Ok, I confess: I've been Zuckered.
I woke earlier than usual on Friday, May 18th, and in a bleary-eyed stupor made a drudge to the laptop. With a few clicks -- perhaps all too easily -- I purchased shares of Facebook.
I'm no mogul. My stock portfolio is to my MBA-owning friends' stock portfolios what the Beatles' track "Her Majesty" is to the balance of the Abbey Road album. Or, what a singed pebble might be to the jets of a furious NASA launch.
Even so -- yes, you read correctly -- this English professor decided he would feel the pulse of market forces as they throbbed their arcane rhythms across the pulse of the Internet.
My orders weren't instantly executed -- a well-documented and widespread problem -- but the orders did indeed process. And I smiled, slyly, as the two separate transactions returned my bargain prices on what is for now clearly the wrong side of $40.
The blowback from this widely reported IPO debacle suggests the entrenched malfeasance of the entire system; this comes as no great surprise to me, and I don't feel particularly aggrieved by the behavior of the big banks. I'm cynical enough to expect very little from the corporate organizations that undergird and undercut our fragile national economy.
I still feel awful though, it's true, not because I may be out a few hundred dollars (yes, hundreds, that's how I roll), but because I may be merely a small, singed stone. In retrospect, I suspect I bought Facebook shares not for mercantile reasons, but instead to somehow, anyhow, self-justify my use of the site.
Don't get me wrong, I check Facebook, often daily, nay, several times a day. I have enjoyed the voyeuristic thrill of discovering that some long-forgotten "frenemy" remains encased in the tomb of his own life. His pictures and status updates and photos that he chooses as his self-presentation -- a skin, of sorts -- creates a portrait of early mid-life American malaise.
And oh, how I have curated (at times with gleeful abandon) a stable of friends who number in the low thousands -- many of whom are connected to me in some abstract manner, often through my work as a writer. Yet their profiles, let alone their offline lives, remain as closed to me as a tomb; I lack the ability or the time or the inclination to sort through the assault of updates and event invitations and postings in groups I never joined. Instead, I hear only the increasing scream of what strikes me, on a visceral level, as the banshee moans of attention-starved specters.
I count myself here, among the dead.
And when I do post, usually offering what I believe to be an amusing anecdote, or photo of my daughters frolicking in the Lake Michigan dusk, or, often, a self-serving notice about my latest publication or conference appearance, etc., I worry.
I fret. I feel anxiety.
This comes not from the picture my usage presents to others but to what it might suggest to me -- of me -- in manner akin to Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray. Wilde's 1890 tale shows the figure in the portrait of Dorian growing older (in concert with the real Dorian's debauched acts), while his body remains unchanged. Here, the situation reverses. My profile remains vibrant when I participate, but what of the offline space once called "life"?
The Zuckerberg juggernaut causes me to paint a vulgar picture of my own activities, transmogrifying what might otherwise be technology-free sunset revels into "news" story pitched for maximum likes.
And how shall I explain all of this to my children, yes, from whom I must theoretically steal time to most effectively recreate myself in a pixelated space? Me, silently: Say something funny or cute or beyond you age range, kids, because this machine that is somehow "me," publicly displaying "you," needs copy? Time to feed the beast.
Whoa. Let's pull back.
The Roman Empire, at its geographic height in the 2nd century AD, comprised somewhere between 65 and 88 million people out of an estimated world population of 223 million. That was 29%-39% percent of the big blue marble.
Facebook currently has 800 million or so registered users, with predictions that it may surpass 1 billion users in 2012. World population is currently pegged at just over 7 billion, making Facebook penetration approximately 12% of total world population.
At its most conservative, we might say that the Roman Empire lasted 500 years.
Zuckerberg started Facebook in February 2004. Just over 8 years ago.
Of course, I am no more a Facebook Empire "subject" than I imagine some hinterland tribes-person in a far-flung Roman province to be overwhelmed each day by the Julius Caesar-ness of everything.
And yet the Caesar-ness is there. Yes it is. Ever present. Only a click away.
By the time my daughters grow up, it may be less than click away: projected with a wink or tear onto contact lenses or beamed directly into the retina and back brain.
Don't misunderstand. The hundreds of dollars I may have flushed down the black hole of venture capitalism will neither force me to eat Ramen Noodles nor cause me to delete my Facebook account.
No, I'll want to look at pictures of my children and "like" those of my nephew and nieces and share a quotation from the Goncourt Journals or enjoy Nina Simone singing "Pirate Jenny" before perusing the latest adventure from Almost Politically Correct Redneck.
Caesars aren't immortal. Zuckerberg won't live forever, and we mainly "like" how his ceaseless cascade of noise and motion adds interest where there might otherwise be silence.
Facebook, to its accidental cunning, fills a hole that was never there to begin with, and so my depleted wallet represents yet another small tax of sorts.
For like it or not, brothers and sisters -- and despite the liberating possibilities of technology -- we are all now citizens of a strange new nation.
Protest, if you must.
Unlike, if you can.