A Facebook Birthday

October 5, 2008

Another creative writing piece. This was my ‘big one.’ We each chose to focus on one area of writing. I chose creative non-fiction. Enjoy.

Birthdays have changed. They’re no longer about the number of gifts you receive, or the number of cards your relatives send. They’re not even about the number of birthday punches you have to endure. These days more than ever, at least for the 13 to 25 set, birthdays seem to be about the number of wallposts you receive on Facebook.

My third Facebook birthday started like all the others. The night before, wrapping up a marathon homework assignment, I found myself drawn to check my e-mail. Click. Click. Aaah. The internet, connection, relatedness: other generations had their booze, their heroine, their cocaine. Ours has Facebook. Every time I open Outlook, as the little progress wheel starts spinning, I can feel my insides flutter. This time, I know there will be human contact for me. This time I’ll get a hit. Unlike most other nights, tonight I won’t leave empty-handed. Ding ding ding. I’ve got mail!

Just for good measure (and a little bit of the obligatory postmodern self-consciousness), I feel the need to preface this work by stating that I should maybe — possibly — not be writing it. Facebook isn’t eternal or enduring. It doesn’t represent the pinnacle of human achievement or even something that people in 10 years will be talking about (Friendster, anyone?). But it does epitomize our generation. Even more so on a Facebook birthday.

For those not in the know, Facebook is a social networking site. It was launched by Mark Zuckerberg on February 4, 2004. Zuckerberg, a student at Harvard, originally created the site as a way for Harvard students to keep in touch. The name comes from the real-world paper ‘facebooks’ some colleges distributed to new students. These books were filled with the pictures and names of all the students and faculty at the college. Facebook soon expanded to include Stanford, Columbia, Yale, and eventually all undergraduate institutions. In the fall of 2005, Facebook was opened to the preening masses of high school students. By the very next year, it became a no-holds barred stomping ground for anyone with a valid e-mail address and too much time on their hands.

But enough about Facebook’s birthdays. Let’s talk about mine. Birthdays bring my thoughts back to the beginning. Not of my life. Of my online life. I can hardly remember a time without the internet. I figure I must have lived half my life without it. But that was the half that I don’t much remember anyway: a blur of action figures, multiplication tables, video games, and geography lessons. Then, in 4th grade, we got AOL. America Online, a quaint relic of earlier times was once the sole ISP for my hometown. I remember with a certain relish returning home the first time to find my mom at the computer, ‘surfing the web.’ “What would you like your ‘screen name’ to be, David? Now, you’re not allowed to have your real name in it.” Always mindful of safety, and probably terrified by all the prime time news shows listing the various internet predators on the prowl, my mother understood that I shouldn’t pick a screen name with identifying characteristics. So I chose to be Arthur4000, after King Arthur, a childhood fascination. It turns out that Arthur2000 (the new millennia just over the horizon) was already taken.

“Now, you’re not allowed to have your real name in it.” How times have changed. Now Facebook pages overflow with personal information: date of birth, hometown, relationship status, political and religious views, not to mention one giant picture in the upper left hand corner to announce to the world what you look like. People I don’t even know can learn more about me by just looking at my ‘page’ than I will ever know about my grandparents. But this is normal. Before there was Facebook, there was MySpace.

Ah, MySpace. Facebook’s ugly older sister. She may be hipper, have more friends, and know all the coolest bands, but she still gets no respect. The fact is MySpace has 73 millions users in the US, compared Facebook’s 36 million. But somehow, for me at least, Facebook is just better. The comparative comes from a mixture of one part aesthetic, one part connectedness, and eight parts elitism. The common wisdom is that MySpace allows users to customize their pages, and therefore MySpace allows its users to customize their pages poorly. Just as in government, democracy of design can lead to some really horrible decisions. Facebook, on the other hand, wields an iron fist. You can change a few things here or there on your page. In the end, though, you’re bound by the great Zuckerberg. And Facebook creates a sort of feedback loop: all of my friends are on Facebook, so I find myself using Facebook more often, which leads to more friends joining, ad infinitum.

Back to my birthday. (Did I mention that it was my 21st? If not, you can always check Facebook). When I wake up, the first thing I do upon getting out of bed, the same as I do every morning, is check my e-mail. Click. Click. Seven new wallposts. A giant hit. The messages are generic: some mixture of “happy birthday” or “happy b-day,” occasionally suffixed with, “I hope you have a great one!” I know from personal experience that these messages are so simple to write. They take so little time and so little thought. Mark Zuckerberg even supplies a list of all the upcoming birthdays in a convenient box in the right most side of the page. Even though I know each message is only pseudo-human contact, really no better than an elevator conversation with a stranger or a head nod to a friend on the street, receiving them on this day and in this quantity makes them feel much more real. Despite the fact that half the messages come from people I haven’t spoken to in years and probably won’t speak to again outside of Facebook, I still get a rush. We’re social animals in a digital world.

Which is humorous, because as I go through my day, only one or two people wish me a ‘real-world’ happy birthday. Even some of my closest friends don’t pass on the mandatory ‘happy birthday!’ in person, perhaps because they felt the obligation met via Facebook. Does Facebook change the dynamics of a birthday greeting? It reminds me of elementary school, when on our birthday we were expected to bring in treats for our class. One friend, a Jehovah’s Witness, was not allowed to celebrate his birthday. This is what we remembered. Not all the cupcakes and brownies and cakes. No, this one strange friend who broke our custom.

After clicking through some more birthday greetings, I continue on to browse through the Facebook home page. I’m struck by the number of groups complaining about the ‘new’ Facebook. For the uninitiated, Facebook has recently changed its page layout from a ‘classic’ minimalist style (can something less than 4 years old really be classic?) to a more modern, free-for-all, everything-all-at-once style more conducive to the modern age. And Facebook veterans don’t like it. I’m invited to join many groups, all of them some flavor of ‘1,000,000+ to Bring Back Old Facebook.’ This group has 356,379 members. Another group has 456,507.

These groups reached this size in a matter of days, not months. The ‘viral’ ability of Facebook to organize half a million people is astounding. But what the millions decide to organize around is similarly baffling. In the past, millions joined arms to fight oppressive governments or overthrow old ways of thought. In the sixties, our parents marched on Washington to protest an unjust war. Our generation rallies to overthrow the tyranny of an ugly design. Facebook has the unhealthy ability to make it feel like you’ve accomplished something when you really haven’t. Joining a group against the genocide in Darfur doesn’t ‘raise consciousness,’ to use a term from my parents’ generation. It deadens it by creating a false sense of achievement. If Facebook had been around in the sixties, would the protests still have happened? Or would all the hippies have logged onto Facebook, congratulated themselves on being a member of ten groups denouncing the United States’ unjust war, and then clicked over to something more entertaining? Perhaps our generation simply finds a different meaning in Timothy Leary’s admonition to “turn on, tune in, drop out.”

I know I should do something more. More than continuously check Facebook to see if someone else has noticed it’s my birthday. Especially on my birthday. On this day, I’m especially aware of the need to do something ‘real,’ something unmediated, something that will last should all technology go up in some horrible fire of electrons. Instead, I check my e-mail one more time. Who knows? Maybe someone else noticed me.

Click. I have to make sure that all of my closest friends have left me a birthday greeting. Even in the deluge of quasi-friends, I have certain ‘real’ friends that stand out. Those are the ones that I really want to leave me a message. When I notice one or two haven’t written me, including my best friend from high school, I’m hurt more than I should be. Though maybe that’s a good thing: there is still some qualia amidst the quanta. I am still human.

My high school friend writes me later that day. Click.

I make light of this whole situation. But really, Facebook is big. Big in the same way that the printing press was big. Big in the same way that television culture was big. Somehow, we’ve managed to become both hypersocialized and hyperindividualized. We’re always on, always tuned in. We have the capability, and often the will, to know what any friend in the world is doing at any time. I made the joke once that my high school class’ 25th year reunion would be a Facebook group. And then I made a Facebook group for it. How inanely modern.

I read a book once by the anthropologist Thomas de Zengotita. This was back when I read books instead of reading web pages and Facebook walls. The book was Mediated: How the Media Shapes Your World and the Way You Live in It. That book has a lot to say about our culture. So much so that I wish to share some words of Dr. Zengotita with you:

“… representational technologies have colonized our minds. That may be the simplest, deepest way to characterize the whole history of representation. To the extent that our thoughts no longer wander along on their own, stocked only with materials drawn from direct experience, to the extent they follow flows of representation instead — to just that extent we don’t think our own thoughts. Literally.

Keep in mind, this book was written in 2005. Three whole years before my Facebook birthday. Dr. Zengotita was ahead of his time. We’re too busy to think our own thoughts. Too busy thinking about what everyone else is thinking about us.
In the end, over the course of three days, fifty-three people wrote on my wall to wish me happy birthday. That in itself is not impressive. I am not the type to base my self-worth around the number of wallposts I get, or the number of friends I have. And I know I’m nowhere near as well connected as most. The impressive part is that a person like me should get that many at all. I’m the ‘quiet type.’ An introvert. How do over fifty people notice someone who spends most of his life attempting to stay out of the spotlight?

This was my third real ‘Facebook birthday.’ One for each year of college so far. I can’t imagine there are that many more left. Something new and different will certainly supplant Facebook, just as Facebook supplanted MySpace. I can only guess that the new incarnation will be even more addictive. My generation is fighting a losing battle. Future generations have already lost.

I’ve been speaking of Facebook as some sort of monolith, a system that has so many things right and wrong with it. Obviously, though, a site that pegs itself as a social network is no better or worse than the people who populate it. We feed it with our teenage angst, our adult worries, and our middle-aged regrets. Like television, Facebook is real life, only more so. Unlike television, which only gets its material from an elite group of writers and producers, Facebook has the whole world as a staff. The internet is one of the greatest social experiments yet attempted by humanity. And Facebook will chronicle a few steps along the way.

Imagine 1000 years in the future. 1000 years ago, Western Europe was just entering the dark ages. Think of it. Where will we be in 1000 years? There’s no way to know. But isn’t it interesting to think that future historians will have pile after pile of hard drives to sift through. They’ll know more about us than we could possibly know about past peoples, more perhaps than they could ever want to know. And in one of those ancient hard drives, somewhere buried deep inside the magnetic ribbons, will be all the data from my Facebook birthday. Will they notice me?

Click.

Fun fact: I checked Facebook twenty-five times while writing this piece. Make that twenty-six. I had good reasons. I needed to get my facts straight. And read over the messages sent to me on my birthday. Oh, and a good friend left me an interesting wall post. Yes, I had a good reason to take my attention off this paper every time. Continuous partial attention, they call it. Much fancier sounding than ‘multi-tasking.’ Plus, CPA sounds like a syndrome. Add it to the DSM-IV. Click.

David Darmon is amazed that he finished this essay.

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2 Responses to “A Facebook Birthday”

  1. dave in the west said

    My bad for taking so long to read this. Firefox dropped your address from the list cuz I haven’t been here in a while.

    I couldn’t agree more. I must have logged in 50 times yesterday expecting pictures to pop up in the feed. It makes me wonder what I would do with my time if none of this shit existed. But I have a feeling we’d all survive.

    Adaptation to the surroundings… make do with what you have. Hell… I think my life and yours would be better off without facebook. We might actually do something important! haha

  2. Alexander said

    I’m skeptic enough about advantages (if any) of this method today.

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