Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Ain't No Way to Hide From Pryin' Eyes

Earlier this year, an old friend of mine recommended that I sign up with Facebook. Actually, I have written about my experience, and you're welcome to read about it if you wish.

But I want to write about a different kind of experience I've been having with Facebook.

Some people have asked me about Facebook recently. If you are not familiar with Facebook, you can see limited information on just about everyone who has a Facebook account. To see more detailed information, either you or the other person must extend an invitation to be a friend on Facebook, and the other one must accept it.

You can connect with people in several different ways on Facebook, but the point is, once you have accepted each other as a friend, you then see everything the other person posts — and he/she sees everything that you post.

It's the privilege that comes with membership on Facebook.

It is possible to be friends on Facebook with people you do not know in real life. Once you become a member and you reconnect with genuine friends, Facebook will start telling you of the names of people who are friends on Facebook with people you know. Then it will be up to you whether to invite any of those people to be your friend on Facebook as well.

I assume this happens a lot because I've seen some people who have more than 1,000 friends. In fact, I have been told that there was a time when there was quite a heated competition going on among some members who were trying to accumulate these friends. Apparently, because of such competitions, Facebook established limits on how many friends one could acquire in a specific time frame.

My understanding is that these limits are really quite generous — several hundred, I think, maybe 1,000 in a month or two. I really don't know because it has been a non–issue for me. As I write this, I have 60 friends on Facebook, and only one would truly fall under the heading of "friend of a friend I have never met." I have had invitations from other people I have never met, but I decided not to respond to any more. I want my friends to be actual friends, people who were known to me before Facebook came along.

And they are. Truthfully, though, many of them might as well be strangers. Some I haven't seen since high school or college. One was a good friend in graduate school, but we probably haven't seen each other in more than 15 years.

It's a good way to get caught up with old friends, and, in some cases, it has given me the chance to become better acquainted with some of my friends' children — the next generation, which is coming of age much quicker than I would prefer.

Two are the children from my best friend's second marriage, one of whom is my goddaughter. Another is their half–brother. All three were quite young the last time I saw them, but they quickly accepted my invitation to be friends. Their mother (who has remarried) and my old friend are both my friends on Facebook, too. It is a good way to stay in touch.

However, when any of my friends posts something, I see it. Then I see the responses they receive, which tend to be from people I have never met before — and all the rest of the dialogue that ensues.

And that, essentially, is the experience I am addressing today.

Being a member of Facebook has given me the opportunity to observe all kinds of virtual exchanges. There is a strange, almost prurient fascination in this. Sometimes I sit and watch it play out. It reminds me, in an odd way, of when I was a child, and the older ladies in my world wouldn't do anything at certain times of each weekday because they didn't want to miss their "stories," as they called soap operas.

(This story thing doesn't seem to be generational. A friend of mine told me that she remembers watching soap operas with her mother and her grandmother, and they all called their soaps "my stories." Apparently, they each started doing so independently.

(I grew up in the South and, for awhile, I thought it might be a Southern thing. But many years ago, George Carlin referred to it in a routine on one of his comedy albums. Carlin grew up in New York so I figured it must not be a regional thing.)

I've never really understood why soap opera fans seemed to slip into an inconsolable depression if they missed one installment. I know it was a brand–new episode every single day, but nothing much ever seemed to happen. The most a soap opera fan might miss would be some dialogue.

I remember watching one soap opera while I was home with the flu for a few days. The show was set in a hospital, and one character was about to go in for surgery. Anyway, I got better and resumed my daily routine — and completely forgot about the soap opera for several months, until, for some reason, I found myself at home one afternoon. I switched on that soap opera — and the patient was still being prepped for surgery!

Things happen a lot faster in the Facebook world. It's like a weird parade going by. Sometimes it's like watching a car accident happen. I'm powerless to stop it, but I am compelled to watch it, anyway.

It can be kind of embarrassing. I've seen arguments being typed out on the computer screen between people I have never met. But, by the time the fight breaks out, I feel I know a lot about them. And I didn't want to know most of it.

Some of these posts — personal status updates in the Facebook world — really just seem to be silly. For example, one young man — the son of a friend — is going through the awkward pain of young love. He pines away on lonely nights when he had expected to see his lady fair but, at the last minute, the rendezvous falls through. The lovesick swain act does start to wear a bit thin, especially when I know that, the next day, the object of his affections will cook him a big meal and dote on him to make up for the previous night.

But, while she's cooking his steak, he can triumphantly post a new status update (via his cell phone) proclaiming his conquest.

Sometimes I wonder when the AMA is going to classify young love as a bipolar disorder.

As I pointed out when I wrote about "sexting," you may think that something is deleted because you delete it from your computer. But things are never really deleted in the digital world.

So my advice to my friends on Facebook — or any other social networking site — is simple. Some messages are best delivered in person. It may not be the most comfortable way to do it, but it's better than getting into virtual shouting matches that anyone can see.

If you wouldn't feel comfortable letting your mother see it, don't post it.

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