For most of this decade I was a fervent resister of social media. I didn’t have a Facebook account, or an Instagram account, or a Snapchat account. I had LinkedIn and Twitter accounts for professional purposes but I almost never used them unless it was to link something that was work-related.
I was a proud and stubborn Luddite who communicated via email or texts, phone or conversation. Sometimes I wrote actual letters that I shoved inside an envelope, stuck a stamp on and placed in these squarish metal things called “mailboxes.” My friends were people I hung out with or communicated with regularly. I guess about a dozen or so people fit comfortably into that category (outside of family, of course). If I wanted to know what they were up to, I’d call or email.
Then, in the late spring of 2017 – two years ago – I joined Facebook and began the process of finding and connecting with friends, FB style. I did it because I’d just published a collection of short stories – “Money, Love and Blood,” available on Amazon right here! – and wanted to market it on social media.
I did manage to sell a few books through Facebook, but not a whole lot. I gave it the good old college try and had some fun in the process. For a few months I put up daily Facebook posts about various topics, usually revolving around the significance of that particular date, and always ending with a plug of the book. But sales never really took off. Still, I tried. No regrets.
Some people were kind enough to offer feedback on the book. Some were kind enough to leave nice reviews on Amazon. But the vast majority of my Facebook community either didn’t see the promos or just didn’t give a s**t. I can’t say I blame them. Most of my new Facebook friends were people I hadn’t seen or spoken with in decades. If somebody I hadn’t seen in 25 years came on FB to promote a new product, would I plunge ahead, wallet at the ready? Depends on the person and product, but in most cases, probably not. For almost any book or product, chances are your core customer base is made up of people you’ve never known and never will know.
Anyway, I’ve been on Facebook for a couple of years now. Let me tell you one thing about the world in 2019: There is your life before Facebook, and your life after Facebook. And they are entirely different galaxies. I won’t go into all the details of why I feel that way. I’m not sure I could even verbalize them. It’s like you step across the horizon into a whole new universe of human behavior, communication and thought, and once you cross over, you can’t go back. You can’t put the genie back in the bottle, to borrow a cliché.
I thought I was a pretty informed dude before joining Facebook, but in retrospect I was fairly clued out to what much of the rest of the world experienced daily (or hourly, in some cases). I was unaware of the sheer power of social media to influence relationships and build personal brands. I completely underestimated its ability to form alliances between people — and divisions. I didn’t know just how invested so many people were in the daily ebb and flow of connecting online. If Facebook was the spaceship of modern communication, then I was riding around on a mule.
I also thought I understood the world at large, particularly in terms of social and political trends. Looking back, I was woefully uninformed. I knew about the various and sundry conspiracy theories floating around the web, but I had no idea how wide and deep (and utterly deranged) they were until I joined Facebook. I knew there was a lot of bad information floating around, but I didn’t realize how vast it was, and how easily it permeated the world of social media.
I knew our lives were basically a playground for the Internet, which monitors our every click and gathers information on us even we didn’t know existed. But until joining Facebook, I had no idea just how pervasive all these tech giants are in our lives. I can write a FB post on biking, for example, and 10 minutes later my computer screen is invaded by popups for bicycle ads. It’s eerie. And fascinating. And eerie.
I mean, there are plenty of positive aspects to Facebook. You get to see photos of your friends’ kids and grandkids and pets and whatnot. You get to maintain touch with family and loved ones living thousands of miles away, without running up a huge phone bill or suffering the tedium of a phone conversation. Facebook lets you see what people are up to in real time, whether it’s barbecuing in the backyard or hiking around the Andes.
In a few cases I’ve made connections with people I haven’t seen or thought about in 40 years and found them to be very cool and like-minded souls. That’s the best part of Facebook: learning that one of your long lost acquaintances has lived a fascinating and fulfilling life, and has interesting stories and perspectives to share.
But, there’s the other part. The part where you step into someone else’s Facebook world and feel like you’ve just invaded their home and knocked over a lamp, or that you’ve wandered into someone else’s nightmare and wonder if you should say something, and what that something should be. Maybe you’re feeling bold, so you make a comment. And the comment just sits there, and sits there, and sits there, doing nothing. No likes. No replies. None of the scoring metrics that make Facebook so very Facebook. You wonder if you said something stupid or wrong, and why.
That’s when you realize: “You know, I haven’t really been a part of this person’s life in 37 years. I honestly have no clue what he or she is really like in 2019. We traded a few laughs about seven lifetimes ago and here I am trying to pick up right where we left off. How can I possibly know what to say?”
It feels ridiculous, and it probably is, but I’m guessing I’m not the only person who feels that way. One thing about Facebook is that it allows people an opportunity to build their own personas, brands and worlds. Many are very protective of those personas and worlds. Anything that comes swooping in to disrupt or challenge them is bad mojo indeed. Better to just leave well enough alone.
My wife once posed an interesting question: How many of your relationships have actually been strengthened by Facebook? I thought it over, and decided the number was close to zero. Maybe a couple relationships were strengthened by Facebook. I maybe grew closer to a couple family members. I maybe got on better with old work colleagues away from the pressures and dysfunction of the office.
But a few relationships have probably been weakened by Facebook, too. Not through any fault of mine or theirs, but just through the imperfections of communicating via social media, with its lack of nuance and context. I might have written something that, taken at face value, without a voice to offer the right tones and cadences, is easy to misconstrue. I might have read something that has the same effect. Or, we might have decided that the inner thoughts we share on Facebook are not that compatible. There really are times when you’re better off sharing shallow inanities over coffee or beers rather than pouring it all out on social media.
I have around 160 Facebook friends. That’s a pretty small number in the world of social media, but I don’t expect it to get much bigger. I feel like I’ve neared my limit, unless I have some kind of professional/financial reason to add more.
I can tell you this about those 160 friends: The vast majority I’ll probably never see or speak with in person again, unless it’s by some kind of chance encounter. That’s not unique to me, either. That’s probably how it is for most people on social media. I could block them off this minute and end all communication forever and it wouldn’t change my life or their lives one iota. If enough people came to that realization all at once, I bet Mark Zuckerberg’s bank account would shrink in a hurry.
Maybe that’s the true lesson of Facebook. At the end of the day, it’s just wires and codes. Those things have changed the world, to be sure. But if they all shut down tomorrow, I have a feeling we’d survive.