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It’s Neither a Book Nor a Face

August 21, 2009

Plato in the Republic sort of kind of coined the saying that necessity is the mother of invention. (JUST FOR NERDS: What he actually wrote, in reference to the hypothetical establishment of a city-state, was “Our need, it seems, will create it.”)  The expression may once have been accurate, but now it’s wrong. It’s backwards. Today, given the speed of technological advancement and the invasive relentlessness of marketing and advertising, invention is the mother of necessity. A feeling of need is manufactured after a new piece of technology is manufactured. An ever-increasing proportion of what we own and use these days is shit we never needed and were better off without.

Two days ago I learned something unpalatable about myself. My internet connection went down and I was forced to endure upwards of an hour without access to Facebook. This shouldn’t have been a problem. I have eight million books. I’m working on any number of awesome manuscripts. I have a resume that needs updating. But I found that I was so anxious about the netlessness that I was checking every three minutes to see if it was back up yet. I felt like I’d been tossed into a time warp to the early ’90s or transported to a log cabin in the middle of nowhere. I felt severed from my friends. I could have read a hundred pages of something, or written five pages of something else, or gone for a nice walk. I did none of these things. I accomplished nothing.

This is a terrible situation. Two years ago, I didn’t need Facebook. My quality of life would not have been any worse had it never been invented. Now, when I lose it for an hour, I’m full of lemurish anxiety.

There are a lot of great things about Facebook. It gives us a place to display our unending sarcasm. It can distract us from boredom or frustration at work. It’s an easy and quick way to chat with friends and to stay connected with people we genuinely love and don’t get to see too often. But it’s way out of hand. Every few months its creators come up with a bunch of ways to make it even more invasive. We are now being invited to look at links posted by people we haven’t talked to in fifteen years, notes that consist of the poster answering one inane, boring question after another (What did you have for breakfast this morning? Who’s the last person you texted? Have you ever cried on a Wednesday?),  and photos of friends’ friends’ babies and weddings and empty new houses. It is ridiculous. It is utterly ridiculous. Jesus fucking Christ, you guys. The idea that everything we think and do needs to be posted on Facebook immediately is ridiculous. The idea that people we work for or barely know or actively dislike are entitled to have access to our daily lives simply because they’ve clicked the “Add as Friend” button on our profiles is even more ridiculous.

Technology advances faster and faster every day. But morality and psychology are evolving at their usual turtle-slow pace, and we seem to have lost our grip on what the word “friend” actually means.

These days, when I have a party, I feel obligated to send out a Facebook invitation, because that’s what everyone does. And then I feel obligated to send that invitation to everyone in town, even though this creates the ludicrous statistic that upwards of 60% of the invitees are people I haven’t seen once this year and whose role in my life amounts to occasionally clicking the button that gives a thumbs-up to my status. It’s not that they’re bad people or I don’t like them or my status isn’t hilarious, it’s that I know they aren’t going to come and the reason they aren’t going to come is that they aren’t my friends. They’re acquaintances. I’m not trying to be critical; there’s nothing wrong with being an acquaintance. Each of us is an acquaintance and and each of us has them. But five years ago, we invited our friends to parties. Today, we invite everyone who might conceivably be able to come. Five years ago, it wouldn’t have crossed our minds to send a birthday party invitation to the guy we worked with for two months back in 2007. Today, if we don’t add him to the guest list, we feel that we’re causing offense. Why? What logical reason do we have to beat ourselves up over that? What right does he have to be offended by it? What the fuck, everyone? OMG, WTF?

Something I remember really looking forward to with sweet relish in my high school days and shortly after was the slow fadeout of that terrible part of my life. I got a lot of comfort from the idea that my childhood would recede further and further from my mind and I’d forget most of it and get over the rest of it. As those horrible years evaporated from my mind, I’d have more space in my brain to store memories of the comparatively more pleasant present and the real friends I’d made in the meantime. But Facebook is a time warp. Anyone can enter our name and see a photo of us doing whatever it is we do these days. Anyone can click a button to add us as a friend. And once again we apply our traditional concept of politeness to a situation it wasn’t designed to handle, and we end up with the conclusion that if we decline the friend request of a high school classmate, we must be some kind of stuck-up bitch who’s too immature to get past 1996. Maybe this person used to treat us like a piece of garbage or a nonentity, but that was over ten years ago, right? Right – and that’s exactly why it’s mystifying that she should give a shit who we are and what we’re doing now. If we accept her request, someone we’d rather not think about anymore is back in our life. Even if we never post anything on each other’s pages, the uncomfortable fact remains that we could. The doors to our respective lives are wide open. When she gets married, when she buys a new house, when she has her baby, the photo albums are going to appear in our “Highlights” reel. When we post an album of a night of drunken shenanigans with our friends, it appears in hers. Is this really appropriate?  Facebook is playing fast and loose with the word “friend”, thereby totally effing with our emotions and our common sense and our completely normal and understandable desire to sever our ties with Estevan, Saskatchewan.

We all know who our friends are. Never in the history of humankind has it been necessary for people to maintain a list of their friends. Your Facebook “friend list” is not a list of your friends. You do not have hundreds of friends, although you may well be the kind of person who gets off on the illusion of absurdly overblown popularity that a long “friend list” creates. A Facebook friend request is not really a request for your friendship. It’s a request for ongoing access to the minutiae of your day-to-day life. It’s an information request, a request to invade your privacy. And most of the time, we accept it. We tell ourselves it’s the polite thing to do. We convince ourselves that it’s harmless because after all there’s nothing embarrassing or incriminating on our profile page anyway. We seem not to give serious thought to the question of who really has a right to see so much as a photo of us, let alone our employment history and academic credentials and photos of our pets and our weekends. Does your high school graduating class deserve that? Do your friends’ friends deserve it? Does everyone in your extended family deserve it? Does the guy you worked with for two months deserve it? (For that matter, does anyone deserve it?)

Facebook is utterly frivolous technology. It’s also a gross oversimplification of reality and a travesty of the complexity of human relationships. It’s a website, for eff sake. Facebook will never be anything more than a watered-down, contrived, distorted facsimile of your personal life. It’s fun, it has its uses, but it doesn’t deserve to be taken so seriously or to be checked more than once a week. There’s no button for an acquaintance request or a relative request or a person-you-dated-briefly-ten-years-ago-and-are-kinda-vaguely-curious-about request. Friendship is the only available option. That word doesn’t mean the same thing online as it does in real life, and we’re better off not losing sight of the fact that the real life version of friendship is about a hundred times safer and healthier and more fun and more important and more interesting.

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