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People Connections: Facebook Reprise

Bruce and I recently watched The Social Network. We’d put it off for quite a while because we’d heard that it was full of jerks, and indeed it was. The filmmakers were fascinatingly successful at rendering Mark Zuckerberg sympathetic by making it seem as though the other jerks were worse than he was. Poor little lonely rich guy.

Several things struck me about the movie. One was how much college has changed. My brother graduated from Harvard in 1980, where Facebook got its start 20+ years later, and I attended another “elite” college, though not in the Ivy League. As I watched The Social Network, I couldn’t help thinking about the way money has come to be the vastly dominant value in our culture. I don’t mean to trot out that “when I was your age, we had to walk to school two miles through the snow.” But I have virtually no recollections of talking about plans to get rich when I was in college, and I don’t think my brother had many either. Yes, both of us knew obnoxious rich kids, the silver spoon jock types. It might be an odd thing to celebrate those fellows’ 1970s and 80s obsession with drugs and sex, rather than intellectual learning, but—hey—at least it wasn’t an obsession with reaffirming their privilege and expanding even further their financial advantages in the world. I’m sure financial plotting was there; it just wasn’t so bald in my youth.

It was no doubt more prominent at Harvard than at Carleton—I remember the much stiffer and status-conscious atmosphere from when I visited my brother there, and I remember being amazed that Harvard allowed those dinner clubs to exist in our day and age. In fact, one of the reasons why I had chosen Carleton was that it had absolutely no fraternities or sororities. I believed that such things were a throw-back—like debutante balls and country clubs. How could universities open their doors to women and people of color and different backgrounds, thus asserting that the right to higher education was not a birthright, and then turn around and allow these clubs to perpetuate the discriminatory privileges that their admissions policies no longer supported?

Of course, instead of dying out, secret societies, country clubs, and fraternities and sororities have made a huge comeback. On our recent visit to Knoxville, Bruce and I asked my dad about an enormous new construction project near the UT campus, and he informed us that the university is now pouring money into a project to build sorority houses. “To fix the gender inequity,” he said, and sighed. I find the idea of sorority houses addressing an inequity hilarious. One kind lessened for more of another kind. That they’re now building sorority houses instead of demolishing fraternity houses shocks me.

As we watched The Social Network, I thought a lot about the exclusive origins of Facebook. I recall that when I was first encouraged by friends to sign up for a social networking account, I was told that the Facebook membership was better educated than that of MySpace. I didn’t realize for a long time that Facebook had originated at Harvard, that it had been built on the concept of exclusivity. First it opened to other Ivy League schools, then expanded to university students with “edu” email suffixes, then (I suppose when some of them started graduating) to people at certain companies, and then, finally, to all over the age of 13.

In some ways then, Facebook has been democratized. Yet I wonder if it doesn’t remain tied to a hierarchical system based on rather juvenile standards of interaction and created by a fellow who imbued it with a barely-beyond-high-school sense of social values. I think a lot of us—even those of us who use it enthusiastically—have deep ambivalence about it because of some of these remnants.

On the one hand, I really enjoy Facebook. It’s rather miraculous to be in touch with people I would likely never have heard of again had Facebook not come on the scene. I no longer live in either of my hometowns, and I have never received an invitation to a high school reunion, nor have I ever attended a college one. When you have had the rather peripatetic life that I’ve had, it’s also a miracle to see so many different parts of your life gathered in one spot. Weird sometimes, but cool, too.

There’s my brother, of course, whom I’ve known since birth, but close on his heels is Sharon, whose parents played bridge with my parents when I was a toddler; Lisa, who I met in elementary school and who introduced me over the years to both s’mores and Spin the Bottle at her parties; William, who played basketball with my brother but who was closer to me in age and stayed my good friend and correspondent all through college. There are high school friends mixed in with college friends mixed in with grad school friends mixed in with colleagues and recent friends mixed in with former students. When on Facebook I often miss my friends who don’t use it at all or much. There’s something deeply satisfying in knowing that there are some continuities in my fragmented life, even if it is just that a lot of my friends like cats and dogs.

Facebook was also great immediately after my brain hemorrhage last year—it made things easier for everyone, including me. Hospitals have changed—I can remember when they took everything away from you as soon as you were admitted. Now they leave you with your iPhone in peace. I had music, I had Scrabble, I had email, I had the ability to make calls, but I also had the ability to not have to make calls. I just posted on Facebook, and the messages of concern and affection came rushing in like rain on the windowsill—it was outside, but I knew it was there, warm and life-affirming.

Obviously, these purposes now go beyond the college-student hook-up site that Mark Zuckerberg originally envisioned. Facebook, as we all know, has helped to create entire political movements and to help locate lost teenagers. Wikipedia even reports that in February 2011, a newborn in Egypt was named “Facebook” to honor the role that it played in that country’s revolution.

On the other hand, Facebook in my health crisis situation was a little deceptive because serious illness is a demand, both physical and emotional. Some people in your life are going to meet that kind of demand and others won’t, and there are even some people you shouldn’t ask. Facebook lumps everyone together, though now in response to Google+’s circles it allows for different “lists.” Still, the effect of Facebook is a kind of superficiality—a kind of one-night-stand of support rather than something more sustaining. Three people—one colleague, one former mentor, and one dear friend—rather brutally abandoned me in the immediate aftermath of my brain hemorrhage, and Facebook has made this doubly weird.

It’s not that these betrayals wouldn’t or couldn’t have happened without the brain hemorrhage—at least one of them definitely would have, as the ground for it was laid by my colleague long before her final coup. My brain hemorrhage was in that case used as a convenient excuse for side-lining me, and this extended to the betrayal by my former mentor as well. In both of these cases, I was discredited partly because I was ill and therefore “weak.” This is a common and well-documented reaction to serious illness, outlined long ago by Irving Goffman in his work on stigma. The friend who abandoned me is another matter, and one that I’m at a loss to explain. Explanations and excuses are seldom forthcoming in such situations, and certainly friendships sometimes end without major illness as a factor. But I will say that such abandonments in times of illness seem cruel, far more so than when you’re well.

And it’s not as though these betrayals wouldn’t have happened without Facebook. It’s just that Facebook takes you back to the kind of public rejection that we’re all likely to have had in junior high and high school. One of the people who betrayed me in 2011 also “unfriended” me on Facebook in a good indication of her own guilt and self-loathing, just like the junior high girl who steals someone else’s boy and calls her former friend names.

The other two are still my “friends” on Facebook. One of them is probably completely unaware that I feel betrayed by her; I grant her the benefit of the doubt because I know she was misled by others. We are still polite to one another, but I feel a bit like a teenage girl who thought she was the favorite of the football team captain only to find he’s dropped her for a cheerleader. The one who was my friend simply sits there, just as her image does in my wedding photos, a cypher, like the former close pal whispering with her new buddies at the school lockers.

I feel no particular antipathy toward any of these people, though it is odd to see them on Facebook (and I do see even the one who “unfriended” me because we have numerous “friends” in common). I suppose that’s an indication that my emotional life has matured since high school even if the structure of Facebook shapes us in that h.s. mode. This has all pointed out to me concretely how Facebook is not so much about friendship as it is about something else, the wider social network indeed—or the appearance of community, but not community itself.

We all know this, of course—it’s particularly obvious among writers and academics where so many of us use it as a tool of self-promotion. I do this myself, to the extent I link my blog to it and post publications sometimes. There are those who use this aspect lightly, though, and those who use it heavily. There are those who do so unrelentingly, and there are those whose Facebook pages are strangely unreal, surreal even. Watching The Social Network, I thought it no wonder that Facebook is so commonly used this way, considering its founders and their original intentions of getting ahead.

Being “friends” is, after all, not the same as being friends. I’m pretty sure Mark Zuckerberg has known this from the very beginning since his main motivation for his creation seems to have been revenge and social climbing. In other words, this may be a “duh” moment. But I still think about it a lot, in love as I am with both the simulacrum and the real world and still trying to parse out what differences Facebook makes, positive and negative.

4 responses »

  1. I have yet to see the movie, even though it’s stared me down a few times while browsing the shelf titles at my local library. I did see part of a recent Charlie Rose interview with him however (along with an older CEO type business partner of his that seemed to be there as the ‘adult’ during the conversation) and was impressed with his seemingly genuine interest in developing Facebook for more than the cash-generating avenue it has become. Still very much a young person though.

    Which makes sense when you mention it being “tied to a hierarchical system based on rather juvenile standards of interaction” …what more could it be? And I suppose the ‘more’ part of the equation is that which users bring to the table in terms of preexisting relationships. Doesn’t Facebook become a mirror of that? Whether it’s the long lost school mate, the former ex or the bestest friend, Facebook seems to simply transfer that relationship into the digital realm.

    And that, as you suggest, can be positive or negative.

    • Hi, Troy,

      I’ll have to look for the Charlie Rose interview. Certainly, Mark Zuckerberg’s take on The Social Network is that it’s “not accurate,” and I’m sure that Hollywood had its way with the material, including Zuckerberg’s youth. For me the movie just caused a bit of musing.

      But, though I do think that sometimes preexisting relationships are reflected in Facebook, I don’t think it’s a mirror or a simple transfer of relationships. Or maybe it’s that some relationships are merely reflected there and others are altered. As I said, there are many FB relationships that I simply wouldn’t have at all if it weren’t for FB. That’s a big distinction.

      As another, related example, think of the “friends” I am in near daily contact with that I met only once at a conference or that I’ve never met at all in person. I don’t do a lot of this, but I have one “friend” who supervised a few interns for me, and we used to talk on the phone a bit, and I really liked her, and she knows a few people I know, so we are “friends” on FB though we’ve never met. I even friended one friend-of-an-acquaintance after exchanging some like-minded comments about one of our friend’s posts.

      This is, I think, a fundamentally youthful way of approaching relationships, and it’s got very positive effects. It helps keep the world feeling open to possibility in a time of life when pre-internet people’s social spheres most typically would shrink. But there might also be husbands and wives who spend less time with their spouses and children because they are embroiled in superficial exchanges about Farmville on FB. So, it cuts both ways.

      And think of the potential weirdness for us teachers. I mean, teaching is not about being “friends.” It’s not even about liking students, though most of us do like most of our students. I myself refuse to accept “friend” requests from those who are still my students, but it’s common enough. And, really, it changes the whole ground of the student-teacher relationship. I could write a whole dissertation about that!

      Every new electronic form has its effect–whether it’s email or ebooks or blogs or social networking. Have you ever read Sven Birkirts’ The Gutenberg Elegies? It’s his grieving over the loss of print media books, and, while I don’t agree that this is a completely bad thing, I do agree with Birkirts’ sense of the significance and depth of the change.

      I’m learning about these effects still with blogging… where it’s more clear that I want readers like you who are not my preexisting friends. These exchanges do become a whole new kind of “relationship.” With blogging I don’t yet know of any down sides–it feels more comfortable for me because I more consciously make the decision that “this is public.” FB still is semi-private, at least in its avowed purposes if not in reality. Hmmm…

      Anyway, thanks for helping me think it through further.

    • Hey, here’s an update on the public nature of rejection on Facebook. No doubt, friendships have been falling apart forever, and no doubt, you’re right, Troy, that their friendship wasn’t probably characterized by that much maturity otherwise. But both of these women were angered and humiliated partly because of that public nature of Facebook interactions. An “unfriending” leads to arson! Interesting.

      • Ha, I don’t know if that’s sad or funny! But yes, I think you’re still going to be you whether it’s through Facebook or through twitter or through a blog, the phone or even a telegraph. Technology is only the tool/medium you need it to be, and unfortunately it’s open for abuse like anything else. I just came across an interesting article that suggests Facebook “…hasn’t fundamentally changed the nature of real-world friendship.” That is, we’re still going to be that person we are. However like you suggest, Facebook does provides a bigger stage for us to fall on ….when we fall of course.

        I found a LOT of old friends on Facebook too Lisa, and even renewed a few acquaintances because of it. But many of those relationships have regressed to their former selves now that I’ve been off the ‘book’ for close to a year now …which to me reaffirms the idea that if they truly meant something to me in the first place, I’d put in the effort to maintain them. And of course that’s a two-way street.

        Here’s that article link….

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