An old friend I'm back in touch with thanks to Facebook loves to rail against Facebook -- on Facebook. When our electronic bond progressed to a real-world lunch, he lamented that he had joined Facebook for its networking promise, but has become unnerved by a growing sense that his Facebook Page belongs not to him but to, yes, Facebook.
I could relate. A bizarre posting or a stealth ad on Facebook can trigger a flash of disorientation. Does it emanate from a friend, a friend of a friend, a mutual friend, a frenemy posing as a friend, someone I "should get to know" or a multi-national corporation? How did those unflattering pictures of me insinuate themselves, unbidden, into my profile? And how can it be that I'm now, at this precise instant, listening -- "on Spotify" -- to a song I've never heard of?
It might be satisfying for counter-culture types to blow off steam by rebelling against a mega-corporation that markets itself as the hip vanguard of the communications revolution to mask its true establishment-promoting, privacy-invading, addiction-triggering, time-wasting, soul-destroying self.
But as Thomas Franks argued 15 years ago in his book The Conquest of Cool, counter-culture types who consider themselves cool for protesting the established order are falling for a con job perpetrated by that very establishment for the express purpose of getting them hooked on "hip consumerism." It's not much of a stretch to see Facebook as the face of that con, more a black hole than a bright star in the media constellation.
I was tempted to join the anti-Facebook forces on the eve of my recent birthday by posting a biting-the-hand-that-feeds rumination on the alienation and loneliness of seeking friendship through a network that threatens to subvert the very notion of friendship.
Instead, I found myself looking forward to my Facebook birthday experience with pleasant imaginings that meshed with the sweet anticipation of the vast quantities of sugar I would soon permit myself to ingest.
In the event, my Facebook birthday was a blast. What made it so much fun -- and, no kidding, so meaningful -- was the full spectrum of memories and emotions it triggered, from deep appreciation to deep regret, from the happiness of being touched to the fear that I may be a bit tetched.
The messages from early childhood friends I'd reconnected with solely thanks to Facebook were the most moving. And when I say early childhood, I mean early childhood. There was a missive from my first girlfriend, whom I first met a few days after I came into existence, which happened to be exactly one week after she was born. (This explains, I think, my lifelong attraction to slightly older women.) Then there was my first friend, whom I first hung with 60 years ago, decades before the terms "play" and "date" cheapened both playing and dating. A note from a long-ago piano teacher evoked self-laceration because I hadn't practiced in months and joy that I could still get through Bach's Prelude in C Major without sounding like a Mack truck.
I even dug the props that were patently insincere, narcissistic, self-serving, batty and non-human. I giggled at the cheerful congrats from a restaurant chain and decided to "Like" the virtual cake from a famous guy, even though he probably sends that same confection, algorithmically, to his 4,999 other friends on their special days. I laughed out loud when I saw an umlaut-graced note from a rank stranger that was decipherable only by virtue of its punctuation (!!!).
During the inevitable post-birthday letdown, I pondered the strange loop of joining Facebook and then taking to Facebook to rag on Facebook with someone we're in touch with via Facebook.
When a legitimate anti-Facebook argument gives way to cliche -- Facebook is Big Brother, Zuckerberg is the new Stalin -- it becomes just another fashionable no-cost pseudo-rebelliousness, like sporting long hair in the '60s, burning disco records in the '70s or that ultimate signifier of recursive meaninglessness, "thinking outside the box."
Perhaps Facebook isn't so much a totalitarian evil empire as it is a sad reminder that nothing -- not even a cool, "free" social network -- comes without cost. In this case, each of us gets to decide whether the tradeoff -- our personal information -- is worth it.
But lonely and alienating? No. For me, even the impersonal birthday messages underscored the feeling that I was a part of something uniquely satisfying. The YouTube links I get from the virtual cake guy turn me on to great music I'd never otherwise hear. The shout out from Herr Umlaut still makes me laugh. Even the missive from the restaurant chain is strangely endearing. After all, as we've been informed by our Supreme Court and our most recent GOP presidential candidate, corporations are people too, my Facebook friends...