nowhere,” says Colin. “It’s kind of copping out, but whatever. Everyone does it.”

Adelaide Walker, a social-emotional learning specialist at the Rush Neurobehavioral Center in Chicago, says the very dynamic that makes Facebook-enabled courtship appealing also has a major downside: “Kids who find it easier to interact without the pressure of making a social overture, of looking a certain way, of coming up with a socially appropriate response in live time, will naturally move away from practicing other social interactions.” The more invested these kids become in the “success” of their online personalities, she says, the more unattainable that same success in real life becomes in their minds. “And this has the potential to spiral back to the point where they could anticipate anyone meeting them in real life to be disappointed.”

And therein, as we like to say, lies the rub. The more time these kids spend online honing their game, scoping out the honeys, dropping witty puns, and citing chick literature in supposed preparation for an eventual real-life meeting, the less likely they’ll be to feel comfortable when that situation actually comes.

“Increasing numbers of people are anxious to retreat from social interactions so they can get online and socially interact,” says Thomas Cushman, a Wellesley College professor who has taught a seminar on the sociology of the Internet.

“Sometimes I’ll be talking to a chick and it won’t be going well,” says Jonathan. “And I’ll be like, shit, I could do this so much better over this.” He points to his cell phone.

You mean, like, call them, I say.

He shakes his head. “Oh no—I’m money with the text messages.”

One afternoon, while doing research for this article at the Wellesley public library, I notice four high school boys hunched around a computer, laughing quietly. (I told you it was a happening place.) Their heads shoot up as I approach. After several suspicious questions, they seem convinced I’m not a school or library official (“because you’d have to tell us, right?”) and agree to explain what they’re doing.

“One of our buddies left his password out, and so now we’re fucking with his profile,” says the boy typing, refusing to give his name.

Another kid taps him. “Say he likes The Notebook.”

“No,” chimes in a boy with straight brown hair and a black Celtics hoodie. “It’s got to be A Walk to Remember.”

The typist agrees. “Fuck yeah. Mandy Moore sucks. Let’s make him a member of her fan club.”

In online parlance, the boys are committing “sock puppetry.” This form of character assassination is all the more potent in the Facebook universe, precisely because those who don’t know the victim—and thus have no reason to doubt what they read—might come across his doctored profile and think they have indeed stumbled upon the world’s biggest Mandy Moore fan.

Later, when I sit down for lunch with several high schoolers at the Papa Razzi in Wellesley, the way that spats are migrating from the schoolyard to the Web is a hot topic. “Girls have fights over their pages,” says Caroline, a junior. “And when they find out about other people’s drama, they feel the need to add in their two cents, right below on the wall. And then it goes back and forth like that.”

“It’s kind of cool,” says Brian, a senior at a local private school. “You can actually see the transcript of the fight. Like it’s being filmed in front of a live audience.”

“Fighting and being petty doesn’t really concern me,” says Professor Cushman. “Neither, really, does the loosening of sexual morality. But when you combine the two, and you have kids thinking that the Internet allows you to transgress in a safe way, without thinking about the consequences of those actions, and you have all these other people to answer to—that’s really when the trouble begins.”

As the rumors have it, two girls at a local public school and another at an elite prep school were suspended for posting sexually explicit pictures of themselves on their MySpace pages. Or maybe they were expelled. I could never confirm either story, but the kids I heard it from—while emphasizing that using a personal page to traffic in illicit material is very rare—seemed pretty convinced, which is what matters. And what’s most interesting is how they view the alleged miscreants.

“You have to be a serious idiot to pull something like that and not realize you’re going to get found out,” says a girl named Emilie. It wasn’t so much that the offenders violated good taste, though that was no doubt part of it. It was more that they weren’t with-it enough to know how to toggle their account settings.

“Yeah,” says Mark, another local high schooler, laughing. “Don’t they know how to set their profile pictures to private?”

So how does this play out? Will the next wave of high school graduates be known as a generation of digitized character actors, all just playing a part—an updated version of what sociologist David Riesman called the “lonely crowd”?

“I think every generation has a cross to bear,” says Viola. “In the ’60s, it was sexual freedom. In the ’70s, it was drugs. In the ’80s, it was rampant greed. In the ’90s, it was money and the Internet. And now it appears to be social awkwardness in personal interaction. But the kids know this, I think, now more than ever, with their irony and detachment, and I think they’re implicitly acknowledging that, yeah, it’s not real.”

Back at College Square, Megan, Colin, and Jack have finished their food and are buying cookies and lemonades for the road when two kids wearing hooded sweatshirts come in.

“Oh,” says Megan, “that’s Tom and that other kid.
“You know,” she adds, annoyed that she’s the only one who does. “The kid that’s part of the Republican Club, whose profile is kind of funny—he’s, like, obsessed with the director of Rushmore and that Steve Zissou movie. And the other kid does drama.” Pause. “I think.”

As we watch them go up to the counter, I start to think that maybe Megan had just revealed an important shift. A few years ago, a girl of Megan’s social rank wouldn’t have even known Tom and That Other Kid existed, let alone remembered what clubs they belonged to and the fact they liked Wes Anderson movies. Thanks to Facebook and other sites like it, students who used to be stuck on the outside of the cool-kids bubble can find their way in. Or more precisely, the old bubble has been popped, replaced by a single Wellesley High network, to use Facebook lingo, that lets kids set their own passwords for entry. (Megan hangs out with six other popular girls, give or take. But on Facebook, she lists 364 friends—more, if you count other schools.) And maybe that’s the positive side of the entire phenomenon. Despite their potential for abuse, online utilities have finally created a fair, democratic community where creativity and imagination are just as powerful tools as good looks and status jeans.

We’re walking out of the restaurant, the fate of today’s youth no longer quite so scary, when we pass a group of girls dressed all in white. Megan waits to let them go by. “Oh my God, you need to write about those girls,” she says, her voice bubbling with excitement. “You’ll never believe how slutty and ridiculous their pictures are!”