Sunday, February 7, 2016

Facebook: your life's unseen audience

     When I was 25, I got my first cell phone—we called them "car phones" at the time, since they weighed 50 pounds and were bolted in the trunk of your car—which means I've had a cell phone for a greater portion of my life than I've spent without one. 
     Thirty years, off and on. 
     Still, there is an aroma of the new to cell phones, and always will be, the way my grandparents called a refrigerator an "ice box." 
      When some algorithm in the Facebook servers sent me the above notice, of my Facebook birthday, I was shocked but not surprised. If you had asked me when I joined, I'd have said 2009—I remember taking photos on the epic 7,000 mile road trip the boys and I took that summer, and realizing that I wasn't snapping these for albums back home, certainly not to project them as slides to squirming guests. I was taking pictures to post on Facebook. My orientation had changed. My life had an unseen audience.
     Facebook. We share our lives with our "followers"—a slightly creepy word—and they share their lives in return. If you read Dave Eggers' "The Circle" as augury, then we'll have a lot more of that, and not posting something on Facebook will be seen as strange, selfish.  The little birthday card they generated certainly screamed "me me ME!" Though Edie did manage to sneak in too, including a wedding picture that predates Facebook by a decade and a half. 
     I don't quite believe our future will be constant sharing. It already has begun to even out. In the past few years, Facebook has lost some of its mojo, become less a cool place to visit, and more a daily obligation, like flossing.  Certain sharing habits—take a look at my lunch!—have fallen from favor. Twitter is where the action is, a digital freefire zone where people draw their rhetorical broadswords and have at each other, and where news lives. 
     Eight years, Ah, the memories. Bored in Salt Lake City in 2009 before a reader told us to go to Ruth's Diner. Gry Haukland arriving from Norway to marry a guy she met on my Facebook page.  Meeting Jane Turbov at the Northbrook Public Library to play a game of Scrabble.
     For a while, high school friends were always popping up. Now Facebook's central purpose is to post my blog.  People expect to find it there. Facebook allows for a manageable comments section after columns, since I can instantly show jerks the gate, and don't have to count on the newspaper to eject the undesirables for me. That's fairly rare, since I've vetted everybody at the party—I look at the page of each new person I friend, all 4,822 of them, and simply reject anybody who seems as if they won't be happy drinking my flavor of Kool-Aid. Or because they live in the Philippines and have posted a bunch of sad, semi-cheesecakes of themselves and nothing else. I hope that doesn't seem bigoted of me to say, but it happens often. If I get a direct message from a Nordic beauty who supposedly lives in Indiana—"Hi, how are you?" I reply, "Fine, how's life in the Philippines?" and never hear from them ever again.
     Lately, more and more, there's also  Facebook messenger, which shows up on my phone. I don't know how that's better than regular texting, but some people seem to like it. 
     I still remember that first 2008 meeting at a Sun-Times conference room where some tech kid used a powerpoint presentation and instructed us how to sign up for Facebook. I was in equal measure baffled and miffed: so we were supposed to take time away from writing for a mass-market audience so we could hang around this electronic cracker barrel and chat with whoever happens to be hanging around? One-on-one? Toward what end? 
     But I am good at taking instructions, joined up, and got hooked. We all did. And the thing is not without value. That's what the doomsayers miss. People use Facebook because they like it. It adds something valuable to their lives. When I joined in 2008, Facebook had 100 million users. Now it has 1.5 billion. "Community" is the word Facebook uses to describe itself, and there is a sort of truth to that, though I prefer the line of Luna Lovegood's from "Harry Potter," which underscores the not-quite-real, not-quite-personal nature of the thing: "It's like having friends."


  1. Excellent. Every word! Neil, remember when I had scrapbooks? I'd take photos of parties (or book signings) for my own scrapbook which I'd share with a small group of family and friends. Now the orientation is different, as you wrote --for both better and worse. Thanks, Neil! (And thanks, Facebook.) -- Carol Weston

    1. I do, Carol. I remember slides. The hum of the project. The smell, an ozony kind of burning. The clicking carousel. The knot of your audience, captives, squirming in the dark.

    2. Ah yes. At some point I sent my slide carousels off to India to be digitized and so my laptop now has files called "slides from carousels." Even I get bored looking through most of them now. One more photo of a glacier along the Icefields Parkway in Alberta--really?

  2. "my grandparents called a refrigerator an "ice box."

    And some day your grandchildren will talk about their grandparents who "still call a phone a cell phone" as if there were any other kind

  3. I got on Facebook some years ago to keep in touch with friends in New York and oversees. I value it for that and sometimes comment on their accounts, but seldom put anything revealing on my own.

    Seem to remember a scene in "The Graduate," with Dustin Hoffman, holding what now looks like a fair sized brick to the side of his head, saying, somewhat triumphantly, "I'm talking mobile phone here." It must, like many of the jokes in Shakespeare plays, lack any relevance to young people who come upon that film classic on late night TV.

    Odd that a portable communication device was not foreseen by futuristic authors like Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. The closest came not in a novel but a comic strip: Dick Tracy and his "two-way wrist radio." Not that predicting the course of technology is easy. Trollope in his dystopian novel "The Fixed Period," had people in far off 1940 going about on steam powered bicycles.

    Tom Evans


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