From the burgeoning annals of that wildfire phenomenon, the “social utility that connects people with friends”—better known as Facebook—comes a cautionary tale of a guy who is, as the saying goes, unclear on the concept.
This gregarious but naive chap—call him “Jeff”—hasn’t seen his daughter “Nicole,” now a college student, for seven years (acrimonious split, custody to ex-wife, the daughter becomes alienated, etc.). Nicole doesn’t communicate with him, but through her profile and photo albums on her Facebook Web site, Jeff can follow Nicole’s friendships and travels.
“Christine,” Nicole’s best friend, figures large in the photos. She seems an amiable, wholesome girl, thinks Jeff. One day he recognizes her in a Toronto coffee shop. He greets her warmly, introducing himself as Nicole’s father, adding he recognized her from Facebook. She “freaks.” Shortly thereafter, Jeff is visited by the police over the “Facebook incident.”
Jeff is horrified by the turn of events. If the young woman was so jealous of her privacy, he wonders—as do I—why the devil was she flaunting herself on a Web site easily accessed by any of Facebook’s 39 million members, and specifically by Toronto’s 836,605 members (second only to London, England, in membership numbers)? Isn’t socializing the whole point of Facebook?
Ah. Well apparently it both is and isn’t. I Googled “Facebook Etiquette.” According to Miss Manners (one of two million hits), it was Jeff’s bad: “Perhaps most importantly, let us not forget that Facebook does not translate to the real world. When meeting someone new, refrain from confessing that you have seen your newfound friend on Facebook. It’s not endearing.”
So viewing personal photos on Facebook is like frequenting strip bars: You can look, but you can’t touch. In real life, in a neighbourhood of a million windows, you close the blinds on your personal life. And you can on Facebook too. There are privacy features. But to get the benefits—the fun of access to other profiles—you have to take a few risks yourself. The bottom line is that to Jeff, following real-life rules, Christine was a friend of his daughter and approachable. To Christine, following Facebook rules, Jeff was a voyeur.
I joined Facebook passively following an invitation, but like Jeff, I don’t have a real feel for its dynamic. After the novelty of editing my “status” every few hours wore off (“I’m writing my column,” “I’m considering a nap…”), I got bored. It’s a stage for showcasing one’s wit, charm and social worthiness and therefore inherently competitive. Friendship quality is irrelevant; quantity and self-promotion are all that count.
There’s a generational divide here. A 20-something friend of mine heavily invested in Facebook (he checks in every half-hour) likens it to a Cheers-style neighbourhood hangout. “It is hard to have a conversation [today] that doesn’t touch Facebook in some way.” Perhaps that’s true amongst his cohort, but not yet mine. It’s appealing for a 30-year-old to discover who amongst his old high school peers is newly married, or a physiotherapist with Cirque du Soleil, has delivered triplets or written his first novel, but rather less so for a 60-year-old to find out who’s recovering from a quadruple bypass, divorcing her third spouse, has prostate cancer or retired to Boca Raton.
Facebook isn’t a fad, though. It’s a formidable Starship Enterprise of social connectivity, and, with new features coming onstream by the hour, boldly going where no man has gone before. Finding old schoolmates for fun is just the misleading tip of an enormous communications iceberg. Unless you’ve successfully navigated your social and professional life without a telephone and e-mail, I believe we will all at some point be sucked into Facebook’s gravitational field. We’ll find the individual Facebook features that work for us, and then wonder how we ever lived without them.
So join up and fasten your seat belt, which is to say learn the rules. Above all, remember Miss Manners’ admonition: “Let us not forget that Facebook does not translate to the real world.” You don’t want the police showing up on your doorstep simply because you were looking for friendship in all the wrong faces.