Facebook. I’m treading dangerous, potentially libelous, and definitely ironic ground to write an article about Facebook. But in light of some recent events, I feel it’s time for me to broach this topic.
I find social networking a fascinating phenomenon. I guess that’s partly because I grew up in an age when the internet as it is today was almost the realm of science fiction. If you’d told me fifteen years ago that I would be able to download entire discographies in the span of an hour; that I would never again have to reference a music magazine to find some obscure fact about a band nobody’s ever heard of; that I would spend my days writing about things that piss me off and reach an audience that’s growing exponentially every day, I probably would have laughed and told you to Just Say No.
In a lot of ways the internet is a great tool. Assuming you can locate reliable sources, it’s a wealth of nearly limitless knowledge – students today barely have to open a book anymore because whatever information they require is probably located somewhere online. It’s also a great democratic tool: thanks to the phenomenon of web logs and forums, everybody gets to have a say on any given topic and have intelligent, informed discussions on that topic.
Okay, so I’m overreaching a little bit – you rarely hear the terms “fag”, “n00b” or “pwned” in intelligent, informed debates. But that leads me to my next point. The internet isn’t always a great place to be: you have to wade through an awful lot of redundant, fallacious and ultimately pointless shit in order to get to what you need. Case in point – try searching for a genuine academic study on the 9/11 tragedy, and you’ll have to sort through thousands of pages worth of college-age weed-fueled tinfoil hat conspiracy websites before you can locate something worthwhile (you know, something that references sources).
So there’s good and bad in anything, which we know, and the internet is a valid illustration of that theory, especially as it pertains to information overload. Yes, I have access to just about every fact, figure, biography and celebrity nipple-slip I could ever want, but I also get constant updates on people’s relationship statuses, work schedules, stress levels and bowel movements on a minute-to-minute basis. Why? I have a Facebook account.
I’m not particularly interested in treading ground that’s been worn hard by bloggers before me, and I know plenty of writers have beaten this particular dead horse with the literary equivalent of Louisville Sluggers since Mark Zuckerberg’s little college site bloomed into a worldwide epidemic, but I still want to comment on a few things.
It’s a funny thing – Facebook has permeated our culture to the point where in a few short years, a generation will come to maturity who have always been online and always been connected to the world vis-a-vis a social networking community. It used to be Myspace (remember those days?) but somewhere along the line, coding and flash became simple enough for the average 13 year-old to deck out their page with gigabytes worth of animated text, animated backgrounds, self-activating photo galleries and music players, and generally obnoxious garbage that slows the average browser to a processing speed equivalent to that of pouring molasses in January. In Iqaluit. To say nothing of those never-ending time-wasting quizzes; God how I hated those.
So despite the fact Tom’s music page setup was far-superior, inside of a few months of Facebook’s meteoric rise to success Myspace rapidly became a ghost town. Facebook was streamlined – simple – to the point. And people jumped on that band wagon faster than you could say Rudolph Red-Pecker. Within a few months of getting myself an account, I discovered that – somehow – I had almost 400 “friends” I never knew I had. People I hadn’t spoken to in years – people with whom I was never particularly close to begin with – began actively seeking me out, apparently for the express purpose of crowding my home page with updates about the sandwich they ate at lunch, their child’s first word (gag) and their plans for the evening. Like I give a fiddler’s damn.
Now, I’ll cop to the fact that Facebook is a great tool for certain applications. Hell, I proliferate this very blog using the “links” feature, and I even have a music page set up. It’s great for planning events, given the number of people who are using Facebook in lieu of email these days. And there’s a certain narcissistic enjoyment you get out of making what amounts to a personal website devoted to you and everything you’re about for people to search and read (at least for me).
That said, Facebook has made its insidious way into every element of our culture. Bell Canada’s latest advertising campaign makes a specific point out of being able to access Facebook from your phone. People who don’t have a profile are looked at as oddities, worthy of finger pointing and hushed whispers around the water cooler. I’m even guilty of this – I spend so much time online researching these brilliant little articles you’re entertained by every day, I find myself consistently refreshing the Facebook tab on my browser, just to see what’s up.
There’s something kind of voyeuristic about Facebook – and that’s partly the problem. So-called Facebook “stalking” has become common enough that people are starting to think twice about posting personal information online, or having publicly-available profiles, or whatever. Remember the rash of firings that occurred when people started posting libelous shit about their bosses on their walls, only to be found out by narc coworkers who promptly turned them over to the Big Cheese for a reaming-out and a pink slip? Turns out people are starting to know better. My personal profile is set to the highest-possible privacy level, mostly to avoid the range of bookies, jealous boyfriends/angry fathers, psychotic ex-girlfriends and the host of other undesirables who track me through cyberspace.
Of course, not everybody knows better. Take the Lady Shelley Sawers, beloved spouse of British Intelligence agency MI6’s new chief of staff Sir John Sawers, who decided as the wife of Britain’s head spy it would be a fantastic idea for her to post some pretty private information on her Facebook profile. If, by “private”, I mean photos of their close friends and family, their address, their phone number, where they go on holiday, her husband’s top-secret MI6 code name, and photos depicting Sir John’s reported friendship with noted Holocaust denier John Irving – which I do. This, truly was the work of a MENSA candidate. Thanks to the proliferation potential of a website like Facebook, she’s effectively “outed” him to the entire intelligence community, including notorious groups of terrorists and other violence-prone nutters who would like nothing more than to crash Sir John’s vacation with a BYOB bag full of Molotov cocktails. It’s one thing to duck and cover from crazy ex’s – it’s very different to avoid being turned into flaming swiss cheese by your mortal foes.
Obviously this is an extreme example, but you’d think people would know better than to post potentially incriminating stuff online – especially if their profile is public, and in this case, even if it’s not.
People need to get over this idea that Facebook and its ilk are magical websites that are 100% secure and that posting private information in a public forum and expecting no negative repercussions, is about as intelligent as posting your phone number with the tag line “for a good time, call ____________” on a bathroom stall at Sneaky Dee’s and expecting to be able to answer the phone without shaking in fear and disgust ever again.
Another great example of the enormous impact (of dubious positive connotation) Facebook has had on our day-to-day lives is this ridiculous fascination with “relationship status”. Since when, precisely, did it become anybody’s business but my own with whom I choose to spend my intimate, exclusive time? Facebook isn’t a dating site – why should anybody care whether or not my “relationship” with Suzie Q. Unhinged is “complicated”? What the hell does that even mean? To me, it means you’re in a vague, nebulous, undefined sex-based relationship with someone you’re not sure you even like. And that’s to say nothing of the other options available: single (okay, fine), in a relationship (vague, but all right), engaged (fair play), married (this one makes the most sense), in an open relationship (also known as “can’t commit but really like sex”). At least they got rid of “whatever I can get”, because that one was truly ambiguous: what if “whatever [you] can get” is extremely sloppy and unpleasant anal penetration courtesy of some three hundred pound dude called Norm? Is that really what you’re looking for? My favourite part is when people discover their relationships have ended because their significant others have changed their statuses. Have we really gotten to this point, where communications have broken down to the level where we have to press the “refresh” button to determine our next step in life?
The whole thing is completely arbitrary. I get that posting your favourite movies, books, television shows, music, pets, culinary techniques and sex positions can give you common points of interest with which to connect with your “friends”, but couldn’t you get the same information from – I don’t know, this might sound crazy – talking to them? And now they’re saying more people use Facebook than email anymore. Go figure.
Generally speaking, Facebook is the definition of paradox. On the one hand it’s broken down our ability to communicate on an interpersonal level – everything we say is third-partied through a website to its intended target. On the other hand it’s helped to improve our ability to communicate and connect on an international level. It unites us in common motifs and helps to proliferate news, no matter whether that news is completely spurious or intensely important.
Let me give you an example. I’m shifting gears in a big way here, so you’re going to have to bear with me.
As everybody in the Toronto area probably already knows, noted Edge 102 DJ Martin Streek tragically committed suicide sometime early this morning. I’m not even going to try and express why this means something to me, because my buddy Brent at Two Assholes already did it better than I could. I found out about Martin’s death through another friend of mine who posted the news in his status update – a major departure from the usual updates I see (going to work, at work, hate work, etc. etc.). I immediately opened a new tab and searched for the news. I found it here. Attached to that article was a link to this article that informed me of Martin’s last Facebook status update, which was – to say the least – pretty dark. I was confronted with an image of this talented professional, a staple of the Toronto radio scene for the last twenty years, sitting alone in his apartment and posting what was to be his last missive to the world, and with no hint of irony or sarcasm, it haunted me in a big way.
What bothered me more about it was twofold. The first is the existential crisis that’s taken hold in our disconnected culture that leads a man to post what amounts to a suicide note on a social networking site. There’s something morbidly fascinating about the world we live in where literally everything is communicated digitally in a pre-coded box on some website somewhere, even our last words. The second is the deep sense of regret I feel, that we have become so oversaturated with information and mindless minutiae that this man’s poignant final sentiments went largely unheard thanks to a wash of leftover “RIP MJ” and day-to-day updates nobody really cares about. In a way it trivializes the sentiment, when it’s lost in a haze of unimportant crap people feel the need to post every ten or twelve minutes.
So what are your thoughts? In the wake of a tragedy that’s been more-or-less proliferated through the same channels we use to find dates, plan parties and share stupid videos, how much do you think Facebook actually contributes to modern culture? Good or bad? I know this is kind of a cop-out of a post ending, but I’m going to be honest – after the week we’ve had of major intense news both at home and abroad, I’m pretty burned out. I leave it to you to provide some feedback this time.
And for what it’s worth, my thoughts and well wishes are with the family and friends of Martin Streek. Thanks for bringing me great music on those long, dark nights Martin, and I hope you get a little peace wherever you’re bound.