On Facebook and the Shrinking Chasms of Memory
I do not have a Facebook. The reasons for this range, depending on who I am talking to, from the obtuse and abstract considerations of a philosophy major, which I am, to the vague truisms we exchange with acquaintances when we are trying to avoid having a real conversation. “I just feel like the commodification of the soul is a hyper-phenomenon of this era — like human beings only know themselves insofar as they are able to represent themselves via pixels; it’s…like…the aesthetic portrait of a pre-formed, pre-formated screen….man….” Or sometimes “I don’t know, I just spend way to much time comparing my body and relationship status to other people. I want to live my own life free of all that shit, you know? Be in the moment?” Or else “I can’t stand the constant stream of advertisements. I don’t want the corporations spying on me anymore than they already are…” Some combination or rearrangement of these answers suffices to either end or begin a conversation, with varying degrees of satisfaction. In truth, I think human beings have a really hard time coming up with a solid and consistent answer for why they do what they do. I don’t have a Facebook. I am ambiguously proud of that fact and, other than rotating collection of partial answers, I couldn’t tell you why.
I do worry about human connection. The lost hours, individuals, jobs, friendships, apartments. The look of a place where you used to live is a weird thing. You leave something behind, the studio, cabin, guest-house, trailer, etc., some scraps and maybe a futon along with blank walls and floors, and it gets repurposed by new tenants, (the strangest of strangers, people who live ghost lives in the bones of what we have given up on — spend their hours recovering the ribcage of a dying dream with new flesh, posters, tablecloths, a shower curtain bought on sale at Target, energy saving lightbulbs). There is so much loss. And in this world of online job searches and long distance families, it seems like people are constantly looking for means of coping with that loss — of accepting it, gilding it, living with it, or otherwise flatly denying it. Facebook is one of the ways we avoid that loss — it lets us quit remembering, frees us from the burden of the forgotten, makes goodbye hurt just a little less than it does. After all, the Face, capital F, endures.
I wonder sometimes about how people a little older than me were affected by Facebook when it was first popularized, what those men and women felt, and how little we have access to those sensations any more. Those people who were suddenly in contact with long lost cousins, high school friends, thought the people they had found had been lost irrevocably. Their shock is lost permanently — the generation that grew up with Facebook can never experience it, because nobody ever loses touch anymore unless they do it on purpose. There is something superficially comforting about this idea, but in truth it strikes me as a tragedy. Because there is loss, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not, and now our un-lived lives, the many untrodden paths, forsaken, die their deaths in solitude. Their funerals go unattended; we prop up the skeletons of our old selves on sticks and pretend that all the people we have ever been just go on living. We’ve stopped mourning prematurely, and the result is a virtual mass grave constructed for the sake of convenience.
I did have a Facebook at one point. I discovered it in 2005–2006, as an alternative to Myspace and the chatroom sleaze of my younger youth. My boyfriend at the time turned me on to Facebook and I started up, hiding my real age from him and the rest of the world, and busily posting photographs of myself in tribal make up at all-ages concerts across LA. The project of constructing an identity is difficult, taxing, endless. Who am I? The soul cries out into silent nights, again and again and again. Not so online. What are your interests? Favorite bands? Clothing brands? That technology might fool a child into believing the myth that their coursing hormones already do their best to confirm — that they are already a fully developed person, overflowing with wisdom and a comprehensive ideology about the world they occupy — this in itself strikes me as very problematic. But children cannot be made to understand this problem. I look a certain way, I like things, I have a personality, I am somebody. What a relief to check up on oneself in this way in ones childhood.
And it follows you too. That’s another thing about Facebook. Perhaps one outgrows shooting unsuspecting coffeeshop patrons with water guns and painting temporary dragon tattoos on homeless wanderers, drum circles, peeing on the side of the highway. Life evolves. The experiences that make up the tapestry of our understanding pile up, we make and lose friends. But our Facebook does not forget. There is a still frame left behind, a portrait that can be clicked back to, most likely painted with at least partially closed eyes. Something to scroll through and dull the pain of unendurable confusion.
I fell in love during my Freshman year of college. I remember looking at his Facebook, the morning after we first slept together. He was, to my 19 year old mind. perfect. We had spent the evening drinking Everclear on the floor. He was irreverent, crude. Perhaps his Facebook made promises to me that our first night together never voiced. There he was, standing thoughtfully in an autumn forest, wearing a peacoat and carrying a half finished bottle of medium-price whiskey. There again, blue eye dancing in the sun, staring away from the camera in the passenger seat of a well-used car, out on the open road. Laughing with friends. Dancing. I scrolled on. Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, clearly a strong Americana influence. I wonder now, as I recall the first few days of what would turn out to be a few years of manic highs and desperate lows, whether if in part my convictions about his character came out of the immense faith that I had placed in his Facebook. He was, and he became, infinitely more real than anyone that I had ever known. Put this is in conjunction with a growing dependency on alcohol and a penchant for elaborate dramatic fantasy, and much of the next two years of my life will make itself clear to you. In the final throes of our love affair, my room was littered with bottles. I had my second abortion of the year in December, and was keeping it a secret from my mother. I had not gone to class in a month. I stopped dreaming, praying, laughing. I missed a flight to LA, and lied to my parents about a snow storm that never occurred — a terrible coverup in a world where the weather in other parts of the world can be checked with the click of a button.
And so the years roll by. A person who was your world becomes a memory. Journal entries are composed, and lay half finished in drawers seldom visited. Here is one:
I have the overwhelming sense that I am in love with someone who no longer loves me in return. In my head I turn over the words to Autumn Leaves:
The autumn leaves, drift by my window,
The autumn leaves, red and gold.
I see your lips, the summer kisses,
the sunburned hands, I used to hold…
That minor chord which, like a needle, is threaded by our being, which penetrates that melancholy force…mysteriously bound to the human condition. What in this song makes us cry?
We cannot, and we do not, stay heartbroken forever.
But what a wonderful thing! To watch the patina age on our memories, to fail to notice the shifting shades and watercolor inconsistency of our own minds. At first, we refuse to tell the charming stories. We cannot bear them. The only stories I could tell were about tears and shouted words and the hungry, angry lonely times. I was too fraught, to fragile to describe the light at dawn, the morning broken as softly as a promise, the unbearable cold of his gaze past me. I stayed away from forests, got rid of my blue skirt and avoided the solitude of nature. There is an overwhelming majesty to romance that is private, not social, and volatile to the extreme. It is contained entirely by the memory. It lives and dies there. It can’t be expressed on Facebook.
And perhaps, in the impossibility of sketching such infinitely personal and unsayable things on social media, there is some comfort. Today, when so many people are so afraid of a loss of privacy they feel all around them, I am struck by the thought that perhaps privacy is not actually the kind of thing that you can lose, like your phone or your keys, but that instead it’s more like an infinite palate of shadows, whose variety adds depth and weight to the world around us. There are so many ways we can be private, so many ways to be alone, in our memory, with friends, in nature. Privacy and solitude are built into us, in the wordless and indescribable pulsing of our five senses and the fluttering shut of our eyelids, which without effort forbids the entire world its access to our consideration. No, not even the towering giant that is technology could ever rid the sacred tapestry of life of all its meandering shades of twilight; the inborn and inescapable power of humanity to be alone with itself. So long as we have eyes to see, we will retain the power to close them. Let us hope we do not forget the immense freedom that lives latent in these seemingly mundane reflexes of reality.