A collection of essays, outdoor adventure stories, ruminations, wordplay, parental angst, and blatant omphaloskepsis, generated in all seasons and for many reasons at 64.8 degrees north latitude

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

What's not to like?

On May 7, 2011 I posted a picture of my mom on Facebook.  It wasn’t a particularly good picture.  It was taken by a four-year-old.  Moreover, the gesture was patently unoriginal (and potentially labeled me as a pawn of Hallmark), given that it was Mothers’ Day.  Still, seventeen people “liked” the image. 

Then someone else chimed in – someone who, when we were ten, patiently tried to teach me to shoot hoops, shared 25-cent cans of orange soda, and did unspeakably dangerous things on bicycles with me.  Someone who dressed as an angel for Halloween when I was a devil.  Someone I haven’t seen or even spoken to in twenty years.

Credit: Molly Cable

S: I Love this photo!!! It brings back such wonderful memories. I remember painting the mural with you. I always had a great time hanging out at your house.
S: P.S.- my mom is sitting with me and I just showed her this photo. This is her comment "I always admired Nancy's mother for having the courage to let you and Nancy paint fish on her kitchen wall." Happy Mothers Day!
A: I guess I'd better bring some paint the next time I babysit M and L. A few hours should be enough time to make our mark.
N: S, I'm pretty sure that starfish is yours. I keep thinking of you and hoping your twins are letting you sleep. I promise, twins are really easy when they're four (unless A lets them paint on the walls).

Yup.  Sometimes I really love Facebook. 

And yet… even as I type that, I cringe. None of us wants to admit that we don’t just “like” that little white-on-blue f (with an eye-rolling, self-deprecating injection of sub-cutaneous sarcasm) -- we really, truly, like it. 

Facebook is suspect.  No matter how much time we all spend on its alluring pages – how many adorable cats/dogs/children/orphaned hedgehogs we post, how many hours we devote to a version of Scrabble apparently programmed by Dostoyevsky, how many Important Causes we espouse -- we project, at best, unadorned ambivalence with regard to our habits.  More often, our ambivalence is flavored with guilt, conspiracy theories, and denial. 

Facebook, we say, laughing nervously, is a vortex of time-wasting.  It’s an omphaloskeptic simulation of actual human interaction. It’s a hang-out for narcissists who are addicted to “likes” and who obsessively self-edit their lives.  It’s a bits-and-bytes pseudo-reality where all the babies are precociously precious, everyone gets promoted, and photos never include double chins, gray hairs, or wrinkles. 

In our frantic, plugged-in, don’t-sniff-the-flowers don’t-know-the-neighbors lives, is Facebook really repairing our disconnectedness, or is it actually making us lonelier?  Stephen Marche posed that question in the Atlantic Monthly in May 2012 (http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/05/is-facebook-making-us-lonely/308930/) in an article that was well worth the read, even for those with tweet-sized attention-spans.   Reading the piece, I found that some of Marche’s awkward questions mirrored my own. 

Is Facebook actually useful for keeping up with old friends from all the myriad chapters of my life – or does it merely makes me think I’m keeping up with them, because I’ve seen the photos of their newly tiled bathroom or read the details of the natural childbirth of their eleven-pound baby?  Have all my friends morphed into one bland, public-faced person living roughly the same life-stage as myself but with no actual recollection or reference to the finer quirks of what makes them them and me me? 

Or are they, perhaps, still inimitable, individual, and goofy as heck?

May 10, 2012 was my birthday.  It wasn’t a particularly important birthday.  I was thirty-nine.  Still, thanks to Facebook’s propensity for having a far better memory than mere mortals can ever attain (a fact that makes some folks get a bit twitchy about privacy), I got a number of nice “happy birthday” messages.  And then I got this one:

Happy Birthday, Nancy, from a collection of your friends at B1's graduation party in Western Mass! — with D, B1, and B2.

Credit: benevolent stranger

A: I said, "Say Fresco!" and B1 did.
N: Awww... thanks, you guys. Given that I met one of you in the Adirondacks in 1992, and one in Boston in 1994, and the other two in Fairbanks in 1999, that's a pretty awesome birthday photo. And B1, another huge congratulations!
B2: I think we all said "Fresco," but B1 went with "Frescoooooooooooooo." She's a doctor, so she knows what she's doing.
A: Yeah, but D, *we're* looking doctoral in the robes!
N: I dunno... I've had my doctorate for a few years now, and I'm pretty sure I'm more likely to play air guitar with a badminton racket than actually wear a robe. Unless, of course, I went to a Harry Potter costume party, in which case I might do both at once.
B1: Of course I held the "o" in Fresco...I'm playing the ukulele!

In case it wasn’t obvious, these people aren’t even supposed to know each other, let alone be partying together four thousand miles away from me -- and taking time out from partying to be cute for my benefit.  I am their six-degrees-of-Kevin-Bacon.  The vagaries of the universe (plus the self-assortment of dorkily awesome people) conspired to create this birthday photo.  When it popped onto my timeline, I stared at it with a mix of nostalgia, amusement, jealousy, and joy. 

Ok, fine.  Facebook perhaps has its own special magic with regard to old friends.  But it can’t hold a candle to reality when it comes to new friends, right?  Only an idiot would try to meet people in the digital universe.  Back when I first signed up for an account, I told myself – with self-satisfied smugness -- that I would never be so stupid as to “friend” someone I’d never even met, for heaven’s sake.  

Well… until last November.

Credit: Mark Conde

C: HA! Weather Channel proof! (Slide #6 is my sister-in-law, Nancy Fresco, mid-run.)
The World's 15 Toughest Marathons - weather.com
Here's where the initial text goes

G: Wait, where does the initial text go?
C: Here, G. Here.
N: G, the initial text goes over a freakin' mountain. After that, I generally find that I've lost the thread of the text altogether, and I stumble from paragraph to paragraph with little or no coherence, retention, or even basic grammar.
G: Am I the only one seeing that line in the preview for this article?
C: Will it be more or less amusing if I say yes?
N: We can all see it, G. We're just in denial. Deep, deep denial.
C: N, meet G. You have a mutual Facebook friend from California.
N: Wait, you know M? Holy cow! He's been a friend since college... and he just got married... have you met the (other) groom?
[discussion of the general coolness of the other groom, R]
G: Maybe we can ALL get together when C's out here?
C: So are you two friends now? Have we completed the circle? square? pentagram?
N: Yup. Me, you, G, M, R... that makes a pentagram. I knew it. YOU'RE A WITCH!

It should be noted that none of my sisters-in-law are actually witches; those genes reside solidly on my side of the family. 

However, it should also be noted that many of my friends are marathoners – and when the recent tragedy in Boston set worry flaring and social media buzzing, it was Facebook that told me that my former college roommate and blazing-fast role-model (whose name is not actually Vernon, no matter how often I call her that) was safe and sound.

Credit: Bob Cowin Images

The world is small, sometimes to the point of coziness.  If a friend-of-a-friend reads enough of your political ranting and overly-intellectual hypothesizing, she might click on your blog.  And she might discover that you grew up in the same hometown on the opposite side of the country, and caused gastric distress in the same waterfowl through profligate dispersal of unwanted sandwich detritus.

N and J are now friends
P: Oh, how do N and J know each other?
N: We don't. But we know the same ducks, so it's all good.

Yeah, ok, but a Facebook “friend” isn’t the same as the person who agrees to go skiing with you at forty-five below zero, or the person who groans with you after eating the other half of the box of Girl Scout cookies, or the person who knows the answer to twenty-seven across when you don’t.  A true friend isn’t the person who “likes” the photo of your dog or your baby; it’s the person who knows that your dog chews off doorknobs and that your baby’s got flaking cradle-cap, drool-rash, and a shrieking aversion to naps – and yet still offers to dogsit or babysit.

Facebook can connect me with new people, sure, but can it help create an actual no-quotation-marks-needed friend out of the guy I bonded with when we were twelve (based on Dungeons and Dragons, contemplation of the space-time continuum, and social ostracization)?  Can it provide an inroad into socio-political debate, family camping trips, and late-night Star Trek with the vague acquaintance who drops off his kid at preschool at roughly the same time I do?

Well… yes, actually.  Yes, it can.  Not generally, perhaps, but particularly.  If I let it.

Even when distance intervenes, the equation is not impossible.  Circa 2009, I challenged that science-fiction-reading D&D-playing library-skulking friend from the Time Before Puberty to a game of Facebook Scrabble.  Four years later, I could tell you a wealth of fascinating details about his kids, his mother, his literary aspirations, and the agonies and triumphs of trying to make a living as a professional photographer.  I won’t, though – not only because I am circumspect to the core, but also because he is my faithful blog editor.

Furthermore, I can vouch that the local “friend” who always has something hilarious or insightful to say -- about the grammatical rules everyone should cease ignoring, the Onion article that will cause you to snarf your Cheerios, or the Borough Assembly member who would be more usefully put to work in the Solid Waste division -- can become the honest-to-goodness friend who teaches your kid how to light a campfire, discusses the nature of free will over a plate of not-at-all-theoretical Thai curry, or shows up unexpectedly with a loaf of ambrosial homemade multi-grain sourdough. 

Facebook is not the alpha and the omega, of course, and my use of it is far from exemplary.  Digging back into my timeline,  I find myself embarrassed by how many of my posts seem inane (“Look, my kids lose teeth, just like all other six-year-olds on the planet!”) or self-absorbed (“Hey, I’m biking/skiing/pogo-sticking a hundred miles for no good reason, and I’m sure you want to hear all about it!”) or outright boastful (“This is my child holding a blue ribbon, because she’s, like, TOTALLY AWESOME!”) 

Nonetheless, even if used as haphazardly as I have used it, Facebook can create bridges to inventing – or reinventing -- the kind of friendship that goes way beyond a click or two.  Tell me all about your obscure political candidate, your arachnophobia, and your fascination with fractals. Make bad puns about my Scrabble moves.  Quote Shakespeare or Gandhi or Captain Kirk.  Eventually, you may also accept a back rub; inherit my hand-made infant-size Arctic sleeping bags; come crash on my incredibly uncomfortable window seat; ply me with your homemade eggnog; invite my family to your wedding; and, most of all, laugh at me with understanding, intelligence, and impunity. 

A week or so ago, I got a bit testy about what passes for spring weather in mid-April in Fairbanks.  So I posted a photo of our thermometer.  That’s right, I was making bland and innocuous small-talk about the weather.  Booooring.  But my friends came through for me anyhow.

N: It's 53 degrees inside because we forgot to refill the wood pellet stove last night. It's
-24.7 outside because this is all some kind of existential test of my sense of humor.
Also, the cat is glaring at me accusingly.

P: Y'know, Nancy, I was going to bike to work today, but I was counting on a temperature about 40 degrees higher. I'm weird, but not Nancy-weird.
S: Is anyone other than Nancy truly Nancy-weird?
View 25 more comments
Twenty-five more comments!  In the space of those comments, we invented the Venn Diagram of Weird.  We started populating it with our own idiosyncrasies, from the hopelessly nerdy to the slyly profane.  In other words, we enjoyed one another’s company.

Although kibitzers on this particular post ranged across the globe – from New York to California to Ireland -- the conversation was mostly among locals.  So… why do we need Facebook?  Arguably, shouldn’t we all just get together for a cup of tea, a bike ride, or a potluck supper, and crack each other up in person, rather than via ethereal electrons?  Aren’t we doing this all wrong?

Such an assertion presupposes that the two are mutually exclusive – that Facebook is elbowing aside honest-to-goodness elbow-rubbing.  However, I’d contend that, if you let it, Facebook does just the opposite.  Most of the people in the conversation were locals, yes.  Any of them were people I’ll happily invite to our next potluck, whenever I get my act together enough and my home tidy enough to hold one.  But half of those – or perhaps more than half – are people who might not have reached my potluck-radar, had it not been for their occasional (or frequent) commentary, insights, semi-inappropriate badinage, and over-intelligent hilarity.  On Facebook.

Marche, in his article in the Atlantic, asked many of the same questions that had been rattling around in the back of my mind for a while.  Ultimately, he concluded – with the help of numerous studies, plenty of esteemed experts, and heaps of anecdotal evidence – kinda the same thing I did:  Facebook, like many other activities (grocery shopping, library book selection, ten-pin bowling, belly-dancing) is what you make of it.  If you’re lonely to start with, it probably won’t save you. Yes, we Americans are deeply lonely, eating-ice-cream-from-the-carton-in-front-of-a-glowing-screen lonely.  Facebook can contribute to that, by luring us into a false connectedness that keeps us from opening our doors and greeting our neighbors.  If we browse and click, stingy with words and bitter over the success of Annabel’s prize gardenias or Willard’s promotion to Regional Optimization Associate (www.bullshitjob.com), Facebook won’t make us less stingy, or less bitter.  But if we approach it with humanity, humility, and humor, we just might become that much more comfortable in our own Venn Diagrams of Weird. 

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