Wednesday, February 23, 2011

People-shopping on Facebook

Like most people, my relationship with Facebook is love/hate (or maybe love-hate or love: hate). I love to hate it, and I hate to love it. It's a waste of time and somehow absolutely necessary. It's the American Dream made high-tech, where you can reinvent yourself in real time and get instant feedback on the changes you've made. It's you, crowd-sourced, continuously improving.

Every day, several times a day, I visit my page with a mixture of anticipation and self-reproach that I believe is unique in all of my personal experiences. By nature I am a furtive soul, who both resents and welcomes the challenge of pretending to think of myself as a celebrity. Aren't we all stars, anyway? Or just stardust? I wish I could just decide how I feel about this damn tool once and for all, but I suspect the ambivalence is actually part of its appeal. If I simply loved it, I could probably leave it alone.

Lately one aspect of Facebook has proven especially irresistible, and that is scrolling through the seemingly endless page of "people I may know." In about 90% of the cases I don't know them, which is where the fun begins. There's a whole life behind that little square, revealing maybe half a smiling face, a cat, a sunset, a book cover, a drawing, or (in more than one instance) a gun. I like the partial human faces the best; it seems like the most honest depiction of what you're really getting--a sliver, a crafted distortion. The names are slivers, too, in verbal form.

I will never know the first thing about these other person's lives, and yet they're being offered to me as an array of possibilities to choose from, like cereal boxes or paperweights on a store shelf. I can pick one up, turn it over, check the price and say "My God, they want that much?" All of which seems very crass, until I remember that I have given my permission for countless others to do the same to me.

Except it's not me. Is it? Can I, the author of my profile, send it out into the world and let it fend for itself, as writers are supposed to do with their books? Or must I constantly protect and shape and update and explain it? And what does it mean if doing that work becomes a significant portion of my daily life? Is constantly making an artificial version of my real life still a real life? Are we always doing that in some other form anyway?

But back to "people you may know." Perhaps a more positive way to view this is that it's nothing more than people-watching, minus the park bench and the embarrassment of being caught staring. It feels harmless enough, maybe too harmless. It does suck up vast amounts of time, watching the faces appear on my screen and then vanish as the scroll rolls upward. Elsewhere (a fair exchange?) my own profile is doing likewise, evanescent as a bubble.

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