My mom thinks Facebook is a harbinger of the end of society, if not the actual cause itself. Really. She called me last night and said (and I'm writing this in the year 2012 AD), "Are you on that... Oh, I don't even want to know," like she was about to ask about Grindr or HamsturrTown* (not a real site, yet -- I'm still waiting on that Kickstarter dough). No, she was talking about Facebook, all one-billion-humans-of-Earth strong of it. Apparently, a friend of hers "just showed it to her." I tried to argue: "But, Mom, it facilitated the Arab Spring! Plus, now we have this amazing opportunity to keep in touch with people, and share photos, and see what others are up to, and there's this great commercial..." (as if an inordinate of my Facebook time wasn't spent just trolling old girlfriends' spring break photos). But she was not having it. And while her feverish indignation of an almost universally accepted social site borders on a "you kids with your rock and roll" level of obtuseness, she did make a couple compelling arguments for her case. Most notably, she could not conceptualize that people tend to have separate lives on Facebook and Twitter and HamsturrTown (c'mon you guys, let's get this going!), or, in her words, "Why would somebody say something on here that they wouldn't say in real life... to someone's face?"
It was a compelling argument for a woman of 60+ years who searches for things on "The Google." The simple answer I gave was, "Well, Mom, people can't punch you straight in the mouth through a computer," but the more I thought about it, the more that answer seemed like I was missing a larger point. Our conversation eventually moved on to my flaring case of hemorrhoids (finally!), but the back of my mind still pondered the riddle brought forth by the pure-hearted old woman: when did it become acceptable to just bark whatever you're thinking onto a screen? And not just the political rants and religious reawakenings, but the everyday thoughts, the inspirational quotes directed at anyone, the "hilarious" one-liners? When did the person we are in real life get an alter ego that says all the things we never have the courage (or opportunity) to? You could point to the invention of Twitter, and consequently the evolution of the status update on Facebook, blah blah blah. But those were just the necessary infrastructure -- somebody had to populate the asylum, right? I was a first-gen Facebook user in college when the status update was introduced, and take me back to those innocent times when the only things I populated in the text box following "[Username] is..." were "farting" and "SPARTACUS." Perhaps we could trace back to a Patient Zero around that time that first wrote "is... thinking her boyfriend is cheating on her" but even back then -- just a few years ago -- that kind of post would have represented the exception, not the rule; the ramble of a nut. Nowadays? She could win a Peabody with that kind of clear-headed exposition.
No, I think the turn came slowly, the proliferation of Facebook giving us the opportunity to be "friends" with people we weren't actually friends with. The pool of people we actually know and interact with on a regular basis was diluted. We aren't posting to our small group of friends anymore, the ones we see on campus every day. Instead, we're now posting to "friends" that number in the thousands, people in many cases we've never even met, and the sheer mass of it all gives us the misplaced feeling of comfort in anonymity. We're waving in a crowd, hurling words into a void, whispering secrets to a Wall. But no, we're not. And I would be fine with it all if I felt like all of this was creating a more honest and open reality, but ironically, I think it's shutting us all down. We don't have to take ownership of our thoughts and feelings in the same way anymore -- before, everything we did was in relation to the people around us: family, husband, wife, friends, support group, etc. And the things we said existed because of them -- it was their interpretations and reactions that made it real. So a Facebook Wall post (status update?) is no more a reflection of who you are than a secret diary is; devoid of the context of humanity, said without thought to people you don't know, it means little.
My mom called Facebook "isolating," which, on paper sounds like the opposite of what it's meant for. But you know what? She's right. We're increasingly creating islands of individuals shouting at the sky, drifting further apart as this Facebook ocean expands. But there's a kernel of an idea in there: shrink the ocean. Maybe if we purge the people we aren't actually friends with, block the others that won't stop posting, and once in a while call the people we usually DM, we can get back to the original promise that Facebook gave us: the photos from Spring Break 2007.
*Just out of curiosity, I typed Hamster Town into Google and this masterpiece popped up. You really have to commit to it all the way. There's no part where it really changes during its three minute span, but like deep meditation, it's the repetition over time that brings a wash of peace over your soul. I can't wait to post this on Facebook.
Jared Freid is a New York City-based comedian. follow him on Twitter @jtrain56 for videos, columns, and more thoughts on Hamster Social networking. You can check out his latest video from the Flugtag.
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