On the Oddly Blurred Boundaries between Facebook and Life

Originally published in the College Voice at Connecticut College.

The saying goes that nothing has truly happened until it’s “Facebook official”—relationships, friendships, and, in the inexorable march of social media into every stage of life, engagements, marriages, and birth announcements. All meet first with veracity beneath the comforting, steel blue banner of Facebook. Everything of apparent social note is set to electronic record through photo albums, event pages and status updates. The entire exercise is tantamount to scrap-booking for the Information Age.

In one of its more recent renaissances, Facebook added a link on everyone’s page that reads “View Friendship.” On the other side of this startling hyperlink, years-long real-life friendships of incalculable emotional depth and history can be reduced to a single page of photos and wall posts, common interests and events attended—you know, in case you’d forgotten.

All shared data is sorted and nested in slick JavaScript, crisply delineating the mutual online awareness here identified as “Friendship.” Oh, the clarity! Searchable and catalogued, the traces of real human connection read like logbook entries. How else to remember the past? How else, indeed, to truly View Friendship?

Somehow, the View Friendship view of friendship is consistent with an increasingly ubiquitous attitude we have toward information: less, faster. String theory, Ursa Minor, Ganymede (disambiguation), and every wife of Henry VIII are a correct spelling away on Wikipedia (Bowlin? Boelyn?), while Urban Dictionary abates our confusion over such linguistic vanguards as “boregasm” and “pizzarrhea.” In all manner of search engine and database, we consistently and unapologetically prefer summary to elaboration, essence to context. Depth is not our long suit, but breadth we have in spades.

Mixed playing card metaphors aside, we generally have a cocktail party understanding of a number of things—the most recent episode of The Office, congressional warfare over Healthcare and DADT, a handful of required-reading novels from high school—that is to say, we know enough to pretend we know more, and more often than not this exactly how much we care to know. Certainly we are not unacademic. Why else would we be here, at this Liberal Arts college? As a generation, we are not uncurious about the world. Why else would we find Wikipedia so indispensible? Because it tells us about the world, but not too much.

This is the double-edged sword of what may be termed “cultural abbreviation”—the compression of information such that we absorb more, while in reality retaining infinitely less. This makes for dynamic small talk, but big talk suffers big time. If less, faster is the wave of the future, more, slower seems as current as the 1996 World Book. Far be it from me to decry the decline of the encyclopedia set, but it seems that the closer at hand we find information, the less we take from it. Easy come, easy go. What has less, faster done to us?

Facebook friendship is a backlit LCD facsimile of a life experience, constructed in a virtual world in which fifty photos of Francine in Venice are more real than Francine’s journey, both physically and emotionally, in which Facebook status “ 😦 ” and News Feed update “Chris is Single” heal more than a pint of Phish Food and a tear-stained pillow.

On the other side of the same coin, it’s hard to deny the assertive power of certain Facebook events (such as they are). The addition of “In a relationship” to one’s profile may very well be the most concrete validation a relationship will ever receive. A Facebook “Like” of something is an equally straightforward vote of confidence, and its categorical lack of ambiguity is refreshing in an otherwise confusing world of minimally punctuated text messages and the endless internal debate between
“ 🙂 ” and “ 😉 ” in all manner of electronic flirting.

Truly, I only wish there were more things one could Facebook Like: specific people, entire friendships, times of day. These, sadly, remain the purview of real-life Like-ing—Lifebook, as it were.

As much as we might wish it, concreteness is a pipe dream in Lifebook. My “status” in Lifebook is never as clear as my status on Facebook, and unprogramming speed dials and burning love letters will never match the cool, passive certainty of unfriendship. On Facebook, closure is a button to push, and new friendships come with photographic evidence.

Inasmuch as Facebook began as an extension of life, life has become in some ways an extension of Facebook—technology imitates life, imitating technology. Cyclical, tautological, recursive—John Sherman is confused. (See how much sense that makes?)

1 comment
  1. Sandy said:

    My one Facebook minute is a deluge of information! I’d deactivate my account just to get away from ‘life imitating technology’ and people assume the worst things! LOL I’m as confused as you are now but when in doubt, I shut down my laptop teehee!

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