Monday, May 24, 2010

Confessions of a (former) Facebook junkie...

I was a Facebook user for exactly one year out of my life - twelve months, three of which I might very well have qualified as a junkie. I set up my page in April '09, climbing on board just as everyone, it seemed, was climbing on board, and in April 2010, disembarked with equally fortuitous timing, just when everyone, it seemed, was starting to complain about Facebook, looking for other places to network on-line, fed up with its lax privacy policies and the reported jerkiness of its primary founder, Mark Zuckerberg.

I say 'disembark' because I don't know how else to describe it. I've disembarked the ship, but the ship is still there; that is, my page still exists. They wouldn't let me shut it down permanently. Deactivation seemed to be the best (and only) option, and even then 'the Facebook' pleaded to keep me, asked if I was sure I wanted to do it, even going so far as to suggest that certain people on my friends list would 'miss' me when I was gone.

Uhhh, yeah... *sigh*...

For this and other reasons, it's unlikely I will ever sail Facebook's negligent blue seas again. Never say never, of course, but my decision to bolt was about more than just privacy. In the last twelve months I've gotten everything I possibly can out of Facebook, everything it can possibly offer, and a little more than I bargained for.

It's been around since 2004, growing steadily, but in 2009 Facebook was like a virtual reality boom town; its population grew exponentially, surging to a reported 400 million users (and counting), lending the ever-changeable English language new words (like 'unfriend') and the ever searching human race new ways to idly while away an afternoon at work. It was this mad dash that I got swept up in.

I'd been doing so well at holding out, too; resisting, as I usually try to, what 'everyone else' is doing. To that end, I had plenty of practice. I'd been resisting a MySpace page for years, tempted, but unable to ignore that MySpace always seemed a little too youthful to me, to the point of lameness. Most pages I visited were like the digital equivalent of a teenager's bedroom: posters of bands and babes plastering the walls, music blaring, clutter all over the floor, a visually self-indulgent story of one's existence far too random to avoid looking like a big amateurish contrivance, no matter how carefully considered.

Facebook seemed more staid, more 'adult' somehow, and therefore more organic, the focus centered on making a real connection with other people, without the need for flash (that is, a wallpaper background of smokin' hot fairy demons crying tears of blood, NASCAR insignia, masters of metal, or some such...). But even then, I did not jump into it quickly.

It's not that I'm technologically impaired. I know the ins and outs of the Internet, the ins and outs of the Windows operating system for that matter, and possess a fair amount of experience with Mac. I'd spent a number of years designing websites, though admittedly this was back when it was a simple matter of HTML (strange to think that so much of that early Internet lexicon is now as dated to the late 90s/early 00s as the 8-track player is to the 1970s). And only the year before, I'd started this blog, not so much because other people were doing it, but because it's good practice, and any writer hoping to achieve and/or maintain relevance in this day and age needs to recognize that the future of the written word is on-line.

Facebook, however, was all about peer pressure. I signed up simply because 'everyone was doing it,' like a joint passed around at a party, or my first sheepish swig of beer way back when. My impulse had been to resist, but curiosity was quickly eclipsing apprehension in April 2009, and when my girlfriend set up her own account, the whole thing was legitimized for me. She too is a resister by trade, adopting a wait and see attitude in the face of nearly every new fad, gadget and political wind blowing, and far more distrustful of all this integrated technology than I am (in terms of the effect it could have on our privacy). So when she caved to pressure from friends and family members to get on board, I let her pull me along.

When I was a little kid, I dreamed of starting a sign company one day. Seriously, I wanted to make signs. More than the artistic element of doing so, the thrill for me was thinking of one of my signs being in a public place and seen by a lot of people. My dad owned a bookstore, and I was all too happy to make a sign if he needed one. A special on comic books, or penny candy, a 'back in 5 minutes' placard if he had to run to the bank and there was no one to watch the place, upon request I'd carefully craft it with wide-tipped magic markers. My signs were simple and direct; they got the job done. And frankly, that was much the point:

I absolutely loved the thought of dispensing pertinent information.

Dispensing pertinent information. 'Broadcasting' in its many forms. Given some of my various career choices since then - radio deejay, web designer, book editor, newspaper publisher -it's clear I still do. And I fully admit, I liked that Facebook was not only about making a connection, but about being seen.

It was not hard to become happily mired in the Facebook world, but in the first few days, as I enthusiastically chose photos to upload and cobbled together information for my profile page (marveling at how easy it all was), something truly unexpected happened: I found myself inundated with more friend requests than I ever thought possible. Every time I logged on, there were five or six new ones. Sometimes a few would pop up while I was logged in.

I was shocked. I'd been expecting close friends to find me on Facebook, my girlfriend's family, my parents, some of their friends perhaps, maybe some co-workers here and there, et cetera. But it went way beyond that. People from high school I had not thought about since then - ex-classmates with whom I competed for everything (attention, grades, jobs, identity), upperclassman I mostly remember avoiding in the hallway at all cost lest they give chase, underclassman who at best lingered on the periphery of my world (and sometimes avoided me for the same reason), several people I simply didn't get along with in those days and a few I never particularly liked - all had Facebook accounts, and all poured into my request box like fans besieging a box office for tickets that have just recently gone on sale.

Most of them, on the rare occasion I thought of them, had remained age 17 or 18 in my mind for two decades. To my astonishment, they were now in their late thirties, married, or divorced, with kids or step kids, balding heads, widening hips, mortgages, beer bellies, tired but still mostly pleasant smiles. It was trippy to have these people come back into my life - so many at once, and so quickly. Overnight, Facebook became not a boom town of strangers, but a grand entrance into a high school reunion in a virtual Holiday Inn banquet room; a reunion where everyone actually showed up, the jocks, the dirtballs, the geeks, dorks and drama queens...everyone was on one level now, everyone was an adult. Everyone was a Facebook user.

Recollections of the past spilled over in short but violent bursts at this reunion. It's truly amazing how memories we think we've forgotten are actually lying dormant, waiting to burst back to colorful life, like desert flowers after the rains come. It all came back to me and my new Facebook friends, hundreds of details I'd considered lost to time: things we said, things we believed, things we thought about ourselves and one another. Weekend first times moments of glory and cringe-worthy failures on courts, fields and stages were trotted out, dusted off, reveled in. First hour hilarity became new again, memories of sneaking into class, sneaking out of class. Teachers with bizarre habits, or bad breath became the butt of our laughter, now electronically transmitted across miles as well as years.

We recalled the jobs we shared washing dishes and bussing tables, flipping burgers and mopping lobbies; recalled the pop culture bric-a-brac of our youth, our Atari 2600's, our camouflage and parachute pants, our Swatch watches, our acid-washed mullets; we talked about cruising up and down Main Street looking for someone to buy us beer in big 1970s boats, the Chrysler Newports, Ford LTDs and Olds 88s that had been set aside as the junkers we could afford; we all remembered sneaking it into seedy apartments above the main street in town to consume the beer with the twenty-somethings living there, those who were reluctant to grow up and move on; whom we swore we would never turn out like.

Those apartments were our sanctuaries. Our Studio 54's.

All of that past was merged with the present. We learned about each other's lives now - what we did for a living, who we ended up marrying, who we divorced, who had quit smoking, who had quit drinking. Who had started drinking. Much of this we did through private messages, or open wall posts, sometimes live chatting if we happened to catch one another on-line, but frankly, Facebook allowed this dialogue to be carried on without saying anything to one another. About even those 'friends' with whom I did not communicate at all (and there were several of these; people who requested me, then fell strangely silent...), I learned everything I could possibly ever want or need to know simply by perusing their wall a couple of times a week, meandering through their photos now and then. There were lots and lots of photos on display - of their children, their cars, their camping trips, their homes, their ways of life, everything that was part of the world they lived in as something so outrageous as a (near) middle aged adult! It satiated my curiosity in the most savory way. I was glad for the opportunity to recall old times, and happy to learn most of them seemed to be doing just fine.

But this melancholy madness lasted only a few weeks, two months tops, mostly fortified by the non-stop stream of friends who joined my ranks early on. When that inundation leveled off, and eventually petered out, it did not take long for the past - having been hashed out six ways from Sunday - to become a tiresome subject. When that happened, we all fell silent.

No big deal if this were a real high school reunion at a real Holiday Inn. In that scenario, you get together, drink copious amounts of alcohol, remember the past for a night, or a weekend, but then it ends. There is a clear distinction between the real world and the reunion world, the past and the present. On Facebook come mid-June of last year, at least for me, it suddenly felt like Monday morning. The reunion was over; we were all supposed to be back to work, but we were still sitting in the banquet room, trying to think of something to say to one another, and failing.

In response, I turned to the variety of Facebook distractions, and promptly got swept up in that. This is when I became a true junkie.

Over the course of the summer, I contributed my 'Top 5' picks for everything under the sun, from beer to movies to rock albums to flowers, affirmed my knowledge of 80s trivia and song lyrics (70s trivia and song lyrics for that matter), established my IQ to be at least over 100, tried my hand at being a virtual farmer and a virtual gangster (though I must say, my interest in games like Mafia Wars, Farm Town and YoVille lasted about thirty-six seconds each), and learned a few things about myself I never even thought to consider:

If I were a Popsicle flavor, I'd be cherry.

If I were a Kool-Aid flavor, I'd be Purplesaurus Rex.

If I were an American president, I'd be Millard Filmore (uh...okay?)

My 'ultimate' light saber color is red.

If I were a Twilight character I'd be Edward (assuming that's a good thing...right?)

And if I were a character from classic literature, I would be Fagin. (I took this test twice, and came up with 'Buck' from London's Call of the Wild the second time. Edward Cullen, Fagin and Buck the dog...hmmm, a motley assortment, to be sure...)

All of it fascinating, or fun (kind of...) for a little while; a reliable distraction from any odious, chore-ridden day in the short term, but no good over the long haul. Just as my interest in the likes of Farm Town lasted thirty-six seconds, my interest in the sum of distractions Facebook has to offer held out for thirty-six days, give or take a day or two.

By October, I had exhausted the options, and felt exhausted. There was nothing left for me to do on Facebook except log on and read all the status updates on my stream, treat it like a kind of daily news ticker...

Not the best option. Doing so set the beginning of the end in motion.

Like any Facebook user, I was very conscious of making sure I presented myself in as wonderful a light as possible, and good status updates were central to this campaign. I kept mine smart or clever, always, either commenting on something in the news or popping off little witticisms.

"Jared Glovsky has himself flown in fresh daily..." I would post, and always receive an enthusiastic 'LOL!' from someone.

But without the distractions of games, Top 5's or memories of our wild and crazy teenage years, everyone else's status updates started getting really annoying, to the point where the observation my son had made about Facebook prior to my joining (and his joining) was proven to be spot on:

"Facebook exists so people can provide answers to questions that have not been asked."

Through the holidays, logging onto Facebook became a chore. My 'stream' of friends had little to say that was of interest or relevance to me, and nothing that, frankly, wasn't starting to piss me off a little. This I say not in any way to disparage them as people, as human beings, as moms and dads and productive members of society (or as the ones with whom I shared my much-vaunted youth, and who shared theirs with me), but as virtual buddies/veritable strangers streaming their way insipidly through my consciousness during morning coffee.

Some examples of the headlines that greeted me:

'XX' is having a second piece of cheesecake for dessert tonight, because he DESERVES it!!!"

"'XX' spent all morning cleaning up the kid's room. Dentist appointment later. Baseball practice. Then what to do for dinner? Yikes! :p"

"'XX' hears birds outside her window..."

"'XX' prefers the brown M & Ms...."

Once in a while, there was something of some import. Somebody had a job interview, or landed a new job, or a baby was born, disease was mitigated or crisis averted. Wonderful. All of that is just fine, and I'm happy to have people share it with me.

But that was rare. Facebook statuses were ordinarily a daily diet of banality, to which posters were nevertheless guaranteed (and this is the worst part) to get someone feigning to give a shit.

Being guaranteed a response for something you say, or write, is intoxicating. It means that what you're saying is being heard, thus affirming that you are here, and people know you're here, in this world. That's the allure of Facebook, I think (and MySpace, and Twitter...). The same thing I loved about sign-making as a kid. A Facebook status is like putting up a new sign, viewed by tons of passers-by, each day.

Yet in a way it's not at all like the sign-making I dreamed of as a kid. The dispensing of information, perhaps...but pertinent information? Nah...

Nor were the responses people got to their status updates any less aggravating. 'Hearing birds outside her window'... was sure to get someone quipping, 'At least you're not hearing voices! Ahahahahah...!'

'Brown M & Ms...' could not possibly fail to garner a critique of the green ones, with a sidebar about eating them on Thursdays, or something or other...

'Cleaning up the baby's room...' was guaranteed a Krakatau-caliber explosion of respondents, each one a parent filled to the brim with empathy. I'm a parent too...I know what it's like. A never-ending process. I get it. I still could find no way to respond, no honest way to make myself look like I gave a rat's ass. All that kept coming to mind was the 6th grade crush I had on her in the cello section of our middle school orchestra; but that was neither relevant nor appropriate.

And as for 'cheesecake...', well, seriously...have a second piece, buddy. Have a third. Eat the whole thing and let the rest of your family share a stale box of animal crackers beneath the sink. But just do it; I don't know that it has to be heralded as news, or some kind of personal triumph on your part, capitalization, multiple exclamation points and all (in this world of abbreviated grammar and truncated thoughts, multiple punctuation where there is no need seems to be a counter-intuitive development....counter-intuitive, and hugely annoying). Please don't clog my stream with that stuff. Please!

"Don't clog my stream, bro...! :)"

I thought about responding to his post with that, but decided against it. There's a fine line between indignation and rudeness, and I like to think I know where that line falls. Besides, Cheesecake Guy got plenty of response for his effort; timely, exuberant response, as though he'd announced he was going to run the Boston marathon or spend six weeks touring Vietnam, or switch careers after more than a decade:

"Right on! You go, dude! You DO deserve a second piece of cheesecake!"

Or, "I'll be right over! You better save me a piece!"

Or, "Try some strawberries and whip cream on there. Mmmm....Yummo for my tummo!"

*Sigh...* Maybe there's something wrong with me. I just don't know any of these people well enough anymore to warrant sharing daily, hourly, or up-to-the-minute thoughts with them.

By New Year's Day, I had become painfully aware of this fact; painfully aware that there's something unnatural about the inter-personal dynamic Facebook creates. This, combined with all the privacy issues that have come out in the last six months, turned it into something I could do without. In February, I started paring down my friends list...but by April, I just said screw it. I'm done.

If you're in my life, we already communicate in person, or at least on the phone, or email, and do it well. Everyone else -the former child stars of my youth - well, I'll see you all at the next reunion, when the past can feel new again.

For just a couple of hours.