Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Facebook and the New Art Of Keeping In Touch

ARTISTIC DEPTH-OF-FIELD SHOT WOOOOOO So there’s this girl. Never met her. But we’re Facebook friends. She sent the request, I confirmed it. I now know she likes Dan Brown novels, Fight Club and Van Morrison. I know she studied art history. I see the trite, two-tone self-portrait, shot with one arm from above.

This is the worst thing you can do on Facebook – know something about someone without really knowing anything at all. It makes you want to make good on your promise to pull the plug on The Social Network. Go dark to the world of strangers.

Then you hear from an old friend. Then you meet them for lunch. Then, perhaps, you get married.

First off, let’s clear this up: unless you’re one of those who (wittingly or unwittingly) have a public profile, the term “Facebook stalking” is probably a misnomer. Full access to one’s profile requires some consent, whether it be issuing or confirming a friend request. Sure, some can abuse the privilege of knowing what’s pissing you off Tuesday, Sept. 14 at 12:35 p.m. (i.e., a message along the lines of “I’m sorry you were pissed off Tuesday, Sept. 14 at 12:35 p.m. However, I think you look really sexy in that black halter I see on page three of your photos,” etc); but in inviting someone to view your profile, you’re accepting the fullest extent of their scrutiny.

To “friend” someone is not to acknowledge friendship, or even propose it. To friend is to say: open up.

But how many of my people have I Facebook-friended years ago and subsequently forgot? And what happens when chance, fate or whatever makes them surface on my feed? It’s a strange, heady cocktail of emotions.

Take Kat, for example (all names have been changed to protect the innocent). Kat sat near me in AP psych. We’d hooked up several summers ago, exchanged a few Facebook messages and dropped out of contact.

Then EdgeRank, the algorithm that decides who shows up on your feed, and when, floated Kat my way a few days ago. One click, and her life was splayed out before me. Humanities undergrad. Master’s in hard science. Single, but a cursory survey of her photo album tells me that’s a recent development – which would explain the daisy-chain of sad song lyrics spilling down her wall. She looks good, though: tanned, trim, adult and professional. Maturity suits her. It won’t be long before her relationship status ticks over to “In a Relationship.” And I’m back in the photos, spilling through memories that aren’t mine, picking through smiles and plastic cups and self-shot portraits.

When I finally break the spell, snap back to real life (my desk, my computer, the four lime-green walls of my office), I feel foggy, disoriented, and kind of sad. This is someone I used to know. Our little tryst seems even smaller compared to the great big in-between, which Facebook documents by the day, time-stamping and memorializing.

Katie Roiphie, writing in the New York Times, suggested Facebook might be a communal Great American Novel. It isn’t The Sun Also Rises, she says, but each of our profiles contains a story, a narrative – even if, like me, you prefer to gripe about politics, post stupid videos and shill your blog posts.

For an old friend of mine, Zach, the randomness of feed was both surprising and unsettling. Logging in one day, he saw that Kate, a girl he knew from boarding school, had “checked in” at the Boston Harbor Shipyard Marina.

“I haven’t talked to Kate in 2 years,” he wrote on his feed, “but it’s good to know she’s alive. High five for technology.” Kate responded that she’d forgotten they were even Facebook friends.

Snooping through Zach’s profile, I saw the phenomenon of Facebook is something of a hobby for him – just below his Kate-spotting, he posted about hearing a middle-aged man tell a woman he’ll “Facebook her” when he got home.

When I asked him about it later, Zach said Facebook has turned us into voyeurs. While the word evokes images of perverts in trees armed with binoculars, he said Facebook’s particular brand can be more innocuous – like anything else, there are lines of acceptability, codes of conduct.

He chooses to use his feed as a combination soapbox-message board, a place to broadcast his opinions and solicit information. He recently posted a question about CouchSurfing.com and got two responses. The first was a simple LOL from a friend he sees often, but the other was from someone he hadn’t seen since 5th grade. She told him about her experience using the website in Greece.

“It was great to be able to throw that out there and find a resource less than 24 hours later,” he said.  I know people have used it for ride-sharing, travel accommodations and concert tickets (both selling and acquiring).”

Others have used Facebook to their advantage. Lydia, a friend and native of Hyannis, Mass., owes her marriage to Facebook. She had casually dated a Danish businessman while she was living abroad, but the relationship ended when she moved back home.

“He started sending me Facebook messages and ‘gifts’ asking me to come and visit him,” she said. “I brushed them off at first, but his persistence lead to a series of emails, and we made plans for me to visit him in Holland for Christmas.” Three years later, Lydia is raising her daughter in Mumbai, India, where her husband works.

Neal, an analyst working in Washington, D.C., noticed an old friend had moved to Wilmington, Del. Neal was going to be in nearby Philadelphia the following weekend; on a whim, he dropped a message.

“We ended up getting lunch together on Sunday and then spent the afternoon at the art museum,” he said. “Never would have happened without Facebook, and now I'll probably make it a point to see her whenever I'm back in town.”

No doubt, Facebook can be used for evil – once you hit page eight of photos, reminiscence has officially become creeping – but its algorithms can also bring people together. Old friends can catch up on years of history in minutes. When they catch up over lunch, and one talks about their soul-searching summer in Moab, the other knows what they’re talking about. They’ve seen that sunrise, if only a lesser version.

Who knows? Maybe I’ll have a beer and see what Kat’s been up to.