Friday, August 10, 2018

The urge to share didn't begin with Facebook

Cody Stampede Rodeo, 2009
 
     The summer I turned 17, my father dragged us all to Europe. 
     Which, as anyone who remembers being 17 might suspect, was not the fiesta it seems. Particularly since the country he settled us in was Switzerland. He worked all day at the Palais de Nations in Geneva, not exactly a fun city, while I pottered around town and read a lot. God bless the American Library and Frank Herbert's "Dune."
     I did have a Eurailpass, so would occasionally absent myself to explore even less fun places like Zurich. Occasionally I would encounter something spectacular—a trio of Roman columns, ruins along Lake Geneva, which I climbed upon and had my lunch. I remember the lunch—the French bread, the soft cheese, the white chocolate, the robin's egg blue ADIDAS bag I took them out of, the shimmering lake. The Castle at Chillon, Byron's castle, where I was headed.
     I also remember what I said, under my breath, seeing it and about any other wonder I encountered all that summer.
     "Sue would love this," I'd whisper. "She'd freak." 
     Sue was my little girlfriend, back in Berea. I invoked her because I missed her, tremendously, and because encountering something wonderful, when alone, can be magical, but it can also draw a yellow underliner to your solitude. 
      A question of personality, I suppose. Some can go through life blithely independent. And others are always looking around for someone else. My guess is that most people fall into the latter camp. They want witnesses. At least I do, and I know I'm not unique in this, because there's Facebook, a machine for conveying your experiences to others.
    Is that good? The answer must be "Yes," since we use the thing so much. But people also say—on Facebook, ironically— that no, it isn't good. Facebook gets a lot of crap, for people sharing their meals and the too-glamorous or too-tawdry aspects of their lives. It can seem as if you're living for Facebook, experiencing life for the express purpose of hurrying back from these life events and show them off to your invisible Facebook audience.
    Taking a bow to an empty theater. 
    I remember worrying about this long ago, in 2009. I was at the rodeo in Cody, Wyoming, with the boys, and I realized I was trying to get just the right shot of a cowboy on a bucking broncho, not to show my wife, not to show the folks back home, but to post as my Facebook profile. That's why I was doing it.
     I both felt the impulse and the unease that the impulse was somehow shameful, and that tug-of-war has been going on ever since. I want to do this thing that I shouldn't want to do.
    Being on Facebook has a direct business value to me—I share my column there, readers find it and read it, they click on the paper's web site and maybe I don't get fired in the next purge. The rest is just recreation—playing Scrabble, scrolling around for interesting tidbits, keeping up with actual friends in the living world, chatting and gabbing and wishing them happy birthdays and learning of their sorrows.
     I was just choking back the small and paltry taste left in my mouth when a friend, Salli Berg Seeley, let loose with this:
     "FB, When is your joy enough? Seriously, at what point can you relish in your good fortune and brilliant life choices and abundance without the public approval of your dear friends and a minimum of 87 fond acquaintances? And before you say so, I know, I probably should not be on FB...
     It is a useful tool for hearing about events and sharing ideas, opinions, news, and even distracting nonsense just when you need it, but, yeah, it kind of freaks me out when you can’t celebrate your anniversary with your spouse without 105 'likes,' and your attempt to portray your last vacation as picture perfect when you spent 82% of your time bickering with your spouse, lover, children, etc.. is just silly, isn’t it?
     Isn’t it enough that your marriage, family, children, lover, dinner, and on and on are THAT amazing???!!!"     
     I wanted to summarily reject her argument—my first thought was that Thoreau line about those who “mistake their private ail for an infected atmosphere.” Maybe the lady doth protest too much. She keeps saying "you" —you can't celebrate your anniversary. Maybe she means "me." Nothing bugs us more about people than when they reflect our own faults.
     Then I decided she's right, that sharing experiences with Facebook cheapens them. Then I thought that, as a guy who's paid to, in part, share his internal life with people, that kind of thinking can be dangerous, or at least contrary to my professional interests. 
     Are Facebook friends real friends? Some yes, the others, no. But they're all people, who have connected with me in some real if intangible fashion. A kind of quasi-friendship, or to quote Harry Potter's Luna Lovegood: "It's like having friends."
      Facebook friends.
      Maybe the problem is being human. We're pack animals. Ten thousand years ago we slept in caves, in piles for warmth. You spent all day with everybody you knew. Now society pushes us apart, into houses and cities and a dozen ways to be isolated and remote. Technology both connected us and drove us apart. Yes, you could talk to your kids in Phoenix, but you also stopped making those social visits that people used to make, chatting over tea. You could talk to people any time you like you end up never talking to them at all.
      Is Facebook a way to connect to people? Or a fancier way of being alone?
      Yes.
      After I thought about whispering that name in Geneva in 1977, I thought about my parents showing slides. Older readers might remember slides: little clear images secured in a cardboard frame, light went through them and they were projected on a screen.
     They would sit us kids down, dim the lights, and make us look at the slides. The faces of relatives in New York we never saw because they thought they were better than us, and vacations taken before we were born. I remember liking them nevertheless. It was like going places, like having family. I seem to remember slides being shown to dinner guests. The darkness, the hot breath of the slide projector—the ca-thunk ca-thunk of the carousel. I'm old enough to associate that carousel with the slight glimmer of technological advancement, along with push button phones and printer tractor feeds and other long defunct technologies. Modern.
     So here's my question: how is it that my parents showing our vacation slides to whomever they could corral—the kids, the dinner guests, no doubt squirming in their seats and dreaming of bolting for the door—falls into the bin of nostalgia and warmth and family and memory and community. Something good. But if I post a photo of my kid and his new beard I'm needy and pathetic, preening before an empty theater of nobodies? 
That doesn't seem quite right. We want to share stuff with people. Years before the Internet, I was invoking my girlfriend's name before the Alps and there was no technology to carry it to her. 
     Then again, she was someone I knew, not a mass of 5,000 strangers. But she's long gone, and they're here, kind of. I may not know them, directly. But sometimes I feel as if I do. Is that not something of value?

10 comments:

  1. Same as it ever was: the quest for the approval of others.

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  2. I never liked Facebook and deleted my page last week. Maybe I'm computer illiterate, but I never got the hang of it and thought it was just a lousy, confusing interface.

    One thing I find interesting: When FB shouldered political blogs out of its newsfeeds, their pageviews went way down. I mean plunged, as in 60% or more. This happened to both blogs I like, like Wonkette, and ones I don't, like Breitbart. It's a bit scary that one platform should have this much power.

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    1. I thought I deleted my page about nine years ago. I went back to Facebook last winter and found that everything had been saved. Not that it mattered. All they saved was dated, uninteresting crap.

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  3. Am I the only one who actually enjoys keeping up/reconnecting with friends/acquaintances I likely wouldn't communicate with so frequently via traditional channels? And I truly like seeing pictures of people's kids and from their travels, as long as they don't put up a bunch at once (I try to limit it to around 5 myself, on the occasions I do post). I can take or leave seeing photos of pets.

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    1. I don't mind, and see the virtue of keeping in touch, however ephemerally, with people I otherwise wouldn't. And most of them are sparing with what they post. I seldom do myself.

      I had fun in Switzerland, but was a bit older. Also had a girlfriend I missed. But one of normal proportions.

      Tom

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  4. I am Facebook selfish. I rarely post but do enjoy the pictures my friends share, as well as the interesting links from the more intelligent. I don't like the Trumper cousins contributions and ignore them. Had my sister not wanted to see one cousins new boyfriend I'd have never signed up. Enjoy what you can and leave the rest.....

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  5. Well, at least, Facebook reminds me of peoples' birthdays.

    john

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  6. Mr S, your thoughts about parents showing slides immediately made me think about that scene from "Mad Men"...can it really be more than a decade ago

    "My first job, I was in-house at a fur company, with this old pro copywriter. Greek, named Teddy. And Teddy told me the most important idea in advertising is 'new'. But he also talked about a deeper bond with the product: nostalgia. Teddy told me that in Greek, 'nostalgia' literally means, 'the pain from an old wound'. It's a twinge in your heart, far more powerful than memory alone. This device isn't a spaceship. It's a time machine. It goes backwards, forwards. It takes us to a place where we ache to go again. It's not called the Wheel. It's called a Carousel. It lets us travel the way a child travels. Around and around, and back home again... to a place where we know we are loved..."--Don Draper

    Somehow, Facebook never felt that way to me. The likes, the friending, the "whatchoo doin"...it all seemed so phony and more than a little creepy. Never understood why so many spent so much time "updating status" and all the rest of it. Sounded too lame and too high-school. And even the layout was a turn-off.

    When privacy issues and selling people as product became front-page news, I felt more vindicated than ever about never having sipped the Facebook Kool-Aid. Maybe my teachers were right about my not wanting to share or about not working and playing well with others. I certainly had no desire to share every last detail of my existence with strangers, on a platform designed to make its owners rich. For once in my sorry life, I feel like made the right call, and the right decision.

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  7. Owning it and watching three episodes a day will get you through February. Or March.

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