Update: Check out today’s Doonesbury.
Last week, I received a startling message from Facebook.
There next to the other chit-chat and klatsch that graffitis up my “wall” was a note from the company that said “Help a friend.”
Next to the note was a photograph of my mother, with a suggestion that I “suggest friends for her.”
The truth, of course, is that my mom has plenty of friends in the real world. But like myself she has zero interest in Facebook or the finely distilled level of superficial intimacy that it offers.
Before I go on, let me nod once to the fact that I am the outlier here.
Literally hundreds of millions of my global neighbors adore Facebook and the increasingly virtual nature of our collective social life.
My scorn for on-line “friendship” — and scorn isn’t too strong a word — can be interpreted fairly enough as snobbery and Ludditism.
I accept both those labels. I’m convinced that friends, like a good bottle of wine, should be chosen carefully and tended to with something like adoration.
Where friends are concerned, I am an unabashed elitist. I don’t want six packs or kegs of intimacy. I want to pick and choose, and (yes) reject.
And yes, I’m also a Luddite. Or perhaps it would be better to say that I’ve embraced the friendship version of the local foods movement.
It’s not that I don’t have people out there in the world who I maintain contact with at great distance and over years of separation. But those are the rare, fine, unique exceptions.
Most of my friends are people I break bread with regularly, people whose children I’ve cared for when they’re sick, people who have my borrowed books on their night tables.
There is also something vital to be said for privacy and aloneness. One of the reasons I love my real friends with something close to passion is that I don’t spend a lot of time snacking on the make-believe version.
Working against this finer, warmer version of intimacy is an increasingly sophisticated set of computer algorithms and consumer-monitoring programs and customer-friendly chat programs and dating services, all designed to make us think that the on-line world is warm and welcoming.
But that note about my mother obviously wasn’t generated by some caring human who wanted to make sure she had enough companionship in her life. It was a solicitation, using the language of intimacy to sell a product.
I don’t think it’s hyperbolic to say that this kind of thing verges on the sociopathic.
To coldly use words that are so specifically emotional and vital (putting “help” and “friend” in the same sentence) as a form of manipulation? That creeps me out.
And Facebook isn’t the only siren song in the virtual world, wooing us away from real human contact.
While traveling over the holidays in New Orleans, I watched young people at bars and nightclubs who weren’t talking or interacting with one another.
No, they were busily texting or tweeting or chatting on their smart phones, while real live people sat neglected across the table.
The tug of digital intimacy is already so strong that it overwhelmed the ancient magnetism of boy-meets-girl.
Obviously, the web can be a vital, fascinating, dynamic place. And yes, it offers bits and pieces of that weird abstraction we call “community.”
But as its programs grow more sophisticated, and as its consumer-marketing memory of your tastes and desires grows more detailed, the illusion that it offers of real human companionship will grow as well.
Just as we’ve learned to distinguish between a bag full of Big Macs and a home made meal, we will also have to draw careful lines between the Facebook mob clamoring for our attention and the complex, thorny, flesh-and-blood people we really, truly want to friend.
Tags: social media