It’s hip to bash Facebook these days, but I have to admit I kind of love it. I think of the site as a modern-day version of a medieval village square – without that inconvenient risk of catching bubonic plague.
Today’s society has made us so dependent on gadgets and technology that we often forget to interact anymore, and Facebook certainly contributes to that new reality. But happy surprises come with it too – what an unexpected little pleasure it is to trade movie quotes with someone you haven’t seen since high school graduation. Facebook can make you feel less alone, ironically. During a recent spate of snowstorms, I drew a lot of comfort from looking at the blizzard images posted by my “Facebook friends” and realizing that mine wasn’t the only deck smothered in two feet of frozen flakes.
On Facebook, everyone shows up eventually… the boss, the ex, the third cousin once removed. Instead of a town crier, there’s the News Feed. Instead of the stocks, there are links to Z-list celebrities’ embarrassing YouTube videos to fulfill our hunger for public tomato-hurling.
You’ve doubtless read stories about people being fired due to drunken pictures they’ve uploaded or status updates they’ve posted declaring how much they hate their job/boss/company. I have no sympathy for these people. Facebook is a public forum! If you reeled through the square, well into your cups and proclaiming that your boss was a fool, word would get around pretty fast. You might not be publicly flogged, but within a few days, you could very well find yourself back in the basement of your mother’s hovel while a more grateful employee was apprenticed to the blacksmith.
I’m guessing that back in the day, people donned their best breeches and brooches to gather in the village square. Similarly, Facebookers have profile pictures. Those of us who use an actual photo of ourselves (instead of a picture of our baby, pet, or other adorable dependent) spend hours choosing the perfect image. Is someone else in the shot? Crop them out! Is it from 20 years ago? Well, it’s still us, isn’t it?
Looks matter on Facebook, which is why you need to be careful uploading pictures to a photo album. You may think your friend looks terrific – but she’ll demand that you delete the photo at the slightest hint of a single crow’s foot or the merest shadow of a double chin.
Of course, there’s an etiquette to be followed when you “friend” or are “friended” by someone from your past. Regardless of gender, and even if your friend now resembles the Crypt Keeper, you should always comment on his or her agelessness (“Verity! You don’t look a day older than you did during the Crusades!”)
Facebook has also become a powerful way to demonstrate your affection for your significant other. The “like” button is the modern-day version of the sidelong glance, while a loving “comment” has replaced the bold hand-holding that once announced your betrothal to the populace. More than once, my husband has taken pains to point out his Facebook status to me in the hopes that I’ll comment on it – while we’re at home, together! And when we’re apart, it sometimes seems that the ultimate act of devotion is to search the other’s name on Facebook, much as you would have once made the effort to seek out your beloved in a jostling throng.
I’m guessing that your average village gathering offered plenty of opportunities for the townsfolk to waste time. Some things never change. The local palm reader may have been replaced with a daily horoscope app, dice games by Farkle, and livestock auctions by the far less smelly Farmville, but the principles are the same.
The site is what you make of it.
I use Facebook for many reasons. It’s a way to stay in touch with people I used to see only at parties. It’s a way to get back in touch with people I went to high school with – our lives have diverged, but it’s amazing how much common ground there still is. And of course, it’s a way to stay connected to far-flung family members: I doubt that I would ever have learned of my nephew’s paintball obsession or garage-band aspirations during a dutiful phone call.
The site can also be a fascinating reflection of history. I’d connected with a woman in Kenya for work-related reasons – she told me, via Facebook, that the residents of the tiny village where President Obama’s father was born were sacrificing goats and dancing in the streets as the returns poured in on election night. CNN and Time Magazine may have provided extensive coverage – but “sacrificed goats” was a detail I could only have learned through Facebook.
There are downsides to Facebook too, of course.
It’s easy to spend too much time on the site – to the detriment of your “real life.” It’s one thing to stay in touch, but when you find yourself eschewing face-to-face interactions with your family and friends in favor of updating your status and uploading links to funny YouTube videos, it might be time to rethink your priorities.
Then, of course, there’s the dreaded “defriending.” People might just be cleaning out their Facebook friend lists, or deactivating their Facebook accounts entirely, but a defriending can seem like a catastrophe. “What did I do?” “How did I offend So-And-So?” “Was it too many Farmville updates?” It’s almost like a public shunning, with townspeople averting their eyes as you try to greet them and buy them pints of grog…
But on balance, I think Facebook’s added a lot to our lives – to my life, anyway. Not only do I know things about people I never would have known otherwise, I’ve also found it an incredibly valuable tool as I try to get more people to know about (and hopefully like) my writing.
Actually, the fact that you’re reading this essay is probably evidence that I should remove that Scarlet F. That secret love of mine isn’t so secret anymore, is it?