Thursday, September 22, 2011

What is Facebook, really? (A love/hate letter to the predominate social network du jour)

Amid all of the things that have been going on recently via my social networks, I found myself alerted to the fact that Facebook has made yet another change to its interface, as my news feed was crowded with posts ranging from saying the interface sucks, to someone saying they would leave by the end of the day.

As a quasi-nomad who now has an apartment but usually only goes there for the necessities of eating occasionally and bathing (since there's no internet connection at my apartment and God only knows when the internet gods will decide that it's about time they stopped playing with our emotions), I have been relatively disconnected from what was previously a very active online life. I can only check my Facebook on my phone, since that's lately been the way I've accessed the internet 95% of the time. So, the new Facebook changes were lost to me, as Facebook mobile was still the same irritating thing it has been since I joined the smart phone world.

Even before checking the new Facebook layout, I started to experience commitment issues, and thought of leaving. I didn't even need evidence of Facebook's transgressions, I only knew how I felt: that our relationship was losing its spark, and that I needed something new.

Facebook and I have experienced such troubles before. Right before I went to college, we began our relationship, which was nothing but tame. In those days, I still had dial-up internet (what an ancient relic), so Facebook and I couldn't really see each other that often. Facebook was simple, and so was I. Facebook was just a page, with photo albums and profile information. No fancy things like status updates and chat functionality. It was a simple platform that allowed you to connect with people you were going to college with. I was a simple girl, still a teenager, really, with no smart phone, no Twitter rants, and no blog. Less Huey Freeman and more Charlie Brown. (Though in my adult life, I find myself existing within both.)

And then: I fell in love for the first time, hard, and Facebook was there. Hell, it was because of Facebook that it even happened. Facebook was there for me, allowing me to see pictures and the profile of the guy I loved, and Facebook even helped us send messages back and forth. What a great friend, that simple Facebook was.

But by the summer sun's dip in the sky, and autumn's leaves, that romance was forever through, and it was just Facebook and me again. I'm sure I pestered Facebook with my constant viewing of my lost love's profile and his pictures and searching through his friends list, trying to take clues from a dream I'd had in order to find out who his new girlfriend was, and I'm pretty sure Facebook tired of me altering my profile so often, always trying to express the most pressing feelings of disappointment, longing, and hope. (And sometimes anger.)

By the new year, I found myself asking what Facebook had really done for me. After all, Facebook was the one who brought me to the love who now was happy in a new relationship. My now constant communication with Facebook (going to college also brought the wonder of always having internet access, and leaving your computer on all day, every day) had become too much for me, and I needed space. So that April, I left Facebook. We'd talked about it before the decision was made, and there was never any discussion as to whether what we had would ever be real for us again. I left Facebook with a picture of me, half my face in shadow, and half of my face in sunlight, smiling at the camera, ironically reflecting the daily divide of my spirit.

I left, and felt that I'd never return. I took up with other relationships, and found myself thinking about Facebook sometimes, but never thinking about returning to it. We'd had our time, and it was time for new things in my life. For MySpace and for Blogger to become new comforts in the midnight hour. Frequently, people reminded me of the relationship I'd once had with Facebook, asking me about it, but it prided me to tell them that I was without Facebook, and to see their shocked expressions when I said such. (I've always enjoyed doing what differs from the norm. Huey Freeman.)

Three years had passed, and I had gotten over Facebook when an old friend showed me what Facebook had been up to since that day in April. It seemed that both Facebook and I had grown. I was a young woman, with piercings and a tattoo or two, and a "take no shit" attitude, and Facebook was a fancier platform, with status updates and pages to be liked. My friend talked me into speaking with Facebook again, and I decided to give it a shot. What could be the harm, after all? We were older, wiser, and different than when we first began our affair oh so long ago.

So, Facebook and I became an item yet again. It seemed our relationship was much stronger, as Facebook offered me a lot more the second time around, with its status updates, increased capacity for pictures, and the ability to post stuff up for my friends to see. (Like my blog posts.) Facebook was there for it all. And when I got my first smart phone, I was able to take Facebook with me everywhere. We were like two peas in a pod, it seemed.

Until I changed. And Facebook changed. Repeatedly. It felt like every time I signed into Facebook, something was different. Suddenly, there were ads that seemed to know what I was searching for and what I liked. The pages and groups changed. News feeds changed. As a bit of a chameleon myself, I understood the desire to constantly be the different thing, but what was with all the rush? What was Facebook trying to keep up with, I sometimes wondered. Was it not enough that people couldn't start their day without checking Facebook, or that now everyone--not just college students--could use it? Why did it have to always change, and without warning, at that?

More Huey on a daily basis now than Charlie, I found myself troubled by all the changes. Why did Facebook seek to be so controlling? What joy could Facebook derive out of knowing my every Google search? What joy was there to be found in knowing where I was, and where I'd been? I resisted against the change that other people seemed to take in stride. Hadn't anyone read 1984 by George Orwell? Was no one troubled by the fact that at any given moment, anyone in the world could know what you were thinking, where you were in the world, or where you'd been? In a matter of years, Facebook had gone from the simple platform I'd once known, to an entity trying to be too many things--too much Twitter, too much MySpace, too much GPS. I just wanted Facebook to become Facebook again.

But in saying that, it leads me to ask, what is Facebook, really? I imagine, to each individual, it may be many things. For most of us, we say it's a way for us to keep up with our friends, and to see what's up with their lives. But, in my recent ponderings, I have found fault with this argument. Facebook now feels like an easy way to play out the role of private voyeurs. It's what we as humans love, after all--how else could reality television have become so commonplace? Though our satisfactions might not be quite sexual in nature, how many moments of our day do we devote to Facebook stalking? To seeing who's dating, who's fucking, who's sad, who's angry, who's pregnant, etc.? In the past couple of months, I have seen a number of Facebook friends' newborn children, whose naked pictures were posted via Facebook, in some instances merely minutes after they were born. In real life, I'd have to go to the hospital in order to see that. I've also seen posts about people having been proposed to... merely minutes after it happened. I've seen pictures of people's engagement rings, their newborn children, what they had for dinner, what they're wearing to the club, the argument they had with a significant other, etc.

Facebook has given me unprecedented access to things I otherwise wouldn't know, about people I otherwise wouldn't speak to. In sitting here, debating whether a more permanent leave of Facebook is coming for me, I wonder what Facebook really is, and why I feel some reluctance to leave, though I've done it before.

For me, Facebook is many things, good and bad. Facebook is an excuse for me to not keep up with people. If I couldn't return your phone call, I can always leave a message on your wall. If I have something I need to say to you that's difficult to articulate, I can always send you a Facebook message. If I miss you, instead of writing you a letter, or even sending you a text, I can leave a little heart on one of your pictures and tell you how gorgeous you look, followed by an "I miss you!!"

Facebook gives me the ability to play detective and figure out whether you've just ended your relationship, are having trouble in your relationship, or have started a new relationship based on the frequency of your posts to people, when you remove/add the "in a relationship" from your profile, when you remove/add certain pictures from your albums, etc. So what if the detective work is actually a bunch of assumptions confirmed by my brain as truth--it's fun, isn't it?

Now, with this new Facebook layout (I pulled it up earlier to look at it, and found myself staring at a foreign entity), I find myself asking, sincerely, why I keep holding on. It's no secret that I'm not a fan of Facebook right now. I find myself living in a world where it's a legal right of mine to voice my opinion, but I can still be penalized for said opinion. I wonder often if I've given too much of my life to Facebook. Given too many people I'm not truly friends with the opportunity to know my thoughts, see those I care about in pictures, etc. As a blogger, it seems strange that I would ever have a problem with people knowing my thoughts, as I have given my thoughts away free for anyone who would like to read them for two years now. But for some reason, something about Facebook doesn't sit well with me anymore. Confusing privacy settings, constant changes, and a generation that won't even show up to an event unless they get an invite via Facebook... it's all come to be a bit too much.

Maybe it's just the Huey Freeman in me, but I find myself wanting to be rid of Facebook. It's starting to feel too much like part of the norm for me, and if you haven't learned yet how much I don't like to be part of the norm, it would be useful for you to learn now. But, for every minute I ponder clicking "deactivate," what must be the sentimental Charlie Brown in me comes up with reasons as to why I shouldn't. I think about the family members I honestly wouldn't have really known of if not for them finding me on Facebook. I think of the associates I would have lost track of if not for Facebook status updates and photo uploads. And although it may seem silly to some, I think of the fact that after what seemed like a lifetime of dealing with men who weren't about the same type of shit I was about*, I waited my whole damn dating life to be able to date someone, and have it Facebook official, and have it say that I was in a relationship with... Seriously, I did.

Well, I'm in a relationship, and at the top of my ever-changing Facebook page, it says that I'm in a relationship with (insert my boyfriend's name here). Though, you probably wouldn't even know it was me, since due to a recent bout with Facebook spies** I have currently changed my Facebook name and profile picture. Consider it the witness protection program for the internet-active. Finally, I'm in a relationship, and I've said it out loud on my Facebook page, and now that I've been able to have that moment I felt was robbed from me time and time over, I'm... over it. Not over my relationship, mind you, as I am extremely happy and proud to be able to show my affection for my love via my Facebook page. But, I'm over the need to put in a relationship on my Facebook page in order to make the relationship any more "official" than it would have been if say, I didn't have a Facebook at all, or my love didn't have a Facebook at all. Or if Facebook simply didn't exist at all... what a thought. I realize the fact that the reason I was robbed time and time over of the ability to have that "Facebook official" relationship is because of the type of men I dealt with, and the type of situations I allowed myself to dwell in. Now that I have that relationship status I in the past wanted so badly, I actually now have the urge to keep details of my relationship to myself. Does every picture of every outing need to go up? Do I really need to have everyone know when our anniversary date is?

And in thinking about those family members I "honestly wouldn't have really known if not for them finding me on Facebook," do I really know them? Just because we're friends on Facebook, does that mean that I know any more about them than their name and the fact that we're related? Yes, I get to see their pictures, and sometimes that involves getting to see pictures of family members I've heard of, but never had the pleasure of knowing while they were living, but as my family members on Facebook are older, the pictures they do post are scanned on... meaning that if I took a trip to visit them (which is what I really would like to do), I would probably be able to look at a photo album and see these pictures in real life.

And as far as those associates go... well, Facebook is a nice way to keep up with them. But before we had Facebook, we had random sitings in the mall, or in the grocery store, and we had the phone. We've also always had letters, though we all know (and I lament) that no one writes letters anymore.***

That all being said, I don't know the fate of my off-and-on, love/hate relationship with Facebook. I won't sit here and tell you that I'm going to delete it tomorrow and never go back, but by the same breath, I also won't tell you that I won't delete it at some point in the future. And as far as what Facebook is to me, really?

It's starting to seem like more trouble than its worth.

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*--seemed better than saying "men who weren't about shit," but you know that's what I meant
**--have you ever been fired from a fuck shit job because your employer spied on you, lied about what you said on Facebook, and then tried to twist your words to make it seem as though you meant something you didn't? Yeah, me neither.

***--In recent times, the US Postal Service has talked about eliminating postal service on Saturdays, and I've heard rumor recently that they are talking about eliminating the postal service all together. As a letter writer and enthusiast of snail mail, I want the postal service to stay. But, if I live in country where schools and libraries and bookstores can be shut down, then clearly the postal service is doomed.

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