11/8/09

Faceless

My 200-plus friends want me to come back to Facebook. I know this because three have emailed me. The rest of my Facebook friends have not. They don't know how to get in touch with me, because I'm not on Facebook.

I joined the social network in 2007 for the same reason I first logged on to the internet in 1994: I like talking to people and discovering how new things work. I never want to be the guy who can't program -- well, I won't say "the VCR" because that technology has come and gone, but you get my drift. I'm a novelist who works from home and the web is indispensable. I have a site, a blog and accounts with Yahoo, Gmail and YouTube. I chat, video conference, bank, book flights and back up my work online. Memes, 4chan: it's all good. If I squint, I can almost see the point of Twitter.

But Facebook? You couldn't drag me back.

I liked it at first. I joined and was quickly "friended" by an ex-colleague, then a real-life friend I hadn't seen in years, and a fan of my novels. I connected with mutual friends, people in media, journalists and other writers. Over the next year I noticed the circle widen as less tech and more "everyday" friends came online. I viewed their holiday snaps and uploaded my own, including scans of the good old days when I would have killed to be this connected.

I didn't "friend" strangers or celebrities. My fan and I enjoyed a single exchange ("When's your new novel coming out?" is a question a writer can only answer every two years) but one of her friends was an editor whom I friended, and suddenly I had placed a short story in his collection. I was making money off this thing.

More old friends joined. Fellow clubbers. Drinkers. Exes. Persons from whom I had become estranged. Sometimes there was a frisson; other times a frank exchange. Working alone in my study I knew that even if my email fell silent there would always be a conversation waiting on Facebook. The more trivial the better. Five Albums That Changed Me! The Lesbian Test! If a conversation became boring, I could come back to it later. I was connected, I was in control.

There were professional issues. To wit, would the photograph of you at the BDSM party negatively affect your future employment prospects? It seemed like a no-brainer to me. Don't post what you don't want people to see. This issue was as old as the Internet itself.

I even remained sanguine during the infamous March 2009 redesign in which Facebook's interface was tweaked to act less like a group of social pages and more like Twitter, the short message network that has been described as "Facebook on crack".

Now, rather than a ruminative tangle of Top Fives, amusing profile images and cryptically funny bulletins, the newly emphasised news feed encouraged users to constantly update their status. Out went the philosophical non-sequiters, in came banal minute-by-minute updates. ("Having a coffee." Who cares?)

In fact, I was relying on Facebook even more. Having moved to the UK I was using it to stay in touch with friends back home and people I was meeting for the first time. Londoners introduce themselves via (in order) their mobile phone, Facebook and (quaintly) their business card. I was using the site to arrange business meetings, social events, email friends and family and publicise my work. Facebook had become indispensable.

At which point, Facebook became totally useless.

There's a difference between staying in touch with your friends, and telling all of them the same thing at once. With my closest friends, I'm totally open. If I'm miserable or angry, they know. But I don't want to communicate that to an ex. And I don't want to talk about them to my new friends, and I don't necessarily want to bore my new friends about my work.

My stepsons were friends, as were my nephews. But I'm meant to be setting some kind of an example to them, and knowing about their social lives was about as appealing as peeping into a stranger's window. As for my editors and readers: I write fiction. The point of novels is to filter out that stuff. Like the movie actress whose skirts fell down on set, I felt like I had lost my mystique.

Facebook isn't socialising: it's broadcasting. Addressing these different groups was like being on a podium. My status updates had become as cautious as press statements. How could I say I'd seen Friend A when he was arguing with Friend B? How could I say I'd been out drinking with Friend C when I'd blown off a date with Friend D? As for professional complaints - forget about it. Add a journalist friend to that mix and you have a prairie fire.

I froze. I became frustrated. I tried using the site less but couldn't because it had become so central. It was all or nothing. I deleted all of my data and closed the account.

After a few weeks, three people wrote me emails saying they missed me. While 200-plus friends couldn't keep me on Facebook, those messages tugged at my conscience. And why wouldn't they? Real friends stay in touch.

(From The Age, September 2009)
Postscript: The above article, originally published in Australia's The Age generated the following online discussion: Parlance's blog on the evolution of language, Words All Around discussed the use of the word "friend" as a verb; Jesse Sommer discussed the article on Small Fried Chips of Thought and Brenda Chillingworth discussed it on her blog about journalism.

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