PHILADELPHIA — It's called "25 Random Things About Me." It lives on Face book, the popular social-networking Web site. It's a list you fill with 25 items of personal information, ranging from the trivial to the intimate.
Trivial: "I hate tuna." Personal: "Part of me hasn't grown past the moment of my father's death." Intimate: "I have been unfaithful, but so far it hasn't mattered much."
You send your "25 Random Things" to 25 friends, and they fill it out and tag 25 others, and so on ... And soon Facebook — a virtual living room where people hang out and tell everyone else what they're doing and thinking — is awash with personal revelations, admissions, info once kept private.
Facebook turned 5 on Feb. 4. Sometime in mid-January, "25 Random Things" became a wildfire fad. Many have called Web lists such as "25 Random Things" "narcissism," a word that means egocentrism, with its not-so-great overtones. But Face book users and experts are saying: Not so fast. Of course, ego is involved. But "25 Random Things" is a product of the information age. And that age is simply different from what went before.
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If they are right, "25 Random Things" reveals a decisive shift in our society. Many of us — younger, mostly — take a distinctive view of private and public, in which a permanent, always-connected audience trades personal, even intimate, information as part of having friends and being social. That hyperconnected life is here to stay. Call it narcissism, but it might be that the train left and you weren't on it.
Facebook spokespeople say they do not keep statistics on members' activity, but that membership, and the use of "Notes" (where "25 Random Things" lives), spiked last month.
Nadia Stylianou, 23, a Face book user from New York, says (via Facebook, of course) that, in general, "I really get a kick out of reading (the '25 Things' lists). It's usually a test of someone's comedic skills, with a touch of selected personal facts that the person really wants the community to know about themselves." Marta Abel, 23, of Basking Ridge, N.J., says she likes the lists because "I really enjoy learning about my friends."
Emily Nussbaum, editor-at-large for New York magazine, says the most decisive difference is that the Facebook generation "assumes they have an audience." Part of their identity rests on an invisible entourage that accompanies them everywhere.
The members of the Face book generation are right. They do have audiences. This is how they were socialized.
"I think my generation ... are self-promoters, and a lot of us are narcissistic. ... (W)e just naturally feel entitled to the fact that we are little celebs in our own minds, and we're sort of casual about that," writes Stylianou.
Young people are hardly the only ones with that invisible entourage. The businessman furiously inputting on his BlackBerry; that lady serial-cell-phoning on the train — all are connecting with a world of others there in all but body.
An unscientific survey of more than 30 such lists has yet to uncover anything vicious or unkind. Mostly, the virtual community is, in Nussbaum's words, "surprisingly supportive, sweet, even encouraging." It is nurturing, a thing friends do.