Facebook, one woman’s fall… (2011)

It’s 2011. I’m a 38 year old, happily married, full-time working mom.

My husband is one of those guys who always knows what hip. He’s ahead of most trends before I even know there is a trend. A few years back he suggested (strongly), that I join LinkedIn. It seemed like a no-brainer. I’ve run my own communications business for 18 years. What a fabulous way to re-connect with clients, scrutinize writers, and review colleague’s corporate leaps and collective work histories. I was in. With 90 million registered users, LinkedIn’s proven its worth many times over. It’s easy to use. It’s non-exploitive. A serious business app. Anyone doing business today would be crazy not to engage this powerful network expansion tool.

However when it comes to Facebook, I’m somewhat confounded.

In 2009 I surrendered, accepting the piled up ‘Friend’ requests tendered my way. I felt annoyed when I did so. Facebook seemed well… in a word, silly.

Once linked, I reluctantly took a brief tour through my new Friend’s profiles. Two barely memorable colleagues, one university classmate, a childhood neighbor, a writing resource from the 90s, my florist, some mismatched acquaintances and four actual ‘friends’ (only one of whom I connect with off-line).

Suddenly — through the magic of Facebook — this rather incongruous collection of people became my ‘Friends’. 36 in fact. So said Facebook.

Within minutes I was caught up with their individual lives — somewhat I felt, against my will. I knew, for example, that my childhood neighbor watches Oprah regularly. I hadn’t thought about her much over the years (if ever), but I now found myself with an awareness of the grown woman she’d become and her views on such Oprah-inspired, wide-ranging topics as homosexuality and country music. I knew who was single, married, who had cute offspring versus not-so-cute. I knew roughly where everyone’s interests lay. And by ‘roughly’ I mean specifically (with pin-point accuracy).

After 20 minutes I was spent. Feeling cheapened by the whole experience. Vowing never to post a personal picture myself. What kind of mother would share pictures of her child to ‘Friends’ she barely knows? I promised I’d never waste my own time like this again. I pledged that if I ever added detail to my own profile, I would certainly not tell anyone what I watch on TV. This promise I have kept.

Fast forward to mid 2010. Friend requests arrive fast and furiously. Now that I’m all set up, I accept with little resistance. I don’t bother to review anyone’s actual profile. I don’t even review my own. I’m just in it for the numbers.

One day I check and I have 65 Facebook Friends. This seems like a lot. Then I notice something that strikes an oddly competitive and socially anxious chord. I discover numerous real-life friends with many more Facebook Friends than me. Some have hundreds! When did they start? How did they amass 892 Friends? I like and respect these folks, so I can only conclude that maybe I’m being too uptight about the Facebook silliness factor. These people have big, demanding jobs. They have kids and families. They’re active in their communities. They are not silly!

Perhaps I should send out some invites myself. So I do. Five or six invites here and there. Most accepted within moments. Some bizarrely accepted months later. I reach 100 Friends — my new acceptable number.

But what to do with all these Friends? They keep popping up. My list expands. I become more choosey. I don’t accept everyone that invites me. I decide my list should reflect people I actually care about. But alas, I make lots of exceptions to this rule.

And I start to read my Friend’s profiles. Not in their entirety. Who has time for that? I just scan for recent comments, lightly browse albums, show pictures of their kids to my husband.

Sometimes I find myself glancing at ‘friends of Friends’. People I don’t know at all. This takes time, yet I do it anyway. It’s not all that enjoyable. Nevertheless, I continue.

And therein lies the quandary. If I don’t know you (or like you) well enough to plan coffee, why would I spend time examining your latest Kyoto trip or pouring over the details of a recipe that worked out well for you last Sunday?

And yet my clandestine participation continues, almost unwittingly. I still feel cheap. Though less and less tawdry as I see respectable folks submit, and I realize we are all succumbing to this astonishing social networking phenomenon. Drawn to it regardless of its perceptible futility. 71.2% of the US web audience is ‘on Facebook’ after all.

And I admit, there are some aspects I don’t mind.

I can easily view pictures circulated by real loved ones. I can richly connect with a sister who lives a province away. I remember people I’ve long neglected; people I really like! I’m caught up with a dear friend who moved to Australia a decade ago. I’ve virtually ‘been’ at every birthday dinner and key celebration she’s had for years.

I’ve located and casually (read: thoroughly) reviewed the lives of several ex-boyfriends. Now that’s interesting. It’s amazing how memories work (preserving good looks and nubile young bodies over years of physical erosion).

I can solicit real-time feedback on the best NYC Tribeca brunch spot. And my Friends will answer. And I will care because they are a self-selected (and now connected) peer group of what seem to be like-minded souls.

The most alluring aspect? I’m up-to-date on Real Friend’s lives. I’m instantly re-familiarized with children’s names, family histories, work lives, vacations.

Having such Facebook insight can ironically lead some users into a bizarre parallel universe. Last summer, my husband and I attended an annual Muskoka bash for 500+ flesh-and-blood friends. John, a remote acquaintance, arrived solo and decided to tag along. Circulating the martini-sipping masses, we made introductions. Within minutes it was obvious John had done his Facebook homework. “Karen Hobsin? Nice to meet you again!”, he’d proffer (to a woman he may have met once or not at all), “Congrats on your upcoming wedding! Will it be Bermuda or Maui for the honeymoon?”. John had ‘Friends’ believing they were on much chummier terms than they actually were. And John had a great time at the party.

Truth? If I were single, I would peruse the site regularly (it provides a 360 degree portrait of any potential mate). Yet as a married gal, I struggle with the value-add.

Is Facebook really just a colossal time-waster? No one forces us to participate. We can opt out, rejecting what 1 of every 13 earthlings are doing. Even if we do set up a skeletal profile, we can refrain from sharing pictures or weighty personal details. And we don’t need to ‘check with Facebook first thing each morning’ (as 48% of all 18–34 year olds do). Preposterous.

Still, when I complete the oft spontaneous ‘getting-up-to-speed-Facebook-session’ (typically prompted by accepting new invites), I can’t help but sense I’ve just wasted 20 minutes of my day. And am I better off?

Then comes the fateful day when I cross the magic line. The day I decide I might just post a picture or two (or 27) of my own. Heck… why not? Might someone (a Friend perhaps?) not be interested in seeing my toddler at Casaloma in a medieval outfit? And what about our fabulous wedding photos? While I’m at it, perhaps I’ll provide some personal details: [married], [company website], [birthday]. Will system-prompted Birthday wishes from pseudo-friends (and a few real ones) feel good after all?

And once you’ve crossed that line… there’s no going back. Pictures need updating. Should they be categorized into albums for easier viewing? Is that really the right profile shot? Maybe I’ll comment on someone else’s photo. A simple Facebook [I Like It] thumbs-up says: “I appreciate that cool waterfall you visited in Thailand”. Who cares if I haven’t seen Tom for 14 years! That’s one cool waterfall.

And then you may just stoop to the lowest Facebooking level of them all. You actually pillage other Friend’s lists to acquire more names! People you barely know. You unabashedly send them invites to be Your Facebook Friend. And they accept within minutes (or sometimes bizarrely months later), because they too crave more Friends!

So you can no longer judge. You can only sit quietly and know you’ve conceded. You tell yourself it’s the way of the world. Your children will never know a planet without social networking (and its next iteration). You’ve had no choice. Partake or be left behind with the rotary telephone. You knew it when you overheard three, smartly-dressed Korean students gabbing about “Facebooking with their Moms” (with the caveat that certain friends must be kept “squeaky clean” and “faux technical difficulties” keep Mom from glimpsing restricted party shots). You knew it when Facebook became a verb. And an adverb.

Rebecca, a respected friend, has made it clear that Facebook does not interest her. She’s a smart, socially connected, 41 year old partner at a major law firm. They’ve blocked Facebook at her firm and that’s fine with her. She will never partake. Never. A week before David Fincher’s ‘The Social Network’ launches, I bet her that she will be on Facebook (with full profile and albums; she has a new baby after all) by her birthday next year. She shakes her head defiantly ‘No’.

If I’m right, she buys me dinner and I get to say “I told you so” repeatedly. If she’s right…. Ah, but she won’t be.