Since two of my three “real” jobs involve spending a lot of time on the computer, I have experimented fairly extensively with social networking. I started thinking about what Facebook means to me because of a series of articles in various media and posts on Facebook. One published piece concerned the popularity of the game “Farmville,” and another addressed the class stratification apparent between Facebook and MySpace users. On a more personal level, at least three of my Facebook “friends” have posted about how much they hate having to receive a steady stream of information about the quiz scores, Mafia Wars requests, Farmville acquisitions and “free” offers posted by others (the most recent of which involves a computer). The articles are thought-provoking, and I have read many in print and online, ranging in topic from whether Facebook causes people to lose “real” friends, to the difficult issue of “unfriending,” or being “unfriended;” an act that cannot be reversed.
The public statements in the form of status posts inveighing against quiz-takers and denizens of Farmville, however, seem to serve no purpose other than to make people feel guilty about their own quiz taking and contest-entering behavior. I want to ignore them, those pronouncements of judgment, but in all honesty, they make me feel like a moron and not the witty savant I imagine my Facebook persona to be. Such statements also make me wonder about how someone highly intelligent and busy like my-brother-the-doctor can take the occasional quiz without being a raving idiot, while another equally intelligent and busy “friend” finds them abhorrent and stays up late at night figuring out ways to block all evidence that anyone has ever taken one. People seem to join Facebook looking for different things, and as ones’ “friends” multiply, so does the stream of information through which one must sift.
My thesis about all of this, which may offend some (and shock others, because I so rarely have a thesis of any variety) is that Facebook is a “free country” aside from the violation of state or federal statute. It is, for each user, what they want and need it to be, and no one should feel judged because of their chosen activities on a fairly meaningless, virtual playground for adults. If you don’t want to see a request for weapons in Mafia Wars, you needn’t look at it. (You can, in fact, “hide” it, as I have done). If you resent people who post and re-post the same three YouTube videos, my advice is the same. There are people who are using Facebook for networking, business and otherwise, and some (myself included) who view it as a perpetual drop-in cocktail party, and a way to connect and stay connected with a geographically diverse group of people. Maybe my thesis is, to quote the late great Mama Cass Elliott, “make your own kind of music” on Facebook, have fun, and don’t give up activities that give you pleasure because someone has labeled them annoying. (Does anyone actually need this advice besides me? If not, I apologize, reflexively and profusely).
Let’s back up a bit, and talk about what’s out there, and why Facebook is my “main squeeze” for internet social life. I checked out MySpace quite a while ago, and found it claustrophobically cluttered with moving pictures, music that started as soon as you entered “their space,” and such a sensory assault in the form of wallpapers and fonts that I knew it was not My space. I get requests for something called “Linked In” all of the time, but it seems to involve business connections, and while I do not begrudge anyone their business connections, I break into hives every time I have to put an invoice together, and I prefer to pretend that the business aspect of the world doesn’t exist.
I do Twitter fairly often, but I don’t love it. I heard it described once as a way to write “a blog post in 140 characters,” and I am just not that Zen in my blogging. (Again, no doubt a shock to all of you). My friend Michael S. explained Twitter to me in a way that makes sense: Facebook is social, and for “talking” to friends; Twitter is better for sharing information quickly and getting it from a variety of useful sources. I use Twitter when I want to know about something, or when I actually have a thought that might interest someone in only 140 characters, but otherwise not so much. Many days, I don’t even open it.
Facebook had me at “hello.” At its best, Facebook is like the International Departures Lounge at an airport in Marrakesh. I have conversations that are amusing and pull in friends from around the corner, from high school, from college, and from jobs long gone. They represent a diversity of age, vocation and location that gives me a toasty glow just thinking about it. Sometimes I will look at one of these “strings” of replies and smile, feeling that, like the founder of a particularly fine feast, I have brought together a collection of people who may never really meet, but all of whom I love. I see pictures of new babies, learn about new jobs, and answer cooking questions. I have often asked for (and been given) objects or information that I needed, simply by “getting the word out.” I find out about broken water mains, school closings, rain-barrel sales and all manner of good things faster than the speed of light. I have had a fabulous dinner at a restaurant I was dying to try, just because a kind and clever friend was paying attention to my discussion about “Top Chef,” and I have had the incredible pleasure of catching up with people who I never expected to find again in this life.
I also “talk” to people who I see frequently in real life, and there is no diminution of our “live” friendships based on the virtual. I still have coffee or wine with friends, go to parties and run into people at Parent-Teacher conferences, but among a group of busy people, there is often more opportunity to keep up with the details of their lives on Facebook. I see no harm in finding out that Diane went on a great vacation by reading about it on Facebook, and then asking her about the great vacation when I run into her on the soccer field. On the flip side, I have “friends” I’ve never met. They are friends of friends, fellow local Democrats picked up during my brief career as a politico, and, in some cases, I never figure out why we are “friends.” I will say that I have “befriended” three women in Nashville, not one of whom I’ve ever met (although they all know each other), but all of whom have enriched my life greatly with their generosity, wit and charm.I also enjoy it when friends add recent blog posts to Facebook (because I am lazy about subscribing), and I post my own. (This may also annoy some people; so far no one has complained). I not only take quizzes; I take ridiculous quizzes like “which Winnie the Pooh character are you?” and watch as the quiz spreads, like a virus, so that everyone who is dying to know whether they are Tigger or Owl is fully satisfied. I do those things where you answer questions about yourself like what you ate for breakfast, I do them with great relish, and I genuinely enjoy reading the answers of other people because I am profoundly nosy.
I do not play Farmville or Mafia Wars because I find them exceedingly dull, and after a desultory attempt at the whole “Green Patch” thing, I gave up. Again; this is just a matter of personal taste. I have been known to spend literally hours playing “Scramble” during periods of great stress. The thing about those games is that, if you hit “ignore” when someone offers you a flower or asks you to join their Mafia family, nothing bad happens. It occupies a scant second of your life, the person probably never remembers that they asked you in the first place, and all of the folks who get their Farmville on or really like building up the Mafia eventually find, and play with each other.
At it’s worst, Facebook slides South in the direction of a parking lot carnival redolent of hot grease and musk. Just as the aforementioned posters are bedeviled by seeing which Disney Princess I am, there are things people do on Facebook that bother me. There are Complainers, those of the incessant “I had a terrible day,” I hate my job,” “my kid stole another car…..” you get the picture. These posts make me feel galvanized to respond in some way, but 99% of the time the plaint is not one that has a resolution within my power. If they need a ride, a cup of sugar, or a copy of the third “Twilight” book, I can help. If their differential diagnosis is Crappy Life Syndrome, there’s not a whole lot I can do.
I am also, personally, annoyed by people who post every newspaper article they encounter in the course of a day, for reasons vocational, political or other. Frankly, it begins to be like “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” when really significant stories and issues are buried in a flood of daily reportage. So I do not enjoy Complainers, and I do not want to see 500 news stories in my News Feed, but I still see no reason for hostility. When someone posts the 500th story in which I am not interested, I cleverly block them from my News Feed, and there’s no longer an issue. When people complain constantly, I use my handy-dandy scroll thingie, and move on down the page without fanning the flames with a “gosh, I’m sorry.”. Just as I would not call the police to report people who do things in real life that bother me (gum snapping, dressing little girls like hookers, etc.) I feel no need to call them out on Facebook. They are making their own kind of music, and I am changing stations.
I have no agenda here regarding those who would eradicate everything they perceive to be foolish from the world of Facebook. I might wish them gentler, or more tolerant, but my own history of snark and cynicism does not exactly make me the Dalai Lama. I am speaking to all of you who are collecting cows, sub machine guns, and flowers with faces, and to myself, the hapless, compulsive quiz taker. Anyone who believes that Facebook is essentially a forum for sharpening their critical thinking facilities and discovering the articles from the Wall Street Journal that they missed due to an unfortunate coffee accident…is wrong. It’s a place to play, to relax, to stalk one’s high school boyfriend, and to reach out to people who, realistically, we might otherwise lose from sight.
I’m going to take a quiz now; I need to know how emo I am. Aren’t you a little curious?