After years of frustrated hopes and expectations, Facebook has finally turned the internet from a radiant web of communication into a small, stuffy room full of everyone you've ever known. People wave at each other, speak publicly and privately, poke each other incessantly and generally behave as if they’re attending an endless party, except all the drinks are virtual and the drug of choice is contact and all its small thrills. It’s an evolved Myspace free of the band trappings and atrocious design issues, an AJAX-heavy Friendster for Web 2.0.
I signed up on Facebook a few weeks ago. After thirty minutes I’d found and friended practically everyone from my past. If I remembered their names, if their faces seemed familiar, I netted them but good in my Facebook friending trawler. The experience of virtually resurrecting my adolescence, even my childhood, online was intoxicating. Old girlfriends, barely remembered classmates, people whose guts I’d hated for reasons I'd long forgotten – I friended them all and scoured their profiles. Who likes decent music (a few people)? Who has kids (everyone)? Who still looks the same after eighteen years (again, everyone)? And of course, who's secretly obsessed with the past, constantly reliving and redoing it in their imaginations, turning tiny humiliations into gigantic victories, and releasing the unbearable psychic pressure of all the irredeemable but inconsequential mistakes they've ever made? Who's with me on this one?
As in real life, the faces from the past on Facebook are willing to forgive you for the numerous jerky sins that you committed in your adolescence. Old girlfriends, to whom I gave no good reason for speaking to me again, are happy to chat back and forth with me about time and adulthood and whatever else. I find myself reminiscing and catching up with people that I barely spoke to back then. Eventually this tumble of chat and memory is going to lose some of its energy and flatten out, and I’ll lose touch with some of them again. But thanks to Facebook, they’ll always be immediately accessible, as if they’ve just gone to talk and drink in the kitchen for a while, before returning to the main action in the living room.
Having said all that, there are things about Facebook that drive me absolutely crazy. Some of them are inherent in the design, others are inherent in the users. Since Facebook is so dependent on its users, though, it’s hard to distinguish one from the other. In no particular order, here they are:
The Wall. If only they hadn’t named the public message section “The Wall”. Facebook feels like a modern loft apartment, all clean lines and tall windows and a nice plasma screen with a constant feed of information set high in one corner. The Wall calls to mind a teenager’s attic bedroom, where everyone goes to smoke dope after school and write Led Zeppelin lyrics on the slanted ceiling. On top of that, most of the messages on The Wall are cryptic and one-sided, subjects and context clipped away in the economy of the back-and-forth conversations between cybergraffitists. “Oh yeah! Can’t wait to be there!” and the ubiquitous “Hi there! How’s it going? Long time no see!” crowd the Walls and turn them into indicators of your ability to attract commenters. At moments it skates close to purely phatic communication, the equivalent of yelling "Hey! Hey you!"
Profile Photos. The profile photo is the first thing that people see when they encounter your name. It’s an advertisement for your personality, a logo of yourself. Some people don’t get it. There are several photo sins that people commit:
- The Professional Portrait. This is like handing out business cards at a five year old's birthay party.
- The Group Shot. Which one of the five shrieking girls in black tank tops are you? Are you split into separate entities, or are you fused, hydra-headed, into an undying Screwdriver-swigging monster?
- The Family Portrait. Again, which one are you? I know you're not the two-year old or the one with the goatee. Are you at least the one in the middle?
- The Hasselhoff. Ah, hah, hahahahhhh. You look just like David Hasselhoff. Wait a second - that IS David Hasselhoff. Oh, that is the kick.
- The Nolte. Warning: this is no ordinary picture. Nick Nolte’s mug shot comes from the stirred-up silt of our collective unconscious. For that reason, you should show restraint, lest the picture sail into your unguarded consciousness and consume you.
The End of Privacy. So, why is Facebook out there in the first place? Is it a philanthropic enterprise for bored middle-class college students? Or a gigantic data-mining project masquerading as a social utility network? If you guessed the latter, then I will airmail you an Arrowroot cookie.* The people who run Facebook have more DARPA ties than Dick Cheney’s walk-in closet.** Seriously, if there's any reason why you should delete your information and walk away from Facebook, it's the lines of connection between Facebook, In-Q-Tel, the CIA, DARPA and the Total Information Awareness Program that should make you feel uneasy. Here's a Flash presentation on the relationships that go into the MOST AWESOME BIG BROTHER EVER.
Even if the relationships outlined are insignificant, the fact remains that Facebook will send your traditional concept of privacy to a deep, dark place, and you'll have fun doing it.*** Until some lawyer successfully argues that you don't have an expectation of privacy on your social networking site.
Diminishing Returns. An ex-junkie friend of mine described his addiction as “five years of my life spent chasing five seconds.” The same could be said of Facebook. The initial experience of finding old friends overwhelmed some circuit in my brain, and ever since I’ve been going over friend lists to find just one more person from my past to add. But it’s never as good as the first time.
Relationships Conducted By Poking. Someone pokes you on Facebook. You poke back. They poke you in return. To acknowledge the poke, you poke them. Then they poke you. This will go on until our electrical grid collapses and we lurch out from our homes, pale and blinking in the intolerable natural light, drooling out the single word “Pooooke”.
Amassing Friends as Objects. We all know that if your Facebook friends were all plunked down in front of you, there are some you'd latch on to, and others you'd more or less ignore (just like good old physical life!). In Facebookese, “friend” is a debased term that ecompasses soulmates and people you made eye contact with once, but he or she is a face to add to your ever-growing, increasingly awesome list of friends. In Facebook, as in most online social networks, a person is judged by the number of friends amassed. Welcome to friendship as token. Oh yeah, it's the inhuman online utopia of Facebook.
*will not mail you a cookie.
** Das ist der Rimshot.
***I will mail a cookie* to anyone who can identify what I'm paraphrasing with this line.