Thursday, December 6, 2007

"Sara is not as interesting as she thinks she is."

Webcam_cropped I was supposed to be writing about the near-death of my computer keeping me from working and cutting me off from my community. But a brilliant technician had returned my Toshiba (minus one GB of faulty memory) and I was back to doing what I do many evenings in Nairobi: e-mailing, chatting, researching, writing, reading, Facebooking.

I've moved around enough that my community is spread across the globe. I have close friends in London, Waterville, Vancouver, Ubud, Washington. The internet, and lately Facebook in particular, helps us stay in touch despite different time zones and limited finances.

Facebook has also widened my circle friends. It has made it possible for me to build fruitful friendships with people I knew in elementary school, in high school, in university. I can get to know people I've only met once, people who would otherwise get lost in life's unforgiving onward shuffle.

When I first started with Facebook, I was fascinated with how people construct their personas on-line. A friend says he finds Facebook interesting because it shows how people see themselves. I think it says more about how they want the world to see them. Maybe there is no difference.

Either way, there are countless psychology doctoral theses just begging to be written about it.

Of my 113 (and counting) Facebook friends, there are only a few I pay much attention to. I like to see the latest link that Ian has posted. Elena and I superpoke one another every few days. Charlie writes great status updates. Duncan is letting me beat him at Scrabulous. Alix writes beautiful poems on my wall.

Over the past year, I've gotten deeper and deeper into the site. About half of my daily messages now come through Facebook, not through traditional e-mail (I never thought I'd call e-mail traditional). Lately, a friend and I have been working on a top-secret project to build a Facebook application of our own.

It's so much part of my days now that I sometimes find myself thinking in Facebook status updates when I'm living my off-line life.

"Sara is gasping at the green of the trees."

"Sara is sssshhhhhhhhh�."

"Sara is learning how to beat up big men, Thai boxing style."

"Sara is not as interesting as she thinks she is."

Some of these Facebook friendships are multi-media. They are built and maintained through voice-over-IP services, e-mail, instant messaging, video chats. I occasionally make expensive long-distance phone calls. And, yes, sometimes I even have coffee or go for a walk with a friend.

Now that's traditional.

But as the internet�s roll in my social life grows steadily, it is easy to forget the fundamental truth of on-line communities: they are built out of personas. It is a forum where people reinforce the ideas they have about themselves, or the ideas they would like other people to have about them.

In some ways, Facebook is a never-ending school reunion.

And it was a reunion-esque entanglement that distracted me, as I was trying to write a blog posting about my computer dying.

I was messaging with an old friend, one from the haven't-seen-you-in-20-years-but-lately-talking-to-you-every-week category. When we first reunited, I was entertained by the outrageous persona on his Facebook profile. I was intrigued by how part of that persona was subtly poking fun at itself, and everyone else's persona as well.

We were idly chatting about the relative merits of Virginia Woolf, Tom Robbins, James Joyce and pornography, when the conversation veered to 20 year old personal history.

About a month ago, I had a similar conversation with another old friend. We talked about how we had hurt one another's feelings. It was an odd, texted way of making up for things that happened decades ago. It cleared the way for a new, adult friendship.

As I was talking with this persona-poking pal of mine, I started to wonder how much of his interactions with me were a subconscious attempt to settle old business. I started questioning how much of the interaction on Facebook is just people trying to prove something, trying to get revenge, trying to heal some old hurt.

When I asked the persona-poker if that was what was going on, he said, "No. I don't feel bad about it. I haven't in almost 20 years... it was part of the growing process."

I believed him but somehow that moment of doubt constellated all of my distrust of communities, on-line and elsewhere. For an instant, I considered converting to introversion.

When we were through chatting, the first thing I did was change my Facebook status.

"Sara is deeply disenchanted with Facebook and just about everything else right now."

The next thing I did was message Ian, "Can I rant to you for a second about Facebook?"

"Sure," he wrote back. "But don't be too mean. Facebook and I are tight."

I told him that I was tired of the high school reunion aspect of social networking.

"I think half of Facebook is about people trying to win some game that no one else is playing," I wrote. "Some game that everyone else left back in high school hallways."

We wrote back and forth about reunions, in real life and in cyberspace. Ian made jokes about personalities, superegos and superpowers.

I said one of the things I like about Facebook is that I can change it whenever I like, to keep up with my fluid self-concept. But I was frustrated by how some people were using it only to reinforce their fixed ideas about themselves and the world.

"I think that it's important to let ones idea of self evolve over time� into some kind of structure that's resilient, but is constantly moving and changing," he wrote. "Everyone's is, but some people hang on to some ideas without ever knowing why their knuckles are so white"

As we were chatting, I got a text message on my mobile phone. In Spain, Felix had read my status update.

"U ok if you want ill give u a call."

I sent him an e-mail that I was fine, just disillusioned.

He wrote back: "Facebook is interesting as it tends to show how people see themselves. Or what is important to them. Or even how comfortable they are about themselves."

As I read the Bobby Kennedy quote Felix had attached at the bottom of his message, another e-mail landed in my in-box.

From Ottawa, Andrew asked: "Who's bullying you on Facebook?"

I uploaded my gripes about communities, that sometimes they only seem to be people polishing their personas by rubbing up aginst other personas.

He wrote back: "That sounds like it would fit in quite nicely with my 'solipsism of modern society' rant. The sad truth of the matter is that North America has actually *become* a state of ego."

He wrote about people reinforcing their identities through careers, kids, and conspicuous consumption. Andrew, like Ian and Felix, reminded me not to take the whole thing so seriously.

I did manage to laugh a few times, not at the jokes but at the fact that, in the midst of a community confidence crisis, individuals in that community came through.

I felt a little better, and also ready to write. Not about how a dying computer threatens my access to my community, but about the risks in believing in human communities at all.

Communities are communities however they manifest. Town halls, kitchen parties, phone lines, chat rooms and electrical pulses beamed through space are all social networking sites. Communities are mental constructs. They are made up of, and only exist in, the sticky mess of human minds. The only tangible aspect of communities are the real-world actions they motivate us to take.

When I post this self-indulgent ramble, which is just another projection of my self-concept as a person with a mutable self-concept, it will go up on Facebook too. Maybe Ian will read it. Maybe Felix and Andrew will. After all, we love to read about ourselves.

If my persona-poking friend reads it, I hope he will forgive me for writing about momentarily questioning his intentions.

As for everyone else, I don't count on being any more interesting to them than they are to me. Because in my 113-person (and counting) community, there are a lot of interesting personalities, but only a few friends.


  1. amen. you're absolutely right on all counts... yet with the friends you would have fallen out of contact with, you are updated on their lives without effort, and for me, that creates a sense of knowledge about them that i don't really own. i know Sara *****, but Sara didn't tell me, and there wasn't any direct communication... facebook stalking maybe makes us feel a little less lonely. you write more elegantly, perhaps you know what i'm talking about! facebook allows for so many things, including this *false* friendship that develops between associates and the people you would have moved away from.

  2. I guess the falsity comes from the ability of people to watch others over time without any requirement for interaction. If FaceBook were people in a room, there would be a few great conversations, a lot of people talking about themselves and checking themselves out in the mirror, and a lot of people standing around in silence watching other people intently.