Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Closing the Book

Imagine this. You're invited to a cocktail party. A really, really big cocktail party. Almost everyone you know is there: people you went to highschool with, your nemesis from the 7th grade, your first boyfriend at university (who dumped you for his highschool sweetheart, which caused you to scrawl Tori Amos lyrics in chalk on your dorm room door.) People you work with are there too, and people you usually see on weekends. And your current boyfriend. And your brother.

And almost everyone they know.

The good news is that you're not naked, and it's not a bad dream. The bad news is that there’s no open bar. This is real.

Well, sort of. It's Facebook.

"Facebook!" say the people. "It's a great way to network!"

"Facebook!” add more. “It got me in touch with old friends I hadn't spoken to in years!"

“Facebook,” I said over the phone to a friend, “is the closest I ever hope to come to being a spy.” “A communist spy.” she added. “Because everyone on it is spying - and everyone knows it.”

For those fortunate enough not to know, Facebook is a website that, in theory, allows you to connect with others. Imagine a soirée without the awkward moments, or a high school reunion without the Botox.


First, fill out a profile of yourself. Where you live, your birth date, where you went to high school, and post-secondary school, what clubs were you a part of, what movies you like, your political beliefs.

You can even post a photo of yourself.

It's fun. It's like having a little presence out there in Cyberland, but which isn't a blog, ‘cause those are so 2003, or a MySpace, which has all kinds of scary flashing lights and stuff, or Friendster which sounds to me like a creepy morning show for kids.

Plus, it comes with that odd feeling of satisfaction that somehow, suddenly, you Exist.

Next, you ask someone to be your friend. It doesn’t matter how shy you are, how socially awkward, that the word “network” makes your skin crawl, or that you prefer cats to people. It didn’t matter to me that the last time I asked someone to be my friend, I was 7, she was 8, and it was it over the hedge of my backyard. I was out there on Facebook, every day, fearlessly making friends. And darned if it didn’t feel great.

Although if you want to get technical, I wasn’t so much making friends as, well, sort of retrieving them.

Friends from my old highschool, or the university I attended for two years before changing my mind about what I wanted to be when I grew up. And sometimes, other people's Friends. Or their ex-boyfriends, whom I’d met twice at parties. Or bridesmaids I’d been in wedding parties with.

Each Friend you amass gets listed on your Facebook page. They're in neat rows and categories: Friends from different cities, different schools, all with their profiles and nice photos of themselves.

Once you have a friend, you can “write” on their “wall”. This means you can leave each other messages, which, in turn, anyone accepted as a respective Friend of yours or theirs can read. Sort of like an answering machine attached to a foghorn, or graffiti in a bathroom stall. Except, as I recall, people don't normally make lunch dates or ask about other people's weddings on bathroom stalls, because those sorts of things are supposed to be sort of special, or personal. Aren't they?

Don't worry! You can communicate privately on Facebook, too. You can "send a message", which means no one else can read it, except the person you sent it to.

Kind of like e-mail.

But never mind. Because once you're a Facebook member, you can search the entire Facebook network and see who else is on it. Now personally, I haven't had any official spy training. But it didn’t take too many detection skills to suss out if someone:

A) is in a relationship

B) has babies, or

C) still just likes to hang out in bars and drink their face off.

In fact, just the profile photos people choose – specifically for these purposes, I’m guessing – is usually enough to tell.

And it takes no skills at all to figure out who that person’s Friends are, because you can just click on a link and take a gander, even if you’re not one of Them. Suddenly, you’ve got more insight into the life of the girl who never spoke to you in the 10th grade than you ever did when her locker was next to yours.

According to an article in the Toronto Star, more than 430,000 people living in Toronto are members of Facebook – a number that has almost doubled in the past month. Why? Because spying on people you’ve always wondered about (but never actually liked) is incredibly addictive. Collecting friends the way you’d collect baseball cards, with the running total posted at the top of the list, is far too easy.

Don’t forget: anyone on Facebook – anyone – can ask you to be their friend.

It goes like this. You get to work in the morning, open your e-mail, and almost spit out your coffee.

"X," the e-mail reads, "has added you as a friend on Facebook. Please click on this link to confirm whether you are, in fact, friends with X."

X, naturally, will either be:

A) One of your Real Life friends, who you are in, at least, semi-regular contact with, via the phone or at the playground or even by good old-fashioned text message.

B) someone who was never all that friendly to you in person

C) someone you were never all that friendly to in person

D) someone who ruthlessly dumped you, and, after you hung out in bars and drank your face off with persons from category A, you recovered, wrote Tori Amos lyrics in chalk on your dorm room door, and years have passed, but you're still very glad they live in a different city - hopefully one you've never heard of.

Suddenly, you're face to face with this person.

No! Facebook to Facebook. Trust me – it's worse. Because now, like at the cocktail party of your nightmares, you’re forced to make a decision you wouldn’t in natural circumstances have to make.

"No," you reply, boldly and bravely, "I am not friends with X." Now X can write you off as:

A) a sociopath

B) a recluse

C) someone who hangs on to grudges for far longer than is psychologically healthy.

It’s sort of the social equivalent of taking half of an uneaten canapé and throwing it into their drink, and then walking away. Perhaps it’s time to reconsider.

"Yes," you reply, because you’re not that mean and besides, what’s the harm with being a virtual friend? "I am friends with X." Which means you:

A) are just as ambivalent about X as you have been for the past decade

B) have issues with confrontation

C) are desperate, or

D) are at a total loss as to what else to do.

The even eerier part of the whole interaction is that, generally, after Darren from home economics class or Jackie who went out with Dave during frosh week or Marge who you partied with regularly 5 years ago until her late-night phone calls about her romantic misfortunes got to be too much asks you to be their Friend, and you accept, it ends there.

It’s like you’re just standing there, holding your drinks, looking at each other but not actually talking.

I don’t know about you, but when that happens to me, I feel awkward. It seems impolite - since their profile lists that they’re about to buy a house or have given birth to twins or been married twice since you last saw them - not to mention anything. So I write on their wall.

“Hey!” I say. “Long time no see! Great to hear from you! What are you up to?” Which is probably what I’d say to them if I ran into them at the grocery store.

“Hey!” replies Darren/Jackie/Marge. “I’m great! I’m pregnant for the 8th time/running for office/running a marathon in Dublin.”

“Fantastic!” I say, and then never hear from them again.

Or maybe it’s just me?

The thing is, when you do run into someone at the grocery store or a cocktail party, unless they are still as fantastically self-involved as they used to be, they’ll probably ask you some questions back. And then you’ll go on your merry way, never hearing from each other again for, hopefully, another decade or so.

You definitely wouldn’t know if they suddenly lost a parent. But now you do. And so you should probably send your condolences.

Or at least write something on their wall.

After 3 weeks as a user of Facebook, I gathered up my courage, took a deep breath, and checked the “disable my account” box.

“Please let us know why you are deactivating,” Facebook requested politely. And, next to that, in very small, grey print, it added: (required)

It seemed a very quiet way of reminding me that the interrogation wouldn’t be over – ever - until I gave that final bit of information.

I skimmed the list of available options to check.

“I don’t understand how to use the site,” read one.

“I have another Facebook account,” offered another.

“I spend too much time using Facebook,” was listed, as well as “This is temporary. I’ll be back.”

I resisted the guilt-charged urge to click that one.

And then I saw it. There it was, staring me in the face, right at the top of the list. “Facebook,” read the answer, “is resulting in social drama for me.”

I poised my arrow over the box, and then stopped.

Hadn’t I revealed enough about myself to the world for one month?

Could I hold on to one shred of dignity?

Could I leave the room – take that final, victorious march - and carry, with me, one last secret?

I could.

So I finished my drink, and got up from the bar stool. I took one more look around the room, at all the old faces. I nodded at the bartender. And then, I vanished.

But not before clicking: “I don’t find Facebook useful.”

They’ll never know the truth.