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The Evolution of the Facebook Status

September 15, 2009

It was a crisp spring day in 2007. George W. Bush was president, and I was living in his country. My cousin sent me an e-mail. Remember e-mail? It was this thing from long ago (ca. 1997-2008) where you typed a note to someone and it was transmitted straight to that person – kind of like a Facebook wall, except there was no character limit and it wasn’t accessible to hundreds of people. I thought e-mail was pretty neat. But I’m getting ahead of myself, or behind myself.

The note I received from my cousin asked if I was on Facebook. I was all sunshine and innocence. Like in those commercials from the ’80s where they showed how peer pressure works and there was one kid who wasn’t sure about taking the joint but the others were were like, “Come on, gaylord, just do it,” “It won’t hurt you, retard,” “We thought you were cool, gaytard,” etc. while ominous music played in the background. Then cut to Three Months Later and you see the original gaytard emerge from a damp cardboard box on East Hastings with stringy hair and like eight syringes sticking out of him and drug paraphernalia everywhere and he sees some kid walk by and holds out one of the syringes and says, “Hey kid, want some heroin? It won’t hurt you.” And it’s profound because that’s the very thing the addict’s friend said to him three months ago, and now you can see that it wasn’t true: the drugs did hurt him. And we all learned a valuable lesson about what happens when you try to make friends with people.

I told my cousin (I won’t use her name because she’s an internationally renowned bed cover design printer and I want to protect her anonymity) I had no idea what Facebook was. She was like, “It’s really easy, gaylord. Just go to the site and type in your name and e-mail address.” So I did. I checked it out. What did I have to lose? At that time of my life, almost literally nothing.

Pretty soon I was on Facebook. I was using it every day, sometimes more than once. It was intoxicating. There were many euphoric discoveries over the first few days, but none so magnificent as the Facebook status, an element of the site which has evolved rapidly over the past couple of years in a manner that mirrors the evolution of literary creativity itself.

Back in the early times, one did not compose one’s status. One selected it from a drop-down menu of options. Remember that? You had only a handful of choices. There was a built-in “is” after your name, and then you picked one: “at work,” “at home,” “out to lunch,” “in bed,” “at a party”… The purpose of the status was to inform others of your physical location. There was little humour or creativity potential beyond choosing “in bed” at 3:30 p.m. or “out to lunch” at any time of the day that wasn’t the noon hour. And then came that glorious day when, after the usual list of options, a blank spot with a blinking cursor appeared. And lo, the human imagination was reborn.

Initially, many people chose to stick with one of the original choices. But there were those brave few who saw the potential in the empty space at the end of the list. For a time it remained customary to keep things locative – “in the library,” “at ______’s house” – but soon adjectives arrived on the scene. We realized the status could be psychological rather than physical. It was early days, and there was a quite stringent character limit; most who incorporated the adjective into their status updates kept it short and sweet: “short,” “sweet,” “awesome,” “tired,” etc.

And then – then! – the drop-down menu disappeared completely as everyone began to drift into the camp of the self-written status. The character limit was upped moderately to about 30. The automatic “is” remained. Pop culture began to poke its nose in as some chose to use lines from songs and TV shows as their status rather than factual descriptions of their location or personality. This went on for some time, and the creators of Facebook must have begun to realize that the status update was becoming the most popular feature of the site: the character limit increased twofold. Then the fun really began. The limit was lengthy enough that one could say something amusing, but restrictive enough that one had to work to fit one’s wit into the allowed space. It was a challenging time and a glorious one, truly the golden age of the Facebook status.

There was a divide at that point between the creative and the noncreative. The automatic “is” was the issue. Many people found it difficult to incorporate the tiny present-tense verb into their statuses. Their offerings were convoluted and stilted, heavily reliant on verbs of thinking and feeling: “So-and-so is thinking she had a good trip to the city yesterday,” “So-and-so is believing she shouldn’t have done that.” Boooo. On the other hand, this was the time when many realized the potential of “is,” which is, after all, a versatile word. And so the future-tense status was born: “So-and-so is going to drink copiously tonight”, and such. It was in these days that the simple “is” status – which one still sees from time to time, but today it is more an expression of inability to come up with a status than an attempt at cleverness – became popular. Descartes would surely have loved to behold the frequency of the “So-and-so is .” status. Cogito ergo sum! Everyone who did it felt really smug and original. Many of us developed an attitude of wishing to outwit Facebook, to make our statuses into something Facebook’s creators never meant for them to be.”So-and-so is of the world.” “So-and-so is your friend.”

All was well for a few months, but if archaic poetry has taught us anything it’s that a golden age doesn’t last long. Something always comes along to fuck it up. That thing, in this case, was the petition to remove the automatic “is” from the Facebook status line. Never in the history of mankind has there been such an uprising. I personally wanted the “is” to stay; I liked the challenge. But the uncreative won the day. We all remember the first time we logged on and found “is” in the editable part of the line. What a power trip that was. And what a can of worms it opened. The removal of “is” was accompanied by yet another increase in the status character limit. Postmodernism arrived on the scene (“So-and-so updates her status”), and self-importance was cranked to 11 as the clinical depression status (“So-and-so doesn’t want to live anymore and is going to cut her wrists tonight”), the boring minutiae status (“So-and-so cooked a delicious meal and is just sitting down to eat!”), the embarrassingly personal status (“So-and-so threw up so many times last night”), and the manipulative half-the-story status designed to force all your friends to pay attention to you (“So-and-so can’t believe what her boyfriend just said to her 😦 “) were born. Eugh. But at least there was still the challenge of having to word the funny thing one came up with in the shower this morning in such a way that the thought would be well-worded and not exceed the character limit. It was the silver age of the Facebook status.

Still more recently, the character limit was virtually eliminated. I don’t know what it’s at now, but it’s way too fucking generous. In addition to the four gross status specimens listed above, we now have the paragraph-of-blathering status. Oh, the humanity. Now the drama and boringness are five times as long as they used to be. “So-and-so went shopping today and bought three pairs of pants! But one of them has a hole in it – I wish I’d noticed that at the store because now I have to go back and exchange them for a different pair! Plus it was so busy at the mall, it was impossible to get decent service. Oh well – at least I just cooked a delicious meal and get to sit down and eat!!!!” What the fuck? The character limit is a maximum, not a minimum. The fact that you can write a paragraph doesn’t mean you should. You better have a seriously fucking good story if you want anyone to read past 50 characters.

It was around this time that the “like this” feature and the ability to comment directly on another person’s status came about. These developments have engendered the relentless status-liker: that person who goes around “liking” every single one of all of his/her friends’ statuses. “So-and-so is sitting on the couch.” LIKE! “So-and-so wrote a new blog post.” LIKE! “So-and-so went poo.” LIKE! LIKE! LIKE! Fuck you, status liker. You’re ruining it for everyone. A liked status should be earned. We all need to be cognisant of the difference between that kind of everyday shit and the occasional truly brilliant status. And as far as the status commenting ability goes, that has only added fuel to the fire of the authors of the chronic depression statuses and the manipulative statuses: everyone’s News Feed is full of rubbish like “So-and-so is so sad that it isn’t going to work out.” So-and-so is clearly just dying for her friends to come online and start clucking about her status like fucking hens. “What isn’t?” “Awww, hun, what’s happening?” Etc. If you don’t want to tell the whole story, maybe you should consider not telling any of it. Instead, you could talk about it with a select few of your good friends, or, better still, have a conversation with the people who are actually involved in the situation. No one ever seems to think of that idea anymore.

I had thought this post would end here, but just last night I changed my status, only to discover that one can now, in Twitter-like fashion, direct one’s status directly at or to a particular individual. Prediction: within three weeks, we will see a massive surge in the popularity of the catty bitch status and the inside-joke status.

Onward…

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. Anneke permalink
    September 16, 2009 7:55 pm

    I am your first and most ardent fan. From now on, I shall strive to be postmodern about my statuses, and direct them all at you, so you’ll know when I’m mad at you. Or I’ll be vague and prompt you to ask me why I’m upset.

  2. Anneke permalink
    September 16, 2009 7:58 pm

    Cancel that, you’ve been blogging for years. I should’ve checked before I wrote that, because now you’ve got to read two comments. Worse than long statuses, probably.

  3. Kate permalink*
    September 16, 2009 8:47 pm

    I have not actually been blogging for years, although given the fucking hideous work environment I’ve been in lately, the past few weeks have certainly felt like years. Our Daily Beard is just over a month old. But I think the literary community is already taking it pretty seriously.

    @SFU 2010 Writer’s Studio selection committee: If you don’t pick me for the program, I will literally shoot myself in the face at the entrance to 515 Hastings on the first day of classes. You guys are like, “It’s well-documented that women don’t shoot themselves, that’s a man thing.” Well, think again. Think again. Exceptions define rules.

    @Anneke again: Sorry about that. I’m not actually going to shoot myself in the face. Probably just cry a lot and write clinically depressed Facebook statuses and wish my Vancouver trip hadn’t unpsyched me about the psych program I’ve now dropped out of twice before even starting. If the U of C had a gangsta rap composition program I could just stay here. Your loss, U of C. Wait, that comment was to the U of C…

    @U of C: Your loss.

    @Anneke yet again: I check the mail every evening for my catwarming invitation.

  4. peter permalink
    October 6, 2009 9:59 pm

    I think I’m in love. Brilliant work.

  5. October 23, 2011 9:48 pm

    It’s perhaps odd to comment on a two-year-old post, but for some reason it showed up as “new” in my news reader today. Remarkably, it seemed fresh and relevant, even if the details were of past circumstances, and I enjoyed it immensely. In fact, before I realised that it was actually two years old I immediately logged in to Facebook (which I have been actively avoiding in recent weeks) to see if you had posted in your Facebook status an announcement of its publication and, if so, whether a certain “RSS” had clicked the “like” button.

    Anyway, carry on!

    • Kate permalink*
      October 27, 2011 11:11 pm

      On is exactly where I plan to carry, sir. Thank you for your encouragement. This post feels really dated to me because FB has changed so much since September ’09 (although apparently the author’s voice hasn’t changed at all). Maybe it’s time for a follow-up.

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