I Say Goodbye, You Say Hello: On the Ambivalence of Facebook
I’m in the doctor’s waiting room. I’m on the couch during commercials. I’m waiting for my latte. I’m in bed, restless. I’m waiting for my boyfriend to get dressed. I’m in the train station. I’m lined up to board my flight. I idle, therefore, I Facebook.
In moments of quiet — moments I might use for serenity, to smell the scents and see the colors of the world around me — I grab my phone and tap the icon, a plain blue square with a friendly white “f” just slightly off center. Behold: my friends. I’m idle, but they are busy. They are fawning over baby animals, baying for blood because of politics, announcing spiritual truths, loafing in tropical sun, sitting down to the best meal ever, cataloging the day’s humdrum triumphs and defeats, staring alluringly into the eye of a camera, getting engaged, having children, praying over dying aunts and granddads. Despite myself, and despite how over-stimulated, drained, or jealous it can leave me, I log on. I can’t seem to help it.
Everyone is ambivalent about Facebook. How can we not be? Status updates — the meat of the log-on — do one of two things: elevate the boring, or degrade the profound. Both are bothersome. It exasperates me that some friends think hundreds of people hang on edge, craving poetry about how much they love coffee, every day. (And yet, the prosaic is the real juice of life, how we string our days together — why shouldn’t we honor it?) I’m uncomfortable when my friends announce the death of a relative with a stroke of text — silent, clinical, hovering in ether — transmitted to people who will read, dash off sympathy, and forget. (And yet, we know people all over the world. We can’t make 478 phone calls or address 478 letters. This is how we live now.)
But here is the real trouble with Facebook: I never talk to my best friends anymore. In high school, Louise and I sometimes chatted on the phone for 6 or 7 hours a night. We talked about seniors we pined for (their leather jackets and spiky hair and the pretty girls they dated). We talked about music (Green Day and Nine Inch Nails). We talked about diets (cabbage soup) and drinking (did we dare?) and what color to dye our hair (purple). Adulthood at 30-something renders that omnipresent intimacy impossible; she produces reality television, I practice law, we are busy and live 2,000 miles apart. But even in our roaring twenties, we still spoke almost daily. Now, after the entrenchment of Facebook, it is typical for us to go nearly a month without speaking. Recently, with aching disbelief, I realized that the sole reason I know anything about her life is because of her status updates, which tend to be pithy and unremitting, headlines refreshed every few hours as if she were a newspaper. But could that be true? To test my theory, I blocked her from my newsfeed. A month passed. Radio silence, except for my birthday, when she called. But before that, I couldn’t tell you if she was alive or dead.
At first, confirming the fallow state of our friendship chagrined me. I felt wronged — by her. What sort of person has time to broadcast her whereabouts, food and beverage intake, disgruntled moments, workouts, and crowd-sourcing inquiries upward of a dozen times a day, but cannot find time to connect with her best friend, one on one? To be sure, this isn’t all Facebook. She and I hammer out resolutions when, periodically, I feel I’m single-handedly doing the work of friendship. Perhaps we are simply growing apart. I, of course, could have called her; but why would I? I had Facebook. And so our affinity for Facebook — the estranged, thoughtless intimacy of it — allowed the primary challenge in our incredibly important friendship to become to the substance.
Then, after a few weeks, something unexpected happened: the irritation waned, and I began to miss her. I began to miss her in a way I never did when following her every move and thought online. In fact, I couldn’t have missed her on Facebook: she was everywhere, always.
Yes, I missed her, with the fresh, affectionate curiosity that used to precede a phone call to say hello. And I realized that, despite the constant “updates,” I missed my other best friends, and some family members, too. I didn’t want the curated comic book of their lives; that’s what Keeping Up with the Kardashians is for. I wanted noise, texture, and monogamy, not silence, a screen, and a stranger “liking” what I wrote. I wanted interjection. I wanted to hear laughter and sighs, and remember that I know some voices so well I can see the speaker’s facial expressions over the phone. I wanted to see, or at least recall, familiar bodies that take up real space. I wanted the moments of silence that come, they say, about every seven minutes in a conversation. And I wanted to hear my voice, too. I needed the grounding and fruition that comes from contact, not the bargain-basement copy that comes from interface.
So I blocked everyone I’m close to. It was an anxious goodbye, as if I were strapping myself into a space shuttle, only perhaps to return. My mom, my best friend, my boyfriend. All the inner circle, and the next-to-inner circle. Gone.
But suddenly present. Suddenly, again, real. Suddenly, again, in my awareness because they are not constantly in my face. Just like a fish can’t think about water, maybe we can’t truly contemplate — or properly love — people who are always in front of us in the most superficial ways. Good though it may be to “keep in touch” by knowing my brother-in-law ran four miles today, that news is the emotional equivalent of junk food. I don’t see my loved ones when I log on, and I feel a pang of, well, love. After a few days, I think, Hey, where are Jane and Quinn and Melissa and David? How are they? What are they doing these days? It’s like letting yourself get truly, empty-stomach, slightly-on-edge hungry; then you truly want to eat! If you graze all day, you never feel hunger, and you’re never satisfied by what you eat because your eating isn’t connected to satisfaction.
Now, if I want to know what’s up with my brother, I call. And I was surprised to discover that calling was scary. It turns out that I, a social butterfly, have developed a Facebook-induced shyness. Calling feels so forward, so direct, so daunting. But only for about a minute. Then you come to your senses. You give yourself an inward smack across the cheek, and snap out of it. Afraid to call my brother? Are you kidding? I’ve known him for 32 years, and we get along! What’s there to debate? Call. And I do. And we are, as in the old days, family. It feels great.
And there is a bonus, though it’s not one Facebook’s shareholders would be thrilled to know about: I log-on less. Much less. After all, what is there to see? The photographs of puppies that my Mom’s former best friend is currently into? The engagement news of people I never liked but was too meek to ignore when they requested my friendship? The wit and attitude as my cousin’s pals outdo each other’s comments? How entirely, intensely boring.
Especially when there is a city outside my window, and sunshine, and summer fruit, and music, and people. My friends, my family, and myself, to be seen and heard.