One of the difficult things about Facebook is that it turns what would otherwise be a natural process of fading into mutual anonymity and ‘letting go’ into a conscious decision (the virtual severing of ties) that has to be made; a deviant pomp and ceremony.
A generation ago (I imagine!), you might stay at a hotel and strike up conversation with a couple of people in a bar. It might go well; perhaps you’d write down their address or phone number, and be in touch further down the line, or perhaps you’d forget and go your separate ways. Either way, it doesn’t really matter to either of you; the nice thing was the exchange itself; that moment of company and connection, that space to imagine the fuller details of their life (or perhaps not to) and to then move on back to focusing on the important relationships in your life, and your personal experience, even if that experience was perhaps illuminated or heightened or even forever changed by that particular interaction.
Nowadays, after a pleasant but forgettable exchange, your new hotel acquaintance might happen instead to venture to ask the casual and innocuous (though I think I’ve decided it isn’t always either) question: ‘are you on Facebook?’ The answer is almost always yes – of course you are. You’re a functioning member of society, after all; here is your full name for their immediate consumption, along with a quick visual description of your profile picture to enable their success in finding the right you. Later, you delight in accepting their ‘friend request’ and have a quick flick down their profile, learning more about them in a 3 second glance than you might have learned in that hotel bar exchange (when you were both whiling away a spare few minutes between business meetings, neither of you expecting to make a life-long friend), and go your separate ways, enjoying the fun of social pleasantry, thinking they were quite cool, perhaps having enjoyed the article they’d linked to you by message on Facebook because it related to something you were talking about, and which was fascinating.
After a few weeks, their face pops up on your newsfeed. They have posted something on their profile which you think is quite fun (a status with details on why exactly the chocolate cookie they have just eaten was so mind-expandingly orgasmic, in a deadpan, bullet-pointed list), and it prompts you to check out their page again (perhaps you are in between states of productivity). You find their life sort of interesting; very different from your own; they have more gushing friends than you, more of an interest in hiking, a self-deprecating humour around their culinary efforts, which they photograph enthusiastically, a wonderful way of seeing the best in their situations (even if they liberally contribute to the ubiquitous horror of typing ‘#blessed’ at the end of their updates) and, also, they seem to have a really cute dog… It’s quite nice having them there. It reminds you of the hotel bar, and the city you were in, and that adventuring person you were on that particular trip.
But then weeks more go by, and they are drifting amidst a crashing, noisy sea made of similarly serendipitous connection; here’s the man who knew someone you went to school with and bumped into you once on the other side of the world, here’s the woman who writes in a weird genre of poetry that you half-like and half understand; here’s the girl you shared a dormitory room with on a fleeting and frugal trip north of the border, whose jumper you liked, here’s a man who talked you into zip-lining through a cloud forest in Costa Rica even though your entire body was shaking with fear, and his friend who cooked broccoli for dinner and rhapsodised about the alchemy of greens and garlic, making you wonder if he was high or not, even as you inhaled the glory of his frying pan (the former is incredible-looking and kisses you in a club you put far too much make up on for [according to the hostel owner], even though you actually had far more of a crush on said hostel owner [who was sadly taken at the time, though, incidentally, ended up furnishing your flight home with a woollen hat he’d knitted himself]).
And they are telling you stuff, still, years later, via their status updates; what they did at the weekend, how long it’s been since they got with their boyfriend or girlfriend, which festivals they are choosing between, how difficult it is to re-upholster a chair, what they think goes very nicely with roast potato. Equally, you are telling them stuff too; what you did at a bookshop, when you’re going to be in Scotland, how nice it was to see your friend the other day and how grown up you feel having an occasional opinion on flowers, which practically makes you a gardener. It’s a mutual brick-wall exchange, sustained and swamped with approval.
But… here’s the thing… Their favourite type of coffee, though important to them, isn’t important to you, and shouldn’t be. Their life trajectory isn’t for you to be aware of; they aren’t really your friend. And isn’t it a sort of luxury to let go of the past, however much we liked it at the time? Aren’t we ladening ourselves with our insignificant moments, hoarding our own history, bringing it forth and suspending it in the present continuous? Sometimes, you just don’t need to know the basic facts and daily details of someone you spent 48 hours with 5 years ago. This doesn’t mean you don’t care about them. You wish them well; you might even think quite highly of them; but they are not a substantial character in your life-film; they don’t need that pressure. Your head doesn’t need their head’s clutter. Facebook disagrees, of course; there is no automatic ‘time out’ for ‘friendships’; to lose their updates you have to sever something, you have to physically delete them and risk feeling like a horrible person. (Most likely, they wouldn’t notice, but you still feel a twinge of guilt.)
I read a blog post once that reminded me of how funny ‘status updates’ actually are; when you post your next snippet of an update, you may as well picture yourself standing up in a crowded room (perhaps a canteen, or a ballroom, or pub), banging on a table, standing on a chair and spouting forth your self-selected news – ‘Today was interesting… I went to the shop, thought I saw a man I used to know, but then he turned around and it wasn’t him… then I drank a smoothie and it was the weirdest colour…’ – before sitting down and resuming the evening. Some of the people in the room will ignore your outburst, turning back around to resume their conversations, some won’t hear you in the first place, some will find you fascinating, others will start to clap; still others will shout back at you, making comments and asking questions; ‘what colour exactly was the smoothie? What did you put in it?’ No one will find it strange that you have propelled your particular experience, nugget-like, into the atmosphere of the pub, osmosing it into their auditory consciousness like a fine mist. In fact they’ll proceed to do it themselves, one by one, documenting their smallness and their largeness, and you might clap some of their outputs, or turn your back on them, or think in silence (while staring at them standing up on the chair) that they are quite wonderful. At any rate, the canteen or ballroom will become very noisy. You won’t know who you’re talking to anymore, which conversations you’re meant to be listening to, which you’re even interested in (if any), and how appropriate it is to listen in on other exchanges (perhaps someone has replied to someone else’s status-spurt of ‘I bought the most beautiful blue paint this morning; finally painting the nursery! Yay!’ with ‘Must be a boy then, eh? Winkyface. Did you go for duck-egg blue or more of a sky powder-blue?’ and you are having to suppress a lingering urge to question the commentator’s gendering of paint, though you assume they are right, while distractedly wondering what relation they are to the original spouter and why you’ve never heard of them before and why, anyway, you are being told, even second-handedly, about paint, since someone else is now discussing the cost of primer.)
Maybe there is something in us all that requires us to get up and roar; to be heard, validated and admired (if we’re lucky). But all this bouncing around gets so noisy, and historical, and after round-after-round of such a raucous game of musical chairs, you may begin to wonder if the most meaningful and expressive thing you can do is to sit down and miss the chair completely; crashing onto the empty space on the floor, perhaps having a little nap there, waking up last and collecting the prize. Perhaps there’s something to be said for the peace and quiet of piping down; of channelling the majestic grace of a sleeping lion.