Sunday, 16 October 2011

Facebook: should I stay or should I go?

Long before the advent of the E-card, anyone else remember their family receiving mass mailshot-style, wordprocessed Christmas cards which went well beyond a simple greeting?  In the spirit of a company annual report or a Queen's Speech, these reviewed the year's highs and highs, leaving you in no doubt that - in 1981, (etc) at least - the Jones could not be kept up with. (There were sometimes lows and passings to report too, of course, but better to gloss over those?) As a family we tended to send up these annual ego-fanfares over our Cornflakes, and I guess my disdain for shameless 'self-PR' has continued right through to the present day. It was a pity though that the authors of these missives were often genuine family friends, people we liked or loved .. in person, that is.

Now, in the (post-?) Facebook age (I guess the hippest social networks moved elsewhere long ago), alas, such feelings surface not annually, but at least weekly. Yes, this seemingly indispensable forum has alienated me to the point that the relative merits of the ‘anti’-social, haphazard networks of the past appear more attractive by the day. Certainly more so than selectively filtering what I learn and, more importantly, don’t learn from and about its members aka my ‘friends’.

First up: I have no problem with narcissism, when combined with wit and, most critically, self-awareness. I hope this deals to some extent with any accusations of hypocrisy from my one, two readers. The difference with a blog, though, is that it is 100% its author’s. Choose to ignore it with his blessing. Vomit on a merry-go-round, though, however colourfully, and those sharing its revolutions get little choice of the air they breathe. And post a picture of that experience on Facebook, puke on my Wall, and we all have to see it. You get the point…. 

I like the principle of social networking: an easy way to keep in touch. I also regularly use MSN Messenger and Skype. Trite to say so but, yes, what a boon the Internet has been. Yet with Facebook, we get saturated with the dumbed-down pseudo-meteorological updates of daily life that we never inquired about in the first place. People we know to be complex and multi-faceted get sucked in, posting pictures of cakes and pets and voicing ever-so-right-on-opinions on politics, animal rights and other things they couldn’t write essays on. They post pictures of themselves on holiday or with their exam certificates, update their ‘status’, comments on their own comments on their own comments. The same regurgitations no doubt litter Facebook's parallel universes, or 'networks', but here they are unique pioneers whose waters are neither still nor shallow. Every conversation is a cosy clash of monologues. Been there, got the trumpet. (Tip: write a blog!) The off-the-cuff, personalised dialogues which characterised our relationships yield to the trivia of third person diary entries. And how we used to reserve scorn for those that used to talk like that (I am thinking, for example, of the boxer Chris Eubank). Since when, why and how did we allow this to become de rigueur?

So, our 'friends'... maybe we once read the book; now we only judge the cover.

Yes, how bland and crass the whole thing is: just in the last week I’ve read posts from someone complaining about it being that ‘time of the month’ and their ‘shitty cramps’, another asking for relationship advice with the open question: “how do you get someone off your mind?”. (are there any questions on Facebook which aren’t rhetorical?), Sex and the City-style “we’ve done you; now it’s my turn” “you look gorgeous!” comments on photos and other slush and shit. One friend-couple I know even exchange sweet-nothings, sulks and reminiscence on their walls with such regularity you’d think private email had been outlawed. Who needs a stalker when you’re already doing his / her homework? It's as if intimacy has to be verified with the outside world.

All of this reminds me of how much I admire the Japanese for keeping their own verbalisation in check, mutual revelation as balanced as possible in conversation, and generally not haemorrhaging their own private thoughts and feelings to the first stranger who turns up, willing to listen. 

Except that … on Facebook, they somehow seem to be taking us on at our own game. The culture and rules of engagement being Anglo-American, i.e. self-absorbed and attention-seeking, of course.

So permit me one name-drop of my own (it's not Facebook, after all). Over to the master of one-liners, the (deceased) Romanian philospher Emil Cioran...

If we could truly see ourselves the way others see us we'd disappear on the spot.” 

Write books only if you are going to say in them the things you would never dare confide to anyone.” 

We so need a voice like this in The Facebook Age, don't we, dad?