The Humanity of Facebook

Philip Berne - Jul 1, 2010
The Humanity of Facebook

I remember the first time I told my parents about Facebook. My father, who can often sound like the Dad in @sh*tmydadsays, immediately called out Facebook as self-aggrandizing drivel. What could I say? He was absolutely right. It is a selfish act, ripe for comic plunder. I can hear Louis Black in my head asking: “Why do you think you’re so important that you need to tell the whole world what you’re doing right now?”

I’m not. Not even close. But that’s never been what Facebook is about. It’s not about telling the whole world about yourself. That’s an outsider’s view. Frankly, I think people who have that perspective about Facebook, or MySpace or Twitter, are projecting. They are self-aggrandizing people and imagine that if they participated in the social networks, that is how others would see them, but really it’s how they would see themselves. So they see in others that motivation. But that’s never been why I participate on Facebook.

I’m on Facebook to read about other people, not share about myself. I do share. I share plenty. But I don’t visit for the sake of venting. Some people do, and that’s fine. Maybe they don’t have anywhere else to vent. Maybe the people in their real lives don’t want to hear it anymore, but on Facebook the venting can be easily ignored, so you don’t complain. Maybe they aren’t the type of people who can vent in reality, so they turn to virtual reality to get their emotions out.

Me, I try not to vent. I don’t ever complain about a bad flight. I don’t complain about what I just ate. I never, ever complain about my boss. Not just because I like my boss, and because he and my co-workers have been friends of mine on Facebook since before I started working with them. It’s more a matter of courtesy. Facebook isn’t about my work life, it’s about my personal life. Venting about work is best done at a bar, or at least with a drink in hand. I try not to Facebook after I’ve been drinking.

So, I’m not on Facebook for me, I’m on Facebook for everyone else. Like most people, my Facebook friends are an eclectic mix of people I’ve known. I’ve got friends from as far back as kindergarten, with the class pictures to prove it. I’ve got High School friends and college friends. Friends from past jobs. Former students whom I taught. I don’t delete friends, unless they actively offend me somehow. But I don’t add friends willy-nilly. If I never found you interesting, or if I just don’t know you, I won’t add you as a friend.

What you learn in social networking is that updating your status is not a selfish act. In a way, it’s selfless. I want to hear about the people I’ve added as friends (I’m resisting using the word friend as a verb). I want to know when they get a new job, when they get married, when they have a baby. I want to know if they tried a good restaurant, went somewhere fun on vacation or if they finally saw the Lady Gaga “Telephone” video. I know it’s silly, and probably pointless, but I can relate.

At best, I’d like to have a conversation. I try not to post any status update that completely resists a response. Most of the time, nobody bothers to comment. But every once in a while it gets interesting. Once in a while, the guy who was the lead in our High School play, who I haven’t seen since, checks in to tell me he agrees with my political views. A woman I knew in elementary school recommends a hotel where I’m going on vacation. A student I taught in his sophomore year also likes the new Roots album.

It isn’t selfish; it’s human. The human condition is ironic. We’re social creatures. We are made to socialize, and if we have any great achievement that places us above the rest of earth’s creatures, it’s our ability to form massive, complex societies. Even withdrawing from society is a related act. You can’t simply live without recognizing your place in or out of society.

On the other hand, we’re completely alone. In the most solipsistic way, we are completely alone in our own heads. Surrounded by people, we can still feel lonely. Alone in our homes, we can also feel like we belong to a larger group. That’s the irony of being human. Deep down, trust in the existence of the rest of the world is a leap of faith based on our senses and our emotions. But we all take this leap and reach out for companionship. We all want to know that other people exist, and we can affect them, even in the smallest way.

I update my status on Facebook because there is a quid pro quo with my friends. I update, they update. I want to know about them; I assume they want to know about me. It would be selfish if I had no friends, and I was just posting updates to the ether, but I have hundreds of Facebook friends, and I’ve turned down a hundred more invitations. I assume that means people want to know what I’m up to.

What I like best about Facebook is the way it fills in the gaps. I would not have lost touch with the kids in my bunk at camp when I was a camp counselor. I can make excuses for why we lost touch. We were miles apart. I was much older than them, though now the difference seems slight. We had lives that kept us busy, and immediate friends who needed our attention. These are just excuses. It’s how we live our lives and manage our relationships, or at least how we used to. I lost touch, but I never lost my interest or my curiosity.

There was a time when losing touch meant that friends, comrades and even family were lost to us forever. Maybe once every ten years we’d have a tenuous reunion, and for some the gaps in time would be so great that they were uncomfortable overcoming them. I know plenty of people who skipped my last high school reunion because they felt like the relationships had died, and it was too awkward to reconnect for one evening over cheap beer and crudités. Now, every day on Facebook is a reunion. If I skip my next reunion, it’s because I already feel like I’ve seen those old friends, I know what they’re up to.

Carrie just bought a house. Gina is trying to housetrain her puppy. Jonathan is holding his 12-week old daughter and watching a movie that is too scary for small children. Greg likes quoting from the bible. We’re all living our lives. Completely alone, and more connected than ever. What could be more human?

[Image is Nation’s brilliant Facebook “Like” stamp]

Must Read Bits & Bytes