Avoiding the Social

Philip Berne - Jul 15, 2010
Avoiding the Social

The range of people I know who have completely ignored Facebook sometimes astonishes me almost as much as its explosive growth. Some of the most important people in my life are social networking luddites, with little to no presence whatsoever on Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, or any photo sharing sites. But even though they aren’t present, they are impossible to ignore. I’m still friends with plenty of people they know, so their social web is still intact, but there’s a chunk missing from the middle where they would usually hold it all together.

[Image credit Rishi Bandopadhay]

My wife completely shuns Facebook. I’m friends with all of her friends. I rarely reach out to any of them individually, but I read every status update, so I’m up on all of their news. My wife works long hours and can be tough to reach by phone. On the weekend, we spend most of our time as a family. Without a digital connection, it’s more difficult for her to keep up with her friends than it is for me.

So, she misses things. Big things. About once every other month I get to deliver a fascinating tidbit like “Oh, did you hear that Shani is publishing her third book?”

“She’s already published a book?” Yes, three in fact. I’ve been invited to every launch party. They’re in New York City, I live in Texas. I assume that every friend on her list was invited. Does that mean I was invited and my wife was not? Could I at least have a +1?

How many friends’ pregnancies have I revealed to my wife? All of them. Then, nine months later, I get to show her pictures from the delivery room. I show her pictures of weddings. We might have been invited, if only we had made a team effort.

The worst part about my wife taking a pass on Facebook is that she can’t see how my relationship with her friends is changing. My wife and I met near the end of college, and our old college friends have always been dispersed. She worries that I’ll still say the wrong thing around them, that they won’t appreciate my sardonic sense of humor. But I’m not going to say anything worse than what they’ve already seen in a status update. Even if they don’t get the joke, at least they’ve probably heard them before.

I’m not friends with my parents on Facebook. My father has some sort of presence. I don’t think he has ever updated his status. My father once ridiculed the entire Facebook concept as self-indulgent. I’d rather not be his Facebook buddy; we can talk on the phone. Once, he entered a personal message reply in his status update field. He sent it out to everyone. It started with “Dear . . . ” and ended with “Sincerely, . . . “. On Facebook, it seemed as out of place as a letter written home from the battle front of the civil war. However, through Facebook he did have a miniature Elementary School reunion. Maybe he’s coming around.

Facebook once told me that my sister had broken up with her boyfriend. They had been dating a few months, maybe a year or so. He was a good prospect. She hadn’t told anyone yet that they had broken up, they were still moving their things around. But both of them updated their relationship status on Facebook. I wouldn’t have noticed, but Facebook took it upon itself to post a message on my wall saying: “Joy and Victor are no longer in a relationship.” That was cold-blooded, Facebook. I called my Mom to ask if she knew. She claimed she did, but I think I caught her by surprise, that time.

My mother swears that her friends learned that I was moving to Texas through Facebook, before I had told her. It isn’t possible. If my mother has an account, it’s only so she can log on and look at pictures. I have her friends grouped into a separate category, and through Facebook’s privacy settings, I made sure they don’t get my status updates. Neither do cousins in my parent’s generation nor anyone over 45 who I don’t know from being a camp counselor. Those people can see my pictures and any links I post, but they can’t read my status updates. Still, someone told her. There’s a rat in my barn. Someone’s leaking information. Telling on me. I figure if there is a leak, it must have been one of their children. Kids I used to babysit in High School, still ratting me out to their parents. It’s time to re-categorize them. Clearly I’m gonna need a bigger group.

A couple of my best friends are avoiding Facebook, for no good reason. One is a musician, with a solid presence on MySpace and other music sharing sites. The other is a user interface designer for multimedia systems. Both share photos online, use e-mail and instant messaging. No strangers to smartphones. Both also completely avoiding Facebook.

I’m Facebook friends with their wives. I like their wives, I think they both married interesting, fun people. But we’ve never really been friends outside of Facebook. I’ve never hung out with the wives without my friends being around. That’s what it feels like on Facebook, being their friends.

One of my friends travels. He and his wife hike, camp out; travel mostly involves the scenic outdoors. Lots of pictures posted to Facebook. Looking through them makes me feel more like a voyeur than looking through the pictures of a girl I knew briefly in Elementary school. Since my friend took most of the pictures, he’s not in them. Just shots of his wife and friends I don’t know, posing and having a great time. He is the eye of the camera, but it’s impossible for me to relate to those pictures, except in an uncanny way.

Even more strange are the pics he didn’t take. Now, it’s him, but not the shots I would have taken. Shots his wife took. It’s not about being goofy and having a good time. It’s about looking good and acting cute. I’m seeing faces I wouldn’t see except through her eyes. I feel like I’m violating their space more than I do with most other people on Facebook.

My musician friend also shows up in lots of pictures on his wife’s wall, but she tends to use pictures other people took, so she’s in many of them, too. That’s somehow less personal. But there’s always been something bugging me. He has no profile, so he’s not tagged in any pictures. On his wife’s Facebook profile, he’s not mentioned. She doesn’t list her marital status at all, and she can’t link to him as a spouse because he’s not listed. From what I can tell, they seem to be a devoted couple, and I’ve never heard of any problems in the long time they’ve been together. They’re raising a child together. Still, Facebook makes me wonder.

I was an early adopter for social networks because they always made sense to me as a personal directory, if not a system to keep in touch with friends. I was on Friendster, then MySpace, then Facebook. I’ve pretty much settled on Facebook because I’ve had the most success there. I’ve found more people I knew on Facebook than any other service, and it’s done a nice job attracting people and growing its own service.

There will be a time soon when having a Facebook listing, or some similar social presence on the Web, will be like a listing in a phonebook. It will be more unusual for someone to not list themselves. Perhaps it will even be an opt-out system, or something you connect with automatically with a computer or smartphone purchase. I’ve never pushed a friend or relative into joining Facebook. In the near future, I may not have to.

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