Friday, October 15, 2010

Can You Give It Up? The Facebook Saga Continues

A massive sidenote to preface my main post:

I think we talk about Facebook so much both here on These Gentlemen and - what with The Social Experiment - in our culture as a whole, because it is simultaneously the harbinger of, most prominent symbol of, and testing ground for an entirely new way of organizing society and approaching human relationships. No doubt about it, the way individual people and groups(who can afford computers) interact with each other is in the process of being changed by online and social media more drastically - and definitely more rapidly - than almost ever before; definitely moreso than by television (which is proprietary), moreso than by the telephone/telegraph, possibly even more so (particularly when you consider the "rapidly" modifier) than by the printing press. OF COURSE we're going to want to talk about it; it's practically the beginning of a new stage of evolution - albeit a voluntary one - and it's affecting us in new and unexpected ways that we were never even equipped to consider in the past. (Compare to other online systems like Wikipedia and email, which, while revolutionary, are essentially speed/access upgrades of systems we already had and were equipped to handle.) In certain circles, Facebook is becoming, or has already become, as bedrock a cultural signifier as etiquette, dress or diction - which is a strange thing, when you think about it, for a single, branded virtual business enterprise to be. At the very least, you can say that about social media as a whole, if not Facebook specifically - one's "online presence" is an element of our lives that we manage as diligently/haphazardly as our love lives, careers and hobbies. No wonder there's a movie about it.

ALL that said, my real subject: quitting Facebook.

I have, in the past couple months, wavered over a decision to attempt one of two... let's call them "modifications to my social-interactive experience." The first, less drastic (and not really "quitting"), would be to make a Facebook post to the following effect:

-If you want to remain my Facebook friend, please respond. If you can see this message, it means I DO want you to stay Facebook friend, but I am only going to keep you on if you actively respond.-

Totally emo, I know. But bear with me.

I don't post a lot on Facebook, so I don't have a lot of knowledge of who pays attention to - or cares about - my online face. This might make it seem like there's no reason for me to ask people to confirm their interest in me, since they get very little actual information about me in return; but the point isn't a visible exchange of status-posts and updates, but rather the knowledge of awareness. If someone and I remain Facebook friends, then we are both mutually aware that we can keep up with each other; it's an invisible connection.

I suppose the reason I have considered doing this is because I have begun to find it upsetting that I have 450 invisible connections and can't find anything to do on a Friday night - or any more direct method of soliciting serious conversation than a socially passive-agressive 'BRETT is bored, somebody call him' status update.

This is not to say that I feel completely alone or anything (my next four or five Fridays are all booked, I am proud to assure you, O Internet readers), but that the contrast is disheartening and cognitavely dissonant. In reality, I have the same number of friends and casual acquaintances as any twentysomething whose friends keep getting married - a number which naturally lends itself to not being able to hang out with someone every night of the week, which is typical and fine. But - online I have an army of hundreds, with all of whom I share passive, invisible knowledge of awareness, yet none of whom I'm close enough with (even narrowing down to those who are in close physical proximity) to go out and grab a spontaneous bite on a Monday evening.

It's the dissonance that's the problem.

Of course, the fear with enacting this plan is: nobody will respond.

At the very least, I would have to leave a sufficient window for infrequent-Facebook-checkers to catch my post and reply. But even given a chance, even people who would like to remain friends or to maintain knowledge of awareness with me might not respond, for the same self-defeating, lazy reason why people just automatically reply "maybe" to any Facebook event invitation. (Why? Facebook is passive. The more we feel we are being forced into being active, the more we can't be bothered... even if we spend hours upon hours on the site. We have to maintain the myth, at least for now, that Facebook is just a diversion/helpful tool, and no, definitely not our virtual agora.)

Which is why I've considered the more drastic second measure of leaving Facebook entirely, either for a week- or month-long "trial period" or "for good." (This would also, theoretically, include all other social media with the exception of Skype, which is just an Internet videophone and which is my only means of contact with foreign-nation-bound friends - but let's be serious, Facebook is the core of the whole enterprise.) The point of this would be to escape the peculiarities of Facebook communication - my farewell post would go something like this:

-Brett is leaving Facebook [for a while/for good]. The only ways to communicate with him will be on the phone, through email or snail mail, and on Skype if you live in a foreign country. I will have no status posts to read, and will not read yours; I will not be on Facebook chat, AIM or Gchat; I will not see your twitter or anything else. I hope this will lead to me communicating with you more, not less.-

It's a scary thought, not the least reason for which is that I've become dependent on Facebook for my WORLD NEWS. Seriously, I no longer read any news source directly; I merely wait for something to become enough of a hot item that it appears in someone's status post, and then I either click their handy article link or Google the topic. The same goes for my friends' personal news; without Facebook, there are slightly-distant friends I would not even know were getting/had gotten married - and would STILL not know about it, as much as a year later, because every piece of information about their nuptials has come through instant messaging or Facebook-stalking.

Many of the articles I've read about quitting Facebook have focused on the giving-up-an-addictive-time-waster angle, akin to giving up television so you can read more books and get outside (although a good number do touch on my perspective). But I'm more concerned with the social and personal cost of invisible relationships. It's a strange, unnatural strain on the mind, methinks, to be so totally aware of people one essentially doesn't even care about (in the truest, intimate sense of 'caring'); it's social grooming without the socializing, without the actual contact, without the actual reward.

Will I do it? Probably not. Maybe I'd try the month-long-moratorium, to see if it does actually increase my face-to-face socializing from friends who have suddenly lost the illusion of being in touch with me; it might make an interesting series of articles, at any rate. But I'm probably not bold enough, and far too dependent on it, to go whole hog, for either version. Without it, there are people who I do, actually, care about, and am interested in, who I would be completely out of touch with; there are events I would miss; real-time HELP ME WITH THIS THING, PLEASE COMMENT dramas I would be left out of; and in general, I would have the feeling that I'm being left out. Or who knows; maybe I wouldn't.

(I interrupt here to note that I am definitely not at an extreme in my reaction to social networks; on one hand, you've got the hikkomori in Japan, and on the other you've got folks who successfully use social networks to *increase* their physical contact with their friends via more efficient planning and coordinating and day-to-day life tracking.)

I can't help feeling that these dissonant feelings will have to be parsed out and the conflicts resolved - for my brain which is wired for the calculus of face-to-face society to reconcile with the brave new world of online society - because this is definitely the future. The old has to integrate with the new. It's like the history of architecture - we wouldn't have been able to progress to building glass-metal-and-concrete skyscrapers and Sydney Opera Houses if not for the knowledge we've been accumulating since as far back as Rome and earlier, dealing with stonework and arches and domes. These are the Roman times of social networking; we have to learn to become natural, masterful users of these rather crude materials before we get to the next level (full-on integration of all Internet-accessing devices - phones, computers, GPS devices, cars - with our personal online presence, automatic non-intentional updating, retinal-implant webcams, etc.) or the whole structure may collapse.

1 comment:

B.Graham said...

I just finished reading this really interesting article:
http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2010/10/17/the_empathy_deficit/?page=full

And what did I immediately do? I posted it on facebook.