About Face

While cleaning out my files I found the following article which incredibly ran ten years ago this week. The journal which ran it is not longer alive, but I enjoyed revisiting where life on Facebook was at for us all ten years ago. 

***

About Face

This is creepy.

My cousin drank a latte while his daughter sipped hot chocolate after handing out Gatorade at a marathon. Meanwhile, Nicole notes it’s still raining in New England, but she is glad to be over the suffering of earthquakes and mud-slides in Panama. Luckily, she has support of several friends, having heard from seven within two hours to tell her she’ll be fine and offer whatever help they can provide. Brian read Ashley’s son Luke fifteen books on Friday; Luke turns two in a few days. Last week, my brother was stuck in Calgary waiting for a plane while his daughter in Denver had just run for fifty minutes. Mike worked late Tuesday but passed the time by reading a book about Organizational Behavior for a class. Judy, though forty years old, got carded at the liquor store Saturday. Christa’s mom is throwing her a graduation party this May in Michigan, Jose went shopping Saturday, and Dave’s legs are still sore from the turkey trot in Tampa. Tom wrote a poem about zombies. Jude vacationed until a few days ago and is dreading going back to work while her friend Jose deals with jetlag in Trinidad. Jerry feels stuck in a rut and is ready to move on.

I don’t know these people. I have never met most of them. I have no clue who Brian is, and while I know Ashley, I’ve not seen her in a decade; I just learned she had a son. I met Judy once, which was enough to tell me she probably should get carded more often, but Paul, my own cousin, I’ve not seen since I’m eight years old, but I can tell you he has a cold and was up late last night figuring out a new Microsoft program he wanted fixed so he can take off at lunch today to pick up some presents.
Welcome to my world. All of you. Come on in.

This Facebook phenomenon has everyone talking to each other, learning about the most intimate moments of each other’s days, reaching past the pat on someone’s back and into their friend’s lives. Conversations continue between people who’ve never met. The concept of “mutual friend” has evaporated. We all know each other. We’re just one big happy village, aren’t we?

Let’s face it, the fences have collapsed. The curtains are open, the lights are on, and the cameras are rolling. I’m watching Larry’s kids age, TJ’s friends fall in love with him, and the drunken stupor that was Nicole in Panama. I am on the receiving end of way too much information, and I’ll be the first to admit guilt to tuning in to begin with. It’s addicting, like gossip. It goes a long way in creating the illusion I know a lot of people and am involved in many lives. It helps me believe people care. It is the ultimate tool for gaining attention. Even if no one wants to know, I can tell my friends and their friends that I went to bed early last night, that I had a great bowl of spaghetti, or that I had a decent bowel movement. It’s all there in front of their faces while they sit on their collective asses really doing nothing at all.

Tom sits three feet from me in a small office; has for nearly twenty years. We’ve seen each other’s kids grow up, heard the terrors of each other’s personal lives long before our boss put computers on our desks. But recently I discovered he doesn’t like Bing Crosby, which in and of itself is understandable, but what I didn’t need to know is that his friend Amy lived in California when she was young and her mother was a telephone operator to put her dad through flight school. Turns out the crooner would call his wife collect and when the operator would say “who is calling please,” the famous couple would simply blurt out the message for the other to hear so they didn’t have to pay for the call. Amy makes it clear it is only hearsay, but what caught my attention is that his friend Anne went to school with a girl who was friends with Bing’s daughter Mary Frances, the one that starred in Dallas. By the end of the day I learned that his friend Lori wished she could invent a time machine to go back and stop Bing from recording Mele Kalikimaka. She does, however, like Bing Cherries.

This isn’t new. The archaic version of facebook was a small magazine handed out to freshmen arriving at college for the first time. This booklet of names, faces, hometowns and campus locations of peers gives its name to the cellblock that has become our online lives. The paper format helped us seek out familiar people or remember the names of new friends. It is how I knew who my roommate was before I met him. I remember seeing him in a hallway in another dorm and said, “Steve!” He turned and I introduced myself. He recognized me as well and we laughed at how we were able to do so. All I knew about him was his face and that he was from outside Syracuse. Now, there are people in Pittsburgh who know who my friends are, what I’ve been eating, who I’ve been talking to, what I test drove, when I missed work and where I’m going this weekend. A friend of my friend John spent the summer in Amsterdam where he met a young woman who is a painter from southern France who used to live in California. I’ve not seen John in three years—the others are foreign to me.

It’s all innocent fun, though, right? We mess around online with friends, connect with relatives, and update everyone about our lives, our families, and our careers.
Status update: Bob needs to lighten up.

Really? I know where people were born and the maiden names of some of their mothers. I’m not even that computer savvy and I’m already halfway to ripping off someone’s identity. The info section sways toward invasive. There is everyone’s date of birth, hometown, political and religious views. With the information listed under favorite movies, music, television shows and activities, surely I can crack a few password secret questions. I even have access to educational background and employment history. Should I really know the names of everyone’s high school, elementary school, and grammar school? What use can I possibly have for the names of what hospitals they were born in or the names of the mid-wives who delivered them? Clearly, this information is optional, but it seems most have opted in.
The benign material is harmless: Sheri’s reading Beautiful Swimmers by William Warner; Juliet is in a Race to End Cancer and Taking Steps to End Family Violence. Holly wants to keep the Arts in Public Schools, and if Mike were an ‘80’s movie, he’d be Say Anything starring John Cusack. I am a fan of Hunter Thompson and David Sedaris; organic foods, vegetarian foods, and Seinfeld. Who could possibly need this information?

Well, advertisers, for one. Obviously, they know what we read and what movies we like. But take the right quizzes and you can also feed them how much we know about American history, geography, literature, and food. My political views enabled some entrepreneur to push an Obama pin on me in the advertising bar. They know to throw an ad about David Sedaris’ new book or Hunter Thompson t-shirts on my page; they post links to Trader Joes and other vegetarian or organic markets. They know. That phrase—they know–turns my blood cold. I became a fan of acoustic guitars and am now privy to the local musician gatherings, instrument stores, and best places to buy strings.

Bob is a sucker.

We all know other sites tried to do this. MySpace, for instance. But Facebook nailed it to a fault. A quarter million new users sign up each day. It is the sixth most trafficked site in the United States with more than sixty five billion page views per month. Billion. Soon our medical data might be linked in the info bar just after our visual bookshelf. This is crazy. When Mark Zuckerberg created this social network in 2004 at Harvard, thefacebook.com was designed solely to keep students in touch with each other. It spread throughout the Ivy League community and within a year more than eight hundred colleges and universities were onboard. The network grew to more than five million users and the name changed to just facebook, bouncing the site to number two in popularity behind MySpace. My God, MySpace might be more popular, but facebook is ingenious, really. It’s a marketer’s goldmine with target audiences showing them exactly what they are willing to buy. And along with ads of products I probably want to purchase anyway, I learned Karen is back from Germany, Paul is headed to Vancouver, Jerry posted his new phone number, Anne misses her daughters who left for college, and Tim listens to Rufus Wainwright. Okay, so? Facebook is one of those clear plastic purses some women have wherein we can see everything from cash to tampons.

We now keep track of everything that happens and post it to the world. Wait—we’ve always done that: in ancient times we painted on cave walls, after that we told tales of our lives through music and other oral traditions; we learned of religion and philosophy through commissions from the Vatican and aristocrats, and the historical works of Herodotus slapped it together like a primitive dotcom. Think of the advantages of having this tool back then. The ages would be thick with information if we could trace the thoughts and motives of our predecessors:

Wolfgang had some bad pork last night.

Ludwig can’t hear a damn thing.

Socrates just sent a Boring Lecture to Plato.

Adolph just lied to Poland.

Noah became a fan of PETA.

Galileo saw some cool shit in the sky last night.

Immanuel thinks everyone is being unreasonable.

Orville is afraid of heights.

Sigmund misses his mom.

Vladimir just added The Communist Manifesto to his virtual reading list.

Christopher is geocaching for spices.

Closer to now, I’d like to know my ancestors hobbies, their reading habits, their friends. I’d have given anything to read notes by my great-grandparents on boats from Ireland and Germany. I wonder what organizations they might have joined, which groups they would have been a member of, how many times they might have clicked “become a fan.” I don’t even know what they looked like, let alone their favorite foods, fears, and fantasies. I don’t’ know where they were born, their political views, or their friends’ names. I’m sorry for that. And now it is virtually impossible to find out the minutia that made their lives unique. Four brothers crossed the Atlantic in 1854. No records of that anywhere tell me why, what dangers they overcame, or if there were five brothers at the start. Fifty years later my grandfather crashes into the family and I’ve really no idea what his hobbies were, though the pictures scattered about show him to smile often, and I hear he was quite laid back and a successful businessman, though this is all hearsay. His youngest son born a quarter of a century later lets me know stories from his childhood, revealing splinters of my background, my roots and histories. But really, I would love information about my father and his father like the information strangers know about me simply by scanning a screen.

Fred just had a new boy. Ugly little mofo.

I might run into someone after no “real life” contact for a few weeks and there’s really nothing new; we’re already in mid-conversation. What is it with our absolute need to let everyone know what we’re doing? If I don’t have anything to say, does that mean my day sucked? Am I boring? Or are we all just desperate for attention? Everyone and everything wants to be noticed. How we dress, how we keep our hair, our fashion, our car stereos, all indicate our need for recognition. Some of us even change the photo every few days just to amuse ourselves—and others.

For a while my picture was one of Rasputin. A cousin I’d not seen in decades thought it was me and commented on my long hair and beard. Well, sometimes that picture is closer to the truth of who I am than the crisp shots of my real face bookmarked somewhere by people I’ll never meet. Eventually, they might pass me in a hall and say, “Hey, I know you!”

No. They don’t. Nor do I know them. This is the Great Facebook Deception. One person on my page has friends that seem to patronize her to no end while two of us enjoy the casual banter of sarcasm on her site. It’s difficult to tell whether she is laughing at our friendly attacks or if she’s really ready to explode and we’re actually standing by with gasoline and a Zippo.

I felt bad when a comment seemed flippant instead of fun. I felt empty when another seemed trite. A few weeks ago I enjoyed a day raking leaves; I savored the cold air and the smell of autumn. But my status update made it seem like I had streaked absentmindedly into a snow bank.

I wonder what my last status update will be when the time comes for me to commit facebook suicide. I have to avoid the trite “Bob is outta here” or “Bob is signing off.” Equally predictable would be “Bob wishes everyone farewell” or “Bob’s really enjoyed this.” Something more appropriate might read, “Bob thinks this really sucked. What a waste of time” or “Bob isn’t.”

“Bob wants his life back.”

“Bob misses sitting around talking, shaking hands.”

“Bob has six hundred and eighty seven friends and has never been lonelier.”

“Bob is looking for Jack Kevorkian’s phone number.”

Facebook can’t communicate how it felt for Paul to make it to his daughter’s first communion; an update will never accurately establish for friends the fear and exhilaration of two partners, flesh and bone, in Bocas Del Toro during an earthquake. Nowhere online can words appropriately catch the sense of love felt by the mother of a two year old boy; the security of his arms around her neck can’t be translated by a word program. The feel of the flames of an open fire late at night in a small village where friends share stories of the day, of the harvest, of the distance across the desert, will never be understood through technology. In fact, it is technology’s very absence that tests the steel of relationships. With it, we have no time to miss each other or find out what has been happening since we saw each other last. Our information precedes us. Those are the times we live in today; it is virtually non-stop. Today, to retreat from the world and our friends we no longer need to wander into the woods like Thoreau; we can separate ourselves from civilization simply by switching sites, or, if we feel nervy enough, by turning off the computer.

I went four days without updating my status recently and three people wrote to find out if I was okay. No one called, of course, and certainly no one stopped by. I didn’t go on vacation or sail off across the bay. I just didn’t check my facebook page and they noticed. On the one hand it is nice to be missed, but that is the trap. We’ve created this illusion that we’re in touch with each other because this skylight lets everyone observe our lives. But who we really are remains allusive online. There are roughly two hundred such sites ranging in scope from a few dozen users to more than two hundred million. Some are business oriented, some collegiate, some adult, most social. They all reveal something about each of us, but none have yet discovered how to reveal our silence, its nuances and counterpoints. I disappear for three days and the speculation starts. In the primitive days of yore, we sat near a fire, shared some tea and listened to the expansive range of life. Each of us had a say; each of us listened. We survived on the casual updates of sporadic conversation; kind of like instant messaging, only slower and with the possible occasional facial expression or touch of a hand. We really did laugh out loud. We really could sit together without saying anything.

John Cage composed 4’33”. This brilliant work is absolute silence for the duration of that time span. What separates this from sitting around and saying nothing for four and a half minutes is his insistence on focusing; his assertion that we all spend those particular four minutes and thirty three seconds listening, really listening, to nothing at all. Our minds can’t wander because we’re focusing. When we pay attention to the soft sighs and the twitch of a muscle, we read moods and discover personalities. We can tell if she likes us, if he means what he says. We can reach deeper into the lives and histories of another person through silent observation than we can through a catalogue of status updates.

“Bob just read the worst paper of his career.”

“Tom just read a plagiarized paper.”

“Sheri is making pecan pie.”

“Paul has to pee.”

Some realize the futility of all of this and commit facebook suicide. There are hundreds of groups doing just that. They recognize the drawbacks to this invasive tool, most notably, how it sucks the life out of you. Worse, how it creates illusions. Carolyn Axtell, a senior researcher at the Institute of Work Psychology, recognizes that online sites like this don’t allow the subtleties of voice tone or body language. Phillip Hodson, a fellow at the British Association for Counseling and Psychotherapy, calls attention to the real drawbacks to facebook: this online profile allows people to build their own identity, make them feel important and involved and accepted. But it leads to significant disappointment which can be borderline dangerous when they realize “just how insignificant their online existence really is.” It’s quite a blow to the ego to find out you actually only really know about three of your eighty seven friends.

My site recently read “Bob is now friends with Mike.” I’ve known Mike since I’m fifteen years old. How presumptuous is that? Facebook subtly says to us all, “Your friendship has now started.”
Recently six people asked to be my friend. I don’t know them, though I guess somewhere along the line I’ve met them through someone I met once, maybe. We should be trying that in reality. We should be walking in the mall and be able to see someone who seems friendly and walk up and say, “Can I be your friend?”

“Will you play with me?”

I received a friend request from someone I don’t know and pushed “ignore.” I felt guilty. What if our online personalities got along? So why did I ignore him? It felt a lot like having a great conversation with a group of my real friends when some stranger stopped, listened and made comments.

“Bob yelled at a stranger in the mall today.”

But what if I’m all he’s got. What if in life, making friends is damn near impossible for him for whatever reason. How can it hurt to comment on his status updates; let him in on some good groups and fan sites? Maybe it’s all he needs to keep from going postal. Or maybe it’s the straw that’ll send this psycho-crazed freak into some college student’s online dorm room! We’re driving around town screaming about our lives with the windows down, for God’s sake. What difference does it make if I’m revealing nothing or a lot; those who know me understand.

And those who don’t?

The problem is online we wear the mask. It’s the first impression, the resume. It’s the brilliantly written cover letter of a moronic applicant. But it’s information. And we just need as much information as possible. Why? Because how we define “information” has changed. Today, it is anything and everything that is fed to us from whatever or whoever we read or see. Everyone’s got something to say, everyone’s an expert, and ironically, no one is listening. Facebook isn’t the cause of anything; it is a symptom of some chronic disease that demands we all must have our fifteen status updates of fame, and by God we’ll simply create it ourselves.

I’ve always like Snoopy, Gary Larson, Car Talk, Seinfeld, and Ladysmith Black Mambazo. What happened that I suddenly felt a need to pass along this information to my friends and their friends?

Bob is a fan of Gary Larson.

Tom is a fan of Hunter Thompson.

George is a fan of Dick Cheney.

Adam is a fan of apples.

Let’s start over. For thousands of years information passed solely through a tribal leader or elder. This person’s death usually meant the silence of volumes of history, tales, and fables. Those that survived cast forward like a child’s game of telephone where the message was often altered or even completely changed through time and distance. One long surviving chant is “mbube,” which means “lion.” This was commonly called to communicate the dangers in the forest or near the river where people washed clothes and bathed. Over the course of millennia, the call let people know when the lion was wandering or asleep, hence the South African chant “wimoweh,” made famous in the song, “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” It’s ironic how originally communication was designed to bring attention to local dangers and prospects; today we’re calling attention to ourselves. Today we no longer gather at the well. No, now we’re all tribal leaders calling out to our village hoping people spend as much time listening as they are updating their own status.

“Bob wants to give a big shout out to all his friends in New York.”

But we’ve buried vocal nuances along with facial expressions beneath the blended ages of decades that, because of the immediacy of this medium, seem to make fresh the faces of our youth. But sometimes there are good reasons to leave people behind, to retreat into solitude where we can only understand the infinity of time by leaving behind the finality of now.

Do we really need to know what happened, what is happening and what is about to happen to dozens of people we hardly ever see, and in turn keep them updated. When are we doing anything to update about? Who the hell have we become that anyone really cares?

Really, it’s about time. I’ve connected with family and friends of course, but also friends I knew when I was a child during a different lifetime in a different world. I’ve found high school friends and college roommates. People I didn’t know too well back then I know too much about now and it turns out we have a lot in common. This is good. I communicate with college friends I knew two decades ago about colleagues I know now and relatives I’ve never met and it seems they should all somehow know each other. After awhile I forget who I knew when and which ones do or don’t know which others.
“Bob needs to rake leaves.” is followed by a comment from a colleague, which is followed by another comment from a high school friend, which is followed by another comment and on it goes, and these “friends” of mine meet each other from different states, different eras of my history, from different mindsets of the people I was to become who I am. Eventually, if I think too much about it, I’ll end up running naked into a snow bank.

Time is out of joint and the hobbies of strangers become good ideas while the habits of relatives explain why we haven’t kept in touch. Old friends I thought had fallen off the planet were simply hard to find. Here they are, right here, along with updates on their health, sleep patterns, food preferences, political affiliations, and the names of their friends. In fact, I have more virtual friends than I do real ones. And God knows I now know most of what they know. I thought I was going to reconnect with old friends when all I really have is their information. That’s all. The rest is silence.

Ed is enjoying his sole day off today.

Anna doesn’t like bluegrass.

My brother has not updated his status today. I hope he’s okay. He’s awfully quiet.

And I have no idea how my niece in Denver is doing. Her last post reads, “I am too busy living my life to update you about it on Facebook.”

 

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