Almost a year ago, I set up a Facebook profile and began greedily gathering armfuls of friends like Dorothy gathering poppies in Oz, plucking them from the various flowerbeds of life. But now, what I loved about Facebook is also what I'm starting to hate about it.
It used to be fun to amass lots of contacts, be back in touch with old friends, see the degrees of separation between this person and that one. I love that I have all my friends and contacts in one living, limitless, connected digital Rolodex. But increasingly, it's feeling like too much work.
Facebook, if you haven't taken a spin there, is an online network with some 62 million active users. It connects us with friends old and new, as well as those who work, go to school, share interests with and live nearby.
Incredibly, for example, I bumped into a boy I knew in Junior High. He's a man now, and lives on the other side of the country--and even though we haven't talked for 30 years (actually, I'm not sure we ever really talked in 7th grade, either), he nevertheless happens to know a lot of the people I've come to know. How weird is that?
Then I caught up with a college roommate who moved from Boston to South Dakota, and I "met" her kids, too. I forged a couple of truly great new friends on Facebook that I've since hung out with offline. And on my birthday... well, with all the Facebook "gifts" and greetings showered on me, I never glowed with more love.
It's moments like those that I sometimes pause and think about how impossible any of this would be without the tremendous gift that is the Digital Age, and I say a silent prayer of thanks for living now and not, say, when all we had to communicate with was a nub of charcoal and the inside of a cave.
But there's a flip side to all of this glorious connectivity. First, my teenage son has a Facebook page, and I've bumped into him and his friends a few times. I want the kid to have his privacy (within, you know, limits), so I always politely turn aside like I didn't actually see him, sort of like if I accidentally walked in on him in the bathroom.
I've also occasionally bumped into an old boyfriend on Facebook. Although it's been years since I saw him (which is a decidedly good thing), it seems that we still are in touch with some of the same people. So, small windows that I had shut and bolted long ago are briefly pried opened. Do I want to know that he and his new girlfriend went to see Cloverfield? No - but there it is. And when you drive by an old flame, it's hard not to rubberneck.
My friend Nedra says that she manages this by maintaining two levels of privacy settings on her social networks. "I will only allow access to things like my status updates, personal info, photos, etc if I actually have a preexisting relationship with someone," Nedra says.
Adds my friend Ryan, "When you scale these difficulties over 400 (or 4,000) friends, suddenly you've got a little mess on your hands. And the more people you meet, the harder it gets."
danah boyd, who studies social networks at UC Berkeley, calls this "context management." In other words, it's suddenly work to manage the context of your online "profile," which, oddly, seems to take on a life of its own.
Social networking sites can be all fun and games and connections. But, at the same time, they make you consider some fundamental issues of intimacy, access, and personal privacy--or lack thereof. It's work to manage your privacy settings and requests for access to your life, personal and professional. It's work to think about who sees you and how they see you and who you see... and it's often, as danah says, flat-out "unfun":
It sucks for teens trying to balance mom and friends. It sucks for college students trying to have a social life and not piss off their profs. It sucks for 20-somethings trying to date and balance their boss's presence.
And, increasingly, it sucks for all of us, too, who are somewhere north of 20-ish.
I could opt out of Facebook entirely; I know of plenty of people who have, or are thinking about it. But I'm not quite ready to do that, because I'm not willing to have the ease of that virtual Rolodex of social connection wrested from my grip.
What's dawning on me is a realization that there's a very fine line between what's Facebook--and what's In-Your-Face...book.