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I was on Facebook all morning today, looking for long-lost cousins, former students, colleagues and friends whom I hadn't been in touch with for years. It's an interesting--and absorbing--exercise. Some of my "friends" are easier to find than others; old classmates, for example. But for those who do not group so neatly by institution and year, it's challenging, a real effort of memory and associative thinking. I've known how many people in how many different contexts over the course of my life (nearly 44 years)? It's as much as I can do to recall the names of all of the students who have done senior theses with me, never mind friends whom I knew in high school. I'm just thankful some of them have thought to look for me!

I have vaguely known about Facebook for a few years now, but only joined this past summer. If anyone wanted to find me, I argued, they could just Google my homepage. But then my sister posted some photos that she wanted me to be able to see and I was tempted to take a bite. Addictive? Not immediately. The Walls made no sense and sending messages seemed just another way of generating email. Worse, everyone else seemed already so with it, Profiles stuffed full of favorites and facts, Boxes bursting with gifts, and Posted items showing up on something bewilderingly called "News Feed". (I lie, I only figured out about the Boxes a day or so ago; I didn't even look in them at first.) What was the difference between "Home" and "Profile"? Where did messages go? And what on earth did "poke" mean? (I still don't know the answer to this last one.)

But, then, gradually, after a month or so, I started to look around a bit. I balked at the Status reports at first; they seemed, well, so random, not really telling me anything that I actually wanted to know. Moreover, did I want to be telling everyone what I was doing right now? I wish for the purposes of this post I could remember what my first Status report was,* but I do recall posting one, "wondering what effect describing ourselves like this in 150 words or less has on our psyche." And then I learned. Two of my friends from college whom I haven't seen in decades chimed in with comments, and there we were in a mini-conversation, one friend on one coast, one in the other, and me in the middle, just as if we had run into each other in Baker Commons between classes and were going after another cup of what Food Services called coffee. After that, I was hooked.

It's an introvert's dream, Facebook. Yes, yes, I know everyone looks so extroverted out there, posting photos of "Me last night, in costume" and "What I did on my vacation", like one giant party to which one is not entirely sure one has been invited. But what is it that introverts (like me) like to do at parties? Hang out on the edges until they hear a conversation to which they have a contribution to make. You wouldn't think this of me if, for example, you've had me teaching a class, but I am in fact extremely shy. Not so much of public speaking (thank goodness!), but of making that small talk that is so very necessary for the purposes of getting along. My mother is brilliant at it, but I am much more like my father was. I hate asking questions about what people have been doing. It seems to me a form of interrogation, even though I know others experience it as "taking an interest."**

Facebook saves me from having to have those conversations. No more awkwardness about "How is your baby?" "Oh, he's 10 now." "Did you just get a new job?" "Oh, I've been at UofL for the last 15 years." "Are you and your boyfriend planning on getting married?" "We just got divorced." How brilliant is that? And I, for one, have greatly enjoyed the "25 Random Things About Me" meme (as you, my blog readers, already know). It has started more little conversations in the past week with friends whom I have known for years than any amount of day-t0-day politeness ever has. How would saris, marimba-playing, being in Beijing for the Olympics, and juggling ever have come up otherwise? And, yes, I do like knowing these things about my friends and am puzzled by the reporters who have complained about the meme.

One of my friends (and blog readers!) has remarked that I just don't get it. He has over 900 Facebook friends, while mine number only a little over a 100. Of course I'm intrigued by all these little details, says he. I'm not inundated by them like he is. But then I wonder why he has 900 friends. I'm sure, being older, I have more people I've met in my life than he has, although maybe not.*** Nor does he have to read all the lists (they do get a bit overwhelming, as I realized reviewing my friends' Notes just now). The real question is whether all of this information (if it is information, not just noise) actually means anything.

I think it does, much as simply making the link with a friend through Find Friends is a way of saying, ever so gently, "I'm thinking of you." True, I may still not want to have a long email chat about things, but I don't have to. I can look at your photos, enjoy your status updates, comment occasionally on something you've posted, and little by little, we reconnect. Frankly, I think it's brilliant, just the thing people like me--who have moved so much in our lives and lost touch with so many family members and friends--really need to feel like there are people out there who know more than just the person I am now, more than just the me of the moment. My husband calls Facebook an experiment in voyeuristic narcissism--or maybe narcissistic voyeurism--but he's done his 25 Random Things, too.

I also--and here's the real reason I'm writing this post--think there is something much more profound at stake. Just so we don't get too proud of our technological selves for thinking up Facebook (by the way, Facebook folks--thanks!), we need to remember we're not the first ones in human history who ever had a hard time staying in touch with loved ones at a distance. Think of everyone who ever immigrated before there were jet planes and telephones. But I have something else in mind: the prayer rolls that the monks and nuns of medieval Europe used to circulate when one of their community died. We have a number of these rolls (I wish I had worked with them more, at the very least for the sake of this post), recording prayers from all over Europe for sometimes (to our minds) quite insignificant people. Abbots and abbesses about whom we would never hear otherwise, beloved sisters and brothers whom those in the communities to which the prayer rolls travelled might never have met and yet for whom they composed elaborate prayers, sometimes even in verse. And here's the important thing: every one of the names on those rolls mattered.

I have installed on my Facebook Profile the application Nexus. I wish I could generate one of these graphs for the people whose lives that I study from the medieval past. How fascinating it would be to see who knew whom and how many links each of them shared. Peter Damian, Bernard of Clairvaux and Hildegard of Bingen probably knew everybody, thanks to their letter writing and preaching tours; William of Newburgh or Philip of Harvengt would have perhaps fewer links, but they both still made enough for us to know of their existence. Think of all of the people whose names we will never know, never be able to link to their loved ones and friends. Perhaps my friend feels overwhelmed with his 900 friends, but just think how many "Happy Birthday" wishes he is going to receive! Being on Facebook is like having your name on one of those prayer rolls, the point being that we are all out there, praying for--paying attention to--each other.

Okay, okay, it's just a "social utility" but think about what that means. As Margaret puts it in E. M. Forster's Howard's End (1910): "Only connect....and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer." I've spent the day trying to connect.****

*Oh, look, I don't have to; it's still there in my Profile: "Rachel is playing with the features in facebook [I couldn't figure out whether it was capitalized or not] and wondering whether it is actually possible to take a good photo with Photobooth (sic)."
**Think here of what John Cleese's character says in A Fish Called Wanda about the English being terrified of embarrassment, crossed with what Stephen Maturin tells Jack Aubrey about question-and-answer not being a civil form of discourse. I'll see if I can find the quotation later. Maybe my husband remembers when Stephen says this to Jack.
***Malcolm Gladwell makes this point in The Tipping Point (2002): some people really do know thousands of more people than others.*****
****And, yes, I know, this isn't really what the quotation is about, but I'd have to get up to find Eric Berne's Games People Play (1965) to be able to quote what he says about how important it is for our psychological health to get "strokes," that is, attention.
*****At least, I'm pretty sure it's in The Tipping Point. I don't feel like getting up while I'm writing this blog post, so I'll have to trust my memory, as I have been with trying to find my friends today.

Comments

  1. Holy smokes! A woman who has read the Aubrey/Maturin novels? I know I'm off-point, but I'm gobsmacked. I am directing the wife of my bosom to this post tout de suite.

    And, F.B., are we certain about the clarity of that 'I' preference?

    But the larger point is... that Bernard of Clarivaux would have been on Facebook but for his having been born in the wrong millennium?

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  2. Not as many times as my husband, and only through The Commodore, but yes, Patrick O'Brien got me through writing my dissertation and many difficult times after that. I love the way he writes and how his characters interact. Very like Jane Austen in many ways, if that helps your wife want to have a go. There are deep emotions at stake in every story, but the way the characters exhibit them is so finely drawn, it's really exquisite.

    Um, which "I" preference do you mean?

    Absolutely, Bernard of Clairvaux would have been on Facebook. He recruited his entire family into the monastery, traveled around Europe for decades preaching, was friends (or at least acquainted with) almost everybody you can name that was alive during his lifetime. I'm sure he would have jumped at Facebook if he'd had the chance. Monks have always been early adapters with technology: they were there with the codex, after all. The Cistercians were great users of water-powered machines in the 12th century (fulling machines, mills), and some of the earliest printing presses were set up in monasteries (e.g. Montserrat, where Ignatius Loyola was converted). Monks now are very eager to develop digitizing projects for their library collections (e.g. at the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library at St. John's University, Minnesota).

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  3. Wow. Great history lesson, thanks. I am convinced. So Christianity has been significant in the spread of both literacy and technology.

    The 'I' preference I referred to was Introversion. I've got to think you're close to the middle on that E/I scale.

    And I completely agree on O'Brien's characters: perfectly etched. Great writing.

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  4. I think at the moment (i.e. after not even a full week on FB) I am with JP on this one. Although I will also add that I am liking it so far. It is weird how we get into these things by doing i.e. basically uninformed. At least, I was. I thought, let's try it out, and before I knew it, there were a dozen or so friends. I ended up with 26 (in 2 days) and had I known how FB works (i.e. the "HOME" feature) I would have significantly fewer friends! Do I really care if one of my friends comments on one of her friends' photos? I just care about "my" friends and not even all 26 I will admit. OK, but de-friending is rude, isn't it? Yes, you are right, it does keep us connected, and I do like that. But again, there aren't that many people I care to be connected with. I still seem to be mostly writing the people I always write, apart from the initial "hey how are you" notes to those with whom I'm no longer in regular contact. One friend request came to me from a woman from my high school. I wasn't even friends with her with her then, haven't heard or seen her since '87, so why should I want her on my FB friend list? I ignored her. I don't get the 900 friends-people. But then I am still figuring FB out, it is intriguing, but I could easily live without again.

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  5. The way the Myers-Briggs folks explain it, Introversion-Extraversion is not so much a matter of shy vs. outgoing, but rather a matter of where you get your energy. Introverts need time by themselves more to be able to recharge, while extraverts get anxious when they haven't been around people in a while. I am definitely an introvert: parties exhaust me. Extraverts find them energizing. Right now, on my Facebook Profile where it says, "Say something about yourself" (or something like that), I've written, "Can I get back to you on that?" A very introvert perspective: I need time to reflect before I answer.

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  6. As the friend that was mentioned above, I feel the need to add my two cents.

    Facebook grew with college students and high school students in mind. The fact that it has outgrown those two groups just shows the enthusiasm that Facebook has been met with and that of online communication.

    I study a lot of social media and communities because it is my job to do so. Each group uses facebook a different way. Adolescents do it be cool and hip like everyone else. Teens use it as a past-time to enjoy with their high school friends. College students use it as the basis in forming their network. 23 - 30 yr olds use it for both social and networking reasons. 30+ tend to use facebook as a way to find friends that they have lost touch with or to monitor what their children are doing.

    The longer you are on facebook the more people you meet and the more friends you have. Also, the more active you are in using facebook, the more friends you have.

    More friends = more people to invite you to group, send you messages and create notes. Each person has their pet idiologies, events, issues, and projects that they would like to include you in. It's a nice way of seeing what someone is doing, how they do it, what their goals are, and how you fit into them. However, when something like "25 things" spreads across the social landscape they are no more or less bothersome than the flood of credit card applications, gym memberships, restaurant menus, and mail scams that come through your mailbox.

    When it boils down to the base, I am just not that interested on what the name of your third goldfish is. Or how you counted the faults on your roof at night in order to fall asleep. They are interesting tid-bits of trivia, but they become meaningless when there are too many of them.

    I have read many 25 things posts. The ones I most appreciate are the ones that atempt to take it as a place to add humor to the world.

    And those are my two cents.

    Cheers,
    Rob

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  7. Rob: Thanks for chiming in! It's interesting being one of the over 30s with this phenomenon; I wonder how many Friends I would have now if Facebook had been around since I was in high school. Would I have lost touch with so many of my closest friends or would we have still gone our separate ways, not really keeping in touch despite being linked on the web? Having failed for over a decade with the whole Christmas card thing, I really am experiencing Facebook primarily as a relief, but if the Internet survives we can both check back when we're 80 and see how I feel then. Meanwhile, I'm very happy still to be in touch with you, which I'm sure, knowing myself, I wouldn't be otherwise (except accidentally at NACs)!

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  8. Yes, Facebook is useful, but can be annoying at times. When it started having "apps" it sort of lost it. It began doing one thing well, and ended up doing too many things badly.

    Keeping in touch with friends is one thing, but having to waste time seeing who is throwing sheep at you is another. And all the people you've never met before who want to be your "friend".

    I'm waiting for a social newtorking side that will allow you to categorize relationships more clearly into close family, extended family, close friends, acquaintances, work colleagues, teachers, business contacts, online friends and online pests.

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  9. @Steve Hayes: Not that Facebook needs me as its apologist, but you can always block those flying sheep, you know. Also, I'm pretty sure you can categorize your settings in the way you ask. There are some good tips here: 10 Privacy Settings Every Facebook User Should Know

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Thank you for taking the time to respond to my blog post. I look forward to hearing what you think!

F.B.

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