Life, Death and Facebook

Jelly Beans

Is Facebook dying?  If it died, would you miss it?

I asked my students these questions a few weeks ago in class, after I read the piece “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?” by Stephen Marche in the May issue of The Atlantic.  (Tim O’Brien beat me to the punch on it by writing this excellent piece a week or so ago.)

The Leaders of Tomorrow who occupy the desks in my classroom responded that Facebook “is lame and no one uses it anymore.”  This surprised me, since I know most of them have active accounts, as do most of my contemporaries.

But not all of my contemporaries.

We all know those few outliers who never got pulled in by the Facebook tractor beam.  One such outlier is a college roommate of mine, Jordan.  Jordan is the kind of person who switches from a strict vegetarian diet to one best described as “flagrantly carnivorous” just to go against the grain (I trust you’ll pardon the pun).  Given his personality I initially guessed that his Facebook-free lifestyle was just one more star in his constellation Contrarius.

Yet – and here’s the interesting part – Jordan is one of the happiest, most grounded guys I know.  He’s also the kind of person who travels from city to city helping to establish Ignatian retreats for the homeless with the Ignatian Spirituality Project.  Based in Chicago and working all over the country, constantly meeting new people and trying to stay in touch with others, it seems like Jordan should be connected on Facebook.  Or, at the very least, he should use Facebook to get the word out about his important ministry.  Right?

That’s the reason I use to keep a Facebook profile going.  “Well, I’ve got to publicize TJP.  I’ve gotta stay connected” I say.  Or, “how can I leave a comment on Matt Dunch’s latest musings or like Michael Rossmann’s latest piece?”

But the reality is, most of my Facebook time is not spend productively.  I’d even go so far as to wager that most of the world’s Facebook time is spent negotiating the insecurities that plague us as humans.

We beloved humans, who know that our dignity and worth go deeper than what we do or say.  We fragile humans, who so easily doubt these truths.

***

The last few days I’ve been putting together my own Facebook dictionary.  The translations look like this:

  • Check-in: “I’m at [location] with [these fun people].” – Translation: “I’m having a grand time with other real people, and want everybody to know it!”
  • Like. – Translation: “That thing you wrote… it’s very clever.  And I am in on it… from afar.”
  • Commenting on another’s wall conversation. – Translation: “I’m still alive – remember me?”
  • Random comment about one’s day (such as: “Brrr!  It’s -11 below zero!”) – Translation: “Someone please acknowledge that the universe has once again conspired to slight me.”  Or, “I’m still alive!  Remember me?”
  • Other random comment about one’s day, such as: “I’ve had a wonderful day today…”. – Translation: “Please, feel free ask me why my day was so wonderful.”
  • Tagging people in one’s own album. – Translation: “Here we are, just, ya know, hanging out and chilling.  Also, I took photographs.  Then I uploaded, sorted, and painstakingly tagged them to show you how good a time we were having.  All casual like.”
  • Tagging oneself in another’s photo album. – Translation:Just to be clear, I was also at [location] with [these fun people], too.”

***

It's Cold, Baby.

It’s not that I want to be overly cynical about Facebook.  I enjoy the pictures of newborns with big eyes and the wedding albums of my college friends (you all looked lovely – it’s true, each of you actually did look great).  I appreciate the hilarious links to The Campaign or to thought-provoking articles (ahem, such as this one???).  And being able to hunt down and exchange personal messages with old friends can be wonderful.

But the reality is, most Facebook time is spent doing what Stephen Marche calls “passive consumption” (scanning friends’ status updates) and “broadcasting” (updating the world on our own activities).  About these two activities Marche writes, “It’s a lonely business, wandering the labyrinths of our friends’ and pseudo-friends’ projected identities, trying to figure out what part of ourselves we ought to project, who will listen, and what they will hear.”  This projection of a carefully-crafted self is a particularly ugly strain of narcissism, because it is rooted in the belief that we must constantly put forth only the lovable (or comically tragic) details about ourselves.  Or as Marche observes, “curating the exhibition of the self has become a 24/7 occupation.”

So how does all this affect our spirits?

There’s an old Jesuit dictum that warns about “comparing and despairing.”  With Facebook, the temptation is always there to compare the fun we see out there in the world as displayed on the news feed with how we’re feeling in here.

An example: sometimes I’m bored when I’m alone.  I’ll plunk down after a long day at school wanting only to decompress by putzing around on Facebook.  I’m just hoping to see what friends are up to, to stay connected.  As it turns out, though, most of us only post pictures or status updates when something funny, exciting, or otherwise significant is going on in our lives.  And here I am, alone and bored in front of a computer screen.  And then I’m comparing the fun I see in someone else’s life:

Smiles!

Festivity with friends!

Interesting places!

with my current status:

Bored.

Sitting alone.

Tired in my old room.

It’s then that the specter of loneliness rises like a bubbling tar ball from the pit my stomach and sticks in my throat.  What may have been a productive, colorful day has now lost its luster, grown gray in comparison to the social bounty I see from a distance.  Writes Marche: “what does Facebook communicate, if not the impression of social bounty?  Everybody else looks so happy on Facebook, with so many friends, that our own social networks feel emptier than ever in comparison.”  I, who have a loving network of family and friends, suddenly feel like Ebenezer Scrooge standing out in the snow, peering through the frosty window of a warm house as the Cratchets gather to eat Christmas dinner together.

Bah humbug.

Closing my Facebook page, I wonder: Why on earth am I subjecting myself to this?  Why do we show these public selves off to one another? Perhaps it’s the fear of not appearing lovable, or even of not seeming happy at all times.  Marche again: “the price of this smooth sociability is a constant compulsion to assert one’s own happiness, one’s own fulfillment.  Not only must we contend with the social bounty of others; we must foster the appearance of our own… Being happy all the time, pretending to be happy, actually attempting to be happy – it’s exhausting.” If somebody had typed in that line at their Facebook status, I would like it.

Because I know I’ve gotten swept into that desire for attention and recognition.  “Here is my interesting life on display – acknowledge me!”  It feels good when people support something I’ve posted. (I admit to – more than once – checking my old TJP pieces just to see how many people had liked what I’d written, each time half-expecting that the brief flicker of pride the number produces will provide a lasting happiness.)

The reality is that I’m most happy, most joyful, when I’m present to the people before me.  For me, this includes God, close friends, my dear Jesuit brothers, and family.  These are the people who know me both when I am genuinely happy and when I am lonely and bored and tired.  They’ve seen me at my best and at my worst and love me still.  It’s this love that sustains us in the midst of our vulnerability, not that gap between when we post something on Facebook and when it finds purchase in someone else’s orbit of importance.

***

I think back to my buddy Jordan.  I think of his untroubled joy, of his ability to be present to his work, his family and friends.  All without Facebook.  These very days, he’s awaiting the birth of his first child.  When the little one comes into the world, I’m not sure how he’ll communicate the good news to everyone.

But I rest assured that he’ll find a way to let the people important to him know – without Facebook.  And that’s definitely something I can like.

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