Tuesday, May 20, 2014

'Friends' and friends, 'Likes' and likes


A lot of us, it seems, have a conflicted relationship with Facebook.

There's no getting around its benefits. I myself use it practically as my primary news source. Whether it's NPR or WBEZ or Mother Jones or Al Jazeera, every news outlet has a Facebook presence and I hear from them several times a day. When it comes to my personal obsessions, blogs like Colorlines, The Root, Havana Times, Eater and Ask a Mexican post a steady stream of updates. Facebook helps me keep track of my beloved New Orleans through the pages of WWOZ, Kermit Ruffins and Antoine's Restaurant as well as the personal pages of friends who live there. My day is brightened by beautiful photographs posted at Antigua Guatemala and Playas Boricuas. Writers I admire like Junot Díaz and Walter Mosley share their thoughts on Facebook. Of course musicians and performance spaces and cultural organizations and music bloggers all have their own pages. Even my own city is somehow closer, with neighborhood pages and even regular reports from my alderman.

And, of course, I'll use Facebook to get more people to read this.

And then there's my friends. That's a bit of a strange category, yes? For every one of my genuine real-life-really-like to-spend-time-with friends, there are nine more who are casual acquaintances or people I've met along the way or people who are 'friends with' my friends.  By and large, I imagine that they are good people, just not friends in the traditional sense. But that one in ten... it's simply wonderful to hear from them about the contours of their daily lives. Especially gratifying to hear from are the ones, because of divergent paths, I don't often see in the flesh and blood world.

I've been on Facebook for, well, a long ass time. I've also managed pages for a small handful of arts organizations. And perhaps I should have taken it as a sign a couple of weeks ago when I launched my own professional  business page and on the same day I came across a video entitled The Innovation of Loneliness in an article called Here's What Facebook is Doing to Your Brain. (Naturally, I saw it on Facebook, and when you follow the link to the website a pop-up asks you to share it on, well, you know...)  It's one of those typically geeky things full of animated line drawings and a narration that argues the interconnectedness we feel in a social media network is a technologically superior but humanly inferior substitute for real life conversations that are, by their very definition, quite limited in number.

The video deployed science to affirm a position I've long held, that there is a certain amount of artifice inherent in a Facebook profile. That's not to say deception, although I'm sure there's some of that too. It simply means that we have the power of editing at our command, and thus the persona we present on Facebook is shaped by this more than it would be in an uncontrolled environment like, say, over drinks in a bar. Still, most of us are pretty honest, and what we choose to share is a reflection of what we care about. We put stuff up there, then hope for likes and comments. When they don't come, well, I think that is what the video is getting at when it speaks of the innovation of loneliness. After a while, I think, we start to make choices based on our craving for likes, or, to put it another way, our need for validation. Sentimentality is good, as are pictures. Combine them both and voilà!, you have likes.

And, by and large, that's fine. Who doesn't want to be popular? Who willingly shows their bad side if they can avoid it? Who doesn't want to share that beautiful sunset or tropical hideaway or hang out with friends or social injustice we observe or band we really like with others? It's simply another way of saying, "I am here. I matter." Yes, we want the gratification of a like, but if it doesn't always come, c'est la vie

One of the roots of our ambivalence about Facebook is knowing that it is tracking our every move so that a small handful of people can get very rich. Thus, the periodic brouhaha about privacy settings and so on. But here's the thing: Like airport security, those settings are a bit of a ruse to make us feel safer. Meanwhile, we assiduously go about tagging our text and photo postings so that more people see them and maybe get us a few more likes, temporarily easing the craving. Like any highly monetized drug, the hit is short lived. By then, though, Facebook has the data and is already packaging it for advertisers. And we're on to our next post.

So, that's the backdrop for the launch of my professional Facebook page. And if I learned anything in a very short time, it's that the shit gets real when you try to consciously position yourself and your service as something vital on social media. It's no longer simply "Hi, I think _____ is cool / interesting / funny, what do you think?"  All of a sudden, those likes become simultaneously more and less than those cravings. They become measurements of your success. And when they don't come, you are puzzled and maybe even a bit needy. I'm left wondering why people who are my Facebook friends haven't liked my Facebook page. It feels personal, even though it's the farthest thing from it. And the reality is, a bit over one in ten of my friends has liked my page, so the numbers make sense. The really horrifying thing, though, is that I'm spending more time than ever in the technologically superior but considerably less human virtual world, thus compounding the unease that I'm feeling.

Lady Gaga was by no means the first person to deploy the fame monster metaphor. And certainly what we are seeking on Facebook is some kind of fame, however modest. But I don't think of Facebook as a monster. More of a devil, seductive and full of promise. Be careful what you wish for.

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