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Do You Own Facebook? Or Does Facebook Own You?

Portraits, clockwise from top left, by Alan Dye, Mark Korsak, Michael Gibbs, and Seth Labenz and Roy Rub.  

Still, Facebook was clearly spooked by Twitter—and spooked, also, by the fact that we were spooked. Because this is how social networks collapse. Do things feel uncomfortable? Am I oversharing? Are others oversharing? Or is the company stealing my soul by mining my personal information? Wispy perceptions. A slight paranoia. And then, for no rational reason, a queasiness sets in, the comfort level drops, and people start to drift away. One day the numbers are growing exponentially, and the next they’re stagnant, none of the users are actually showing up, and there’s another network that’s getting all the buzz. Friendster had numbers. AOL had numbers. It’s like the Yogi Berra line: Nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded. It’s easy to join on the web and just as easy to leave.

I’m part of one of the fastest-growing segments on Facebook, users over 30, and I’m a late-adopter. About three years ago, a trendy 22-year-old colleague who wore T-shirts with slogans like THIS IS WHAT A FEMINIST LOOKS LIKE over her ample chest invited me to join, but I did not accept, as we were friends of no sort. Soon, my e-mail box began to fill with weekly requests from slightly more mature friends—or, at least, people I know vaguely—to “Check out my Facebook profile!” Just like the boomers who missed out on the Summer of Love finally threw on some tie-dye and flocked to EST in the seventies, Gen-Xers have eagerly embraced Facebook as a chance to join millennial culture—the Paris Hilton–posey, authority-loving, hive mind of kids today—through Facebook. Says a friend in her forties, “Facebook makes us feel very young, which feels really great. Connecting with old crushes, even younger.” I’m not a joiner by nature—I have never been to a high-school or college reunion—but by last year, acquaintances at parties were no longer asking me “What’s your e-mail?” the way they have for the past few years, since they stopped asking “What’s your phone number?” (No one can be bothered to use phones anymore, even cell phones.) Now they were saying “I’ll find you on Facebook.” And if you weren’t on Facebook—where were you?

Because on Facebook, people are doing things. Their “status updates” say they are at the Cardio Barre, or haggling over prices at the Range Rover dealership, or making soup from scratch at home; in fact, it seems to me that someone is always making soup. This information scrolled rapidly down my screen when I was staring at my computer at work, and maybe it wasn’t quite as fast as Twitter, but the people providing the information were twice as important to me. It formed a constant reminder that there was still a real world out there with real people walking around in it, even if they had chosen to leave that world for a moment to join me in the pretend, Facebook world. On Facebook, I didn’t have to talk to anyone, really, but I didn’t feel alone, and I mean “alone” in the existential use of the word; everyone on Facebook wished me well, which I know not to be the case in the real world; and, most important, there was nothing messy or untoward or unpleasant—the technology controlled human interaction, keeping everyone at a perfect distance, not too close and not too far away, in a zone where I rarely felt weird or lame or like I had said the wrong thing, the way one often feels in the real world. This is the promise of Facebook, the utopian hope for it: the triumph of fellowship; the rise of a unified consciousness; peace through superconnectivity, as rapid bits of information elevate us to the Buddha mind, or at least distract us from whatever problems are at hand. In a time of deep economic, political, and intergenerational despair, social cohesion is the only chance to save the day, and online social networks like Facebook are the best method available for reflecting—or perhaps inspiring—an aesthetic of unity.

In any case, these status updates formed a pleasant collage, a kind of poetry, like first-draft scribbles in Gertrude Stein’s notebook—the poetry of the mundane. Emily is in the heavenly land of Williamsburg; Brian is tired and sweaty from a day of playing the Safety Ape and a clam and garlic pizza; Elizabeth is reading, happily, with sunshine through a windowpane—and then got sucked into the vortex that is Facebook. This micro-knowledge of others has been termed “ambient awareness” by sociologists, a new kind of social proprioception or ethereal limb, and I learned to flex it with ease. But I thought that I would take a different angle for my first status update, something suitably ironic and a little bit outré: Vanessa is doing cocaine and piercing her nipples. A Facebook faux pas, I quickly realized. My fellow users pretended not to hear.