Queering the social network

Thefacebook.com circa 2004 (screengrab from Archive.org)
Thefacebook.com circa 2004 (screengrab from Archive.org)

I’m a little perplexed by the publicity juggernaut surrounding the new movie The Social Network—it doesn’t look very good, nor, by all indications, does it offer a particularly accurate account of the origins of Facebook. Given that the movie’s hard to avoid, though, read Rebecca O’Brien’s Daily Beast piece “My Classmate Mark Zuckerberg,” which does a good job correcting some of the liberties it takes and explaining the circumstances in which Facebook (or Thefacebook.com, as it was known then) first appeared at Harvard in 2004.

One additional piece of context that I think is important, based on my recollections of the site’s early days, is its quick adoption by many members of Harvard’s LGBT community. This owed something to Chris Hughes’s role in launching the site, I’d guess. Just as significantly, in those early days, when membership was limited and there were fewer worries (like those raised by Jose Antonio Vargas at the end of his recent New Yorker profile of Zuckerberg) about one’s extended family reading one’s profile, the site offered gay students like me something both appealing and disconcerting: with a simple search on the “interested in” field, a list of everyone at the college who chose to identify himself or herself as gay.

Among my gay friends, the “men interested in men” list was a regular topic of conversation, fodder for our casual gossip about our classmates. Who was new to the list? Oh, had he finally come out? What about that ambiguous guy… no answer to the “interested in” question? Well, that spoke volumes. Those guys whose profiles listed “men” and “women”: were they bi, or were they just “looking for friends” and not understanding what the (admirably) open-ended prompt really meant? And that seemingly-straight athlete in section? He was just “interested in men” as a joke—right? Facebook placed a new overlay of information onto mental maps of Harvard’s gay community.

I don’t presume to know how everyone used Facebook then, and I certainly don’t presume to know how all 500 million of its members use it now. Within a few years, as the site expanded and was redesigned, it became harder to search along these lines, and my friends and I graduated and moved on with our post-college lives. I, like many of my friends, don’t even answer the “interested in” question on our profiles anymore. But when some historian writes the twenty-first-century sequel to Martin Meeker’s Contacts Desired, trying to understand how queer people forged connections to one another and built communities in the early years of the new millennium, Facebook ought to be part of that story.

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