Thursday, October 30, 2014

No, Facebook Is Not the Devil, If You Know How -- and When -- to Use It

"How are you doing over in Cape Town?"

What a strange question? I thought while reading an email from one of my very best friends a few days ago. Doesn't she know where I am? I figured everybody who knows me knows. Although I've told only a few people personally, pretty much everything I've posted on Facebook for the past month or so has had something to do with my forthcoming book or my big move from Cape Town to Sydney for a new job. Where had she been?

"Where have you been? Haven't you been on Facebook?" I asked in response, expecting her to tell me about how work has made it impossible to keep up with everybody's status updates. As it turns out, she hadn't been keeping up with anybody's status updates because she "deactivated" her Facebook account two months ago, weeks before Sydney came into play. And by the way, the irony of my not realizing she'd been off Facebook for that long was not lost on me. It reminds me of the irony of my having had to see a Facebook friend in person last weekend to find out that she split up with her husband a year ago. She had a similar response to my cluelessness about the dramatic details of her life.

But getting back to my other friend, she was tired of all the pointlessness of Facebook, knowing all the minutiae of the lives of people she cared nothing about and reading the back-and-forth bickering on topics that didn't interest her. She'd had enough, so she opted out.

I shouldn't have been surprised. My friend has always been one of the most no-bullshit people I know, and I adore her for it. She suffers no one -- fools or otherwise -- gladly. She's the friend who finally convinced me to dump a boyfriend by making an unrelated offhand comment about straining to keep up your end of non-conversations. "Suddenly, you realize, why am I knocking myself out like an idiot for someone with absolutely nothing say?" she said. I knew right then and there that my then-boyfriend and I were through.

Furthermore, for as long as she and I were Facebook friends, we never used it as a means of communication. We've kept in touch since I left New York City eight years ago mostly by regular email and dinners when I've been back in NYC. The question she asked at the beginning of this post was part of her response to a "Happy birthday" message I had sent to her via personal email because I'd never sent her anything via Facebook.

I had no idea she had deactivated because it never occurred to me to do the 2014 thing and post Happy birthday! Hope you're having a great day! on her "Timeline" the way I assumed pretty much everyone who knows her -- or don't -- would be. I owed her something more one-on-one to make up for the few months that our currently busy lives had kept us out of each other's loops.

Her not being on Facebook may have kept her in the dark about my current employment status and living situation, but it won't change our relationship at all. She asked for my new mailing address because that's the kind of person she is. In 2014, she continues to write letters and send cards to people she cares about. I love her for that, too.

But still, I wondered, was she and people who up and leave Facebook for similar reasons -- including a family member who recently departed after being stung by a another family member's status update that she interpreted as being directed at her (because it's always all about her) -- cutting off their noses to spite their faces? To me, it's like someone who spends too much time pulling and tugging and fussing with their clothes. Just let them be and go on with your day!

The truth is that Facebook is what you want it to be. There are no membership requirements that say you have to log on and regularly check up on what is going on in people's lives, nothing that says you have to participate in heated debates or even keep track of everyone's point of view. We encounter annoying people every day in offline life and choose whether or not to pay attention. Even if we're feeling a little misanthropic and would rather not be around most people, we don't cut off contact with everyone to avoid the unfortunate many.

There are Facebook controls in place to block those people you don't want to hear from, and ways to determine what notifications you receive. If you're a casual Facebook user who rarely logs on, there's no reason to be annoyed. So if you are, perhaps you're protesting too much because you're logging on too much.

Yesterday, I had drinks with someone who made a similar revelation. He had to ditch Facebook because the constant notifications were just too much for him to handle. He's really into photography, so Instagram is more his speed anyway. He gets his social-media fix there. Fair enough.

I thought about telling him that he could stop receiving those notifications entirely, but what was the use? He seemed to be pretty set in his ways regarding Facebook. Although the anti-Facebook folks always have excellent reasons for their stance, in the end, it's never really just about that. It's usually more of a principle thing, a gut reaction to something that's gotten too big for its britches: Facebook is dumb because it's dumb (and because everyone seems to think it's the meaning of life -- so why should I?).

Personally, I couldn't disagree more. Yes, I have my issues with Facebook and social media in general, particularly for the way they've taken the "personal" out of relationships and made us all even more gluttonous for attention and validation ("like" me, "like" me, "like" me!!!). Also, I can do without knowing all the details of everyone's health and being apprised of every death in every family. When tragedy strikes me, Facebook is generally the last thing on my mind, but I understand that for some, there's solace and strength in numbers.

Think about it, though: Back when people still read newspapers, did you throw them out because you didn't need to read every story? If you didn't want to sit through everyone's opinion, didn't you just skip the Op-ed page? I don't believe I've ever read a thing USA Today had to say that wasn't in the "Life" section. I take a similar approach to Facebook.

Beyond its content, Facebook works for me for two very crucial reasons: 1) It's an excellent way for me to promote my work. 2) As someone who has lived all over the world and made friends and acquaintances everywhere, it helps me to stay in touch with peripheral people with whom I might not otherwise take the time to form long-distance bonds but whom I might want to see again if I ever return to their corner of the world. Who knows? We might even end up unexpectedly becoming friends. It's happened before, and I have Facebook to thank for it.

If I weren't a journalist and world traveler, I'd probably rarely log on to Facebook, but I'd certainly still have my account, for there's another big benefit of Facebook that is probably the reason why I've stuck around this long and will continue to do so. I've never come across a better way to reconnect with people from my past with whom I thought I'd fallen out of touch forever.

When you take out the people I don't know or don't remember, they make up the bulk of my Facebook friends, and even if we rarely, if ever, actually say anything to each other, it's nice to know they're still out there. They may never be active participants in my day-to-day life, but at the very least, they'll always know in which city to find me.

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