Terence Blacker: When self-exposure is a necessary evil

A rampant alternative reality will clearly have a profound effect on the way we live and work
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The Independent Online

A few readers may not yet have bought their copy of the new book from Jade Goody, the well-known reality TV star, and it would be unfair to spoil their pleasure by revealing too much here. It can be confirmed however that Jade thinks that Rik Waller, the fat one on Pop Idol, was "dirty and he smelt", that she elected to have the kind of breast enlargements favoured by Daniella Westbrook rather than those of Victoria Beckham, and that she thinks Mr Beckham's former chum Rebecca Loos is "a slag".

Talking of which, there is exclusive news from Jade's own smallest room. "I'm very particular about toilet rolls," she confides. "If I have a number two I like it to be quilted."

Surely the moment has arrived when the work of this remarkable woman should be acknowledged by a place on the next honours list. She has been an inspiration to millions by proving that, with minimal looks and a negligible education, you can still earn big money and become famous. Now she is pushing back another important barrier. Memoirs of the great have occasionally featured references to number twos - Coleridge was forever reporting in his notebooks on the state of his bowels - but none have actually covered the important question of preferred lavatory paper.

It would be a terrible mistake to think that Jade Goody is some kind of oddity. She is, in fact, an unavoidable, larger-than-life representation of a general trend towards planned exhibitionism and open voyeurism. While she tells the world more intimate details than it wants to know in a very profitable book, millions of mini-Jades, female and male, do the same thing on-line.

This week's New Yorker contains an eye-popping account of the astonishing success of Facebook.com, an internet site designed exclusively for university and high school students and based on the magnificently simple idea that these days, if you are young, there is, in addition to the normal tame reality, a virtual social life to be lived.

Each of Facebook's 7.5 million members contribute a photograph of themselves, a profile and a web address. They are then free to add views, diaries, snaps from their latest party, lists of favourite music and books, thoughts, confessions and desires. It is a very simple and apparently rather effective self-marketing device. Anyone who knows the social insecurity of young adulthood, the yearning to make an impact, to have friends and lovers and be generally known as a player on the scene, will recognise what a clever idea this is.

This boom area, known variously as "Web 2.0" and the "me-media", has already had some major success stories with MySpace.com and Friendster.com, but it is Facebook, with its vast student constituency, which is valued at $1bn and is now the seventh most visited site on the web.

A rampant alternative reality, where individuals control and shape their personality and where the tricky preliminaries in relationships are done through a computer screen, will clearly have a profound effect on the way we live and work. There is, in a sense, no opting out of it - 77 per cent of employers are now said to use the internet as a research tool when recruiting staff.

On the romantic front line, the dumped, the bitter and the aggrieved have found it easy to defame those who have spurned them with the help of the web. Since it is inevitable that you have some kind of virtual personality, it makes sense to try to shape it yourself. "If you don't have a Facebook profile, you don't have an online identity," one of the firm's founders has said. "You don't exist - online, at least."

The threat behind those cheery words is unmistakable. The me-media offer a wonderland of opportunity: friends who precisely share your taste and sense of humour, wonderful would-be lovers of whom you would never otherwise have heard. It would be a mistake, though, to see it as an agent of liberation, a place where people can escape the corporate and the controlled to be truly individual.

Social networking sites depend on advertising, and the fact that their members declare - boast of - their enthusiasms and interests make them something of a marketing dream. "If say you are a U2 fan, you might find an ad for the new album on your profile," Facebook's director of corporate development told the New Yorker. Nike and Apple are enthusiastic supporters of the site. The 7.5 million members are not only, it seems, exposing their tastes to one another.

It is both fascinating and faintly scary to know that this revolution in the way humans communicate, find a career, even fall in love, is in its early days, and there will be many people whose response to the new openness will be to reveal less of themselves, particularly if they happen to use a computer.

But there are signs that the vogue for self-exposure might increasingly become a necessity. Peter Bazalgette, the man who, by creating Big Brother, helped launch the strange career of Jade Goody, has recently been explaining how politics should recapture the interest of young voters. "We need to find more imaginative ways to scrutinise candidates so we can judge them more easily for what they are," he wrote. "George Galloway in Big Brother should be just the beginning."

Not too much imagination is needed to decode what kind of scrutiny the king of reality TV has in mind. The future is soft and quilted.

terblacker@aol.com

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