I realized very shortly after setting up my facebook account that I’d gotten myself into deep trouble.
It was September, a little over a year ago. I found my thoughts racing, and usually heading straight back to my friend list. I obsessed over my profile even when I was doing other things; I remember going running by the lake and wondering almost the whole while which Elliott Smith quote defined me as a person. I learned to love chatting with three people at a time—when I’d see the little red message indicators start popping up in rapid succession, it felt like human Whack-a-Mole. I felt plugged into the lives of everyone I knew, and vice versa, in a way that I hadn’t felt in a while; every accepted friend request felt like a little shot of self-esteem delivered right into my ego. All the parties I’d missed because the invites had been online—I would miss them no more! All the girls I hadn’t asked out because I didn’t know if they were in relationships or not—I’d ask them out! (Or I would get asked out, because I’d write my profile so convincingly that one of them would realize they were my soul mate.) At any rate, the problems I had would no longer be problems. I had arrived.
The only problem was that, based on these symptoms, it was pretty obvious I was addicted. I’d pop in to facebook in much the same way that I used to peek in to the neighborhood bar—as if it held the key to relieving my unhappiness. And deprivation anxiety—the fear of not getting your next fix—I felt that, too.
But some of the symptoms of my trouble were even subtler, and weren’t evident in those first few days. I went to those parties I hadn’t known about in my dreary pre-facebook days—only I spent a lot more time taking pictures. And I’d get home late afterwards and, rather than putting on some music or a movie, I’d go online, just to see who was up and available for chatting. And these were often people I’d been hanging out with—at least in the physical sense—just minutes before, at the party I’d just left! And I’d post my pictures, and tag them, and enthusiastically read their comments, and enthusiastically comment on their pictures, and spend far more time doing these things than I spent actually, you know, hanging out with them.
Also, I came to notice a curious phenomenon—facebook lesbianism. I was initially depressed to see that a fair amount of women with whom I’d been interested were, themselves, apparently interested in women. Eventually, I realized it was often just a means to ward off unwanted advances by unfriendly friends; still, it left me back where I started—having to actually put in the work to actually, you know, get to know them and find out what was going on in their life.
Granted, there have obviously been some clear-cut benefits of being on facebook—I’ve been able to send birthday greetings to a lot of friends without wasting paper and stamps, and I’ve been able to share my vacation photos with anyone who cares to see them, rather than taking anyone hostage. And I’ve been able to reconnect with a lot of people I hadn’t seen in years, and keep up with their lives and keep them posted on my life in a way that wouldn’t have been possible—at least not with so many people—back in the phone days, or even the email days. But it was one of these very friends, a girl from high school that I’d had a huge crush on back in the day, that articulated the problem with all of this. “I HATE facebook,” she’d said—on facebook chat, of course. Then she added: “No one is ever PRESENT any more!”
Those words definitely hit home; I thought of them today when I was walking home from the gym. It was a beautiful fall afternoon, but I had a little way to walk—two or three blocks—and rather than just be alone with my thoughts in that brief time, my first impulse was to check facebook on my cell phone and see if anything was going on. I’ve heard it said that one will always be uncomfortable if one’s head and body are in different places, and it seemed this was one of those times where my head wanted to go somewhere my body couldn’t even follow, somewhere where it seemed that all my friends had congregated and I could talk to and hear from all of them, but not in a meaningful way—for, as one writer pointed out, facebook is just icons of people interacting with icons of other people, an imaginary village of facades that one can’t even look behind.
I’ve tried to keep it real by posting funny and risque stuff, regardless of whether or not it might be read by family members. (One that seemed to get a good virtual laugh involved my discomfort at standing behind an elderly Frenchwoman in the Walgreens line and hearing her ask for herpes medicine.) And a few of my friends have me beat in the fun-status-updates department; one male friend, for instance, recently proclaimed that he “loves all you guys—but in a totally hot, man-on-man action sort of way.” My dad—a Catholic deacon, and somewhat straitlaced on social matters—seemed a little put off by this type of thing when he finally got his own facebook account, but then said he could see why I did it, because otherwise it was just an endless boredom-inducing procession of “I’m tired” and “I’m hungry” and “I’m eating dinner.”
But even the fun status updates can get lost in between the ever-worsening layout changes and the endless Farmville/Mafia Wars/Vampire Wars postings. (And I do my share of Mafia Wars, so I can’t even pretend to be above it! I am addicted to it, unable to stay away for more than a couple days from a game that basically just consists of clicking on buttons until you can’t click on them any more.) Mafia Wars is more primitive than many games I was playing 15 years ago, and probably more primitive than some of those lab-rats-with-levers experiments they use to model addictive behavior. So what’s the allure? Is it the fact that it’s open-ended? Is it the subject matter? Perhaps it is because, every time a member of my Mafia “assists” me in a fight, or gives me a gift, it gives me impression that they’re actually involved and interested in my life.
So is this what we—and by we, I mean I—have been reduced to? Going online to connect with people, and finding most of my interactions to be fake interactions with automated proxies?
Well—and maybe this is just an addict trying to rationalize—it isn’t entirely that bad. I have had real visits with real people that were only possible because someone mentioned they were in town, or because I said something that someone commented on, and so on, and so forth. And I’ve moved around a lot and have a lot of friends in places I never get to visit, so it is nice keeping them in my life, even if only at the fringes. And now I’m still going to the parties I get invited to on facebook—except now, rather than using the camera as yet another barrier between myself and the people around me, I’m actually taking the time to have conversations and enjoy myself. So perhaps facebook can be useful, but only as a sort of Platonic ideal, an imaginary model for my social life. Here is your hypothetical universe of friends, it is saying—now it is up to you to keep these friendships real.
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Facebook is a social networking website launched on February 4, 2004. The free-access website is privately owned and operated by Facebook, Inc. Users can join networks organized by city, workplace, school, and region to connect and interact with other people. People can also add friends and send them messages, and update their personal profile to notify friends about themselves. The website's name refers to the paper facebooks depicting members of a campus community that some US colleges and preparatory schools give to incoming students, faculty, and staff as a way to get to know other people on campus.