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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.