When high school senior Ryan Eichenauer decided he was ready to come out as a gay man last month, he chose to sit down in front of his computer’s camera and speak about the feelings he had been keeping in for so long.
At first I wasn’t comfortable with the image of myself dating guys. I believed if I ran from it long enough and hid it long enough and refused to acknowledge it long enough, I could force myself to be otherwise.
“This is who I am,” he states, “and this was the secret that was holding me down.”
With one click, he uploaded the video to Facebook, immediately reaching his network of friends and family, classmates, and yes, in some instances, strangers.
In the last few months, Facebook has been looked at as a social network that’s going out of style for the demographic it had been conceived to benefit: young adults.
Various reports (the author of this post not excluded) claimed that the notion that anyone could join the social network (parents, for example) was keeping the teenagers at bay. Facebook, in a sense, was a place where kids were all of a sudden being chaperoned, and the younger generations were flocking to buzzier apps like Snapchat and Instagram to avoid the watchful eyes of their elders.
But here’s the thing: it’s not that teenagers were leaving Facebook in the sense that they were deleting their profiles or kicking the apps off their iPhone’s homescreen. Maybe they weren’t visiting the site every day to upload photos of themselves at parties or to complain about how their parents were annoying them, but the network remained an integral part of their lives. They could not, and would not, and did not want to sever ties.
As they evolved themselves, Facebook was evolving, too — into a different kind of platform that took on new meaning for this young generation of users.
In the beginning of September 2013, high school student Zach Gibson also made the choice to come out on Facebook, using the status update box to share that he was bisexual.
Gibson, like Eichenauer, knew that the post would reach his entire network, including his mother, who saw the post and responded in kind on the social network.
Gibson’s mother wrote this letter to her son and uploaded it to her profile:
The story was picked up on various channels, praising the teenager and his mother for being shining examples of bravery and unconditional love.
Of course, with this new modern practice of so publicly announcing your sexual orientation come the sceptics. There will always be people who believe these types of things should be kept private and off the social networks. There will always be people who will accuse these teenagers (and their well-meaning parents) of attempting to create some sort of viral phenomenon to get attention.
And there will always be bullies.
Eichenauer, who shared his coming out video last month, is making headlines now for not only his bravery but for the two death threats he received in response, one of which implored him to kill himself.
Now, multiple investigations have been launched by police in Eichenauer’s hometown of Blaine, Minn., to find the author or authors of the typed-up notes.
But interestingly enough, as news outlets reported on this story, the fact that Eichenauer had used a public social network to come out was not used as a defence against the bullying. In fact, both threats were presented in anonymous notes left on his classroom chair — not on Facebook.
On its 10th birthday, it’s clearer than ever that the younger generation looks at Facebook in a different light than Snapchat or Instagram. For them, Facebook is seen as a safe haven, and a way to conveniently reach the “friends” that they chose to trust by pressing a button that includes them in their network.
The fact that teenagers feel comfortable using the platform to come out to their friends and families says more about what Facebook means and will continue to mean to our culture than simple statistics about how many hours high school students log on the site each day.
Facebook is the default social network; the default place of social representation. If something big changes in your life, whether it be a new job, getting into a certain college, or yes, even your acknowledgment of your sexual orientation, Facebook is where you go first. What you do on other apps is a reflection of the change you’ve already publicized on Facebook, even if you spend more time on those apps on a day-to-day basis.
Facebook isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, and if it’s truly the place where people feel the most comfortable sharing, then it absolutely shouldn’t.