We are a restless species—a species restlessly navigating new technology.
We now not only view ourselves and others through day-to-day interactions and conversations, but also through the constantly updated, managed, commented, tagged and untagged world of Facebook. Our past actions, conversations, and drunken nights are always resurfacing; photos from three years back can still receive comments, Wall-to-Walls can always be viewed again, and people from our past are only a click away. Past, present, and future all muddle together in one timeless profile of our lives.
Cameron Marlow, a research scientist for Facebook, Inc. (the site is, after all, a for-profit venture) shared some interesting statistics in an interview with The Economist last February. Marlow found that although many users have hundreds of friends, most only communicate with a small percentage of these people. Or, as Marlow suggested, “humans may be advertising themselves more efficiently. But they still have the same small circles of intimacy as ever.” For example, the average female Facebook user with one hundred and twenty friends only leaves comments on ten friends’ photos, status updates, or Walls, and only messages or chats with six. It is important to note, however, that Marlow is only referring to features that provide concrete evidence regarding how people directly and actively utilize the website. What is not mentioned are the other features of the site that make it possible to view friends’ Walls, photos, updates, relationship statuses, and profiles without ever even once contacting them, and the time that is spent doing so. Facebook constantly reminds you of the people you’re not in direct communication with; suggestions to leave a comment on someone’s Wall or to send someone a message are provided every time you go to the site’s homepage (“Say hello,” it urges you), as are notifications of new statuses and photos posted by friends. I would venture that most of us, including myself, are familiar with these and the multitude of other features of the website. Facebook is, essentially, a virtual mall; some of the stuff is of good quality, most of it isn’t, most of it you don’t need, and it is designed to encourage lingering. This makes it easy—too easy—to find out things about old friends, acquaintances, exes, or practically anyone.
Perhaps this is Facebook’s most interesting quality—its high-speed ability to relocate us to our virtual past. We can update our statuses and profiles as we wish, but our photos (whether “tagged” or “untagged”) may remain from years back—not in a closet under a mound of other loose photographs, not stuffed in a shoebox, not contained neatly in a floral-print photo album that gets opened every few years, but on the most public, most accessible, and most permanent of all social networks: the Internet. Our past seems to follow us virtually everywhere. And doesn’t this change the way relationships and periods of time in our lives come and go; change the way we feel and think about these processes?
There are plenty of people from my high school who I rarely, if ever, think about—but having a Facebook profile changed that. I can see their updates on my homepage and their newly posted photos on a daily basis. I can read comments their friends have left on their statuses. Their faces smile up at me from my computer screen – but I haven’t seen them in person for years. Yet I read their statuses and look at a few pictures anyway. Fifteen minutes later I find myself going through their entire drunken photo album. They play no role in my (real) life, but now I know what bar they went to last Saturday. I also find out a few things while I’m there; I see who has remained friends, who has not, who is dating – and who was apparently too intoxicated to notice that they had fallen asleep atop a footstool. Some photos make me smile, some make me cringe, and some just make me raise an eyebrow. I feel embarrassed, bewildered by the amount of time I have spent spying on these people’s lives. I can never get those fifteen minutes back. I have just spent more time on these people than I ever did in high school. But it was weirdly fascinating to observe and judge their lives, and way too easy. All I had to do was keep clicking.
In John Cheever’s short story, “The Enormous Radio,” this concept of unintended, unexpected investment in others’ lives is elegantly articulated. In the story, Jim Westcott purchases a new, expensive radio through which he and his wife Irene can listen to classical music. Somehow though, the electrical wiring of their apartment building has started to pick up sounds from their neighbors’ apartments. On their radio, they can hear the Fullers’ raucous cocktail party, the Hutchinsons’ quarrels, the Sweeneys’ nurse singing lullabies to their daughter. At first Irene is put off by this strange interference, but it soon becomes too tantalizing to resist. The allure of gossip presents itself without all the real-life repercussions, and she listens to it in the way one might listen to a sporting event. She even finds herself settling down in the middle of the night for a bit of reality radio. Eavesdropping on the neighbors has become a strangely addicting distraction from Irene’s own life, not unlike my browsing through people’s photos on Facebook. Voyeuristic temptation in conjunction with instant accessibility can result in a strange and habit-forming obsession.
Eventually, though, the neighbors’ voices and real-life soap operas begin to trouble Irene. Too many people, too many problems, worries, scandals—in other words, just too much information. She implores her husband to reassure her that they are not like the sordid couples they hear on the radio, that their lives are not filled with malice and deceit and greed, that they are good people. The radio is soon fixed, much to the couple’s relief. But at the end of the story, Irene’s husband comes home from a bad day at work, and in his growing anger expresses disgust with her recent airs of goodliness and superiority upon listening to the radio. “Why are you so Christly all of a sudden?” Jim demands.
Combine the feeling of voyeuristic familiarity with the ego-driven sense of removal from others that Facebook and the “Enormous” radio provide, and you end up at a strange intersection of dependency and solipsism. Just as Irene is in control of whose voices she hears and judges, we too are in control when we “Like” people’s statuses, untag unflattering photos of ourselves, delete someone’s comment, or, the ultimate shun, de-friend someone. Even the mere raising of an eyebrow at someone’s photo lends us this feeling of authority. Facebook presents us all with the feelings of individual power and initiative over our actions on the website. But if everyone feels this way, who’s really in charge?
Facebook, text messages, instant messages—the thing about them is that they’re fast. You don’t have to spend much time beforehand thinking about the act of contacting someone, of conversing, of possibly setting plans, or in the case of Facebook, anonymously “keeping tabs.” It often becomes all too easy to contact people who we wouldn’t have wasted any time on otherwise. Perhaps seeing a friend’s thumbnail pop up on our newsfeeds has played a much larger role in the progression of our current relationships than we might realize.
Many college students are all too familiar with the regrettable drunken text or phone call (and yes, Facebook comment or message). Results can be disastrous when you take a form of communication that can reach across the country in seconds and combine it with booze. What once may have been ruminated on, painstakingly penned out, and sent off in the mail can now be reduced to a few swift typo-ridden taps of a text or comment. For all the permanency of technology, it sure doesn’t leave us with much that is actually tangible.
Am I suggesting that you throw away your cell phones, delete your Facebooks, move to Vermont, and take up the art of letter writing? No, and I wouldn’t do those things either, although I have recently “deactivated” my Facebook (attempt #2), and am quite enjoying additional distance now placed between myself and others. I have actually found that I communicate more with my friends now. We all seem more inclined to call or write an email when leaving a speedy Facebook comment is no longer an option. I used to click onto a friend’s page and browse through their photos, leave a comment, and suddenly feel more in touch with them. But in reality, of course, all I really did was scratch the surface. Now I’ll write an email that only he or she can see, and have an actual back-and-forth dialogue that is ours and ours only. This kind of intimacy is impossible to achieve on Facebook.
What I am suggesting is that everyone, including myself, embrace a little more awareness of what and who we keep around, and why they’re around in the first place. Contemporary society seems to be making some subtle choices on our behalves about when and how things come and go in our lives, and about to whom we’re exposed on a daily basis. An old Zen proverb says that “knowledge is learning something every day. Wisdom is letting go of something every day.” Sometimes things must move aside for new things to come in; it’s far too easy to keep things around just because they’re comfortable. But what’s the worst that can happen? We just might find that we’re happy with something or someone else. But then, maybe that’s the scariest thing of all.