When we first use Facebook, we’re back in college, and just like the first day there, we really want to make friends. We love sharing: We’ll talk to the loser girl down the hall who only listens to the Eagles, the kid who sits next to us in physics, the R.A. who doesn’t seem as cool as an R.A. should be. Within a week on the service, I had 50 friend requests, many from people I did not recall from any particular time in my life, and there was a certain loss of innocence as I realized this wasn’t a sign of brain freeze: I really didn’t know these people. They were just nice people using the site as they thought it should be used, for social networking, though this isn’t the way cool people use the site, so I quickly de-friended them. (Although one could argue that deciding who to be and not to be friends with on Facebook is the most uncool thing in the world.)
This is part of the magic of Facebook, where many actions that take on weight in the real world simply don’t pack the same punch: You can reconnect with long-lost friends without a gooey, uncomfortable e-mail about why you grew apart; you can forget to return Facebook e-mail and nobody minds; you can click obsessively on someone’s profile and there’s no way for him to know it. “Stalking on Facebook doesn’t feel like stalking,” says Rachel Zabar, my friend from high school. “It feels innocent, like when you were a kid and had a crush on someone and you’d call him and hang up.” At lunch with girlfriends, we talked endlessly about negotiating the boundaries of this new social world: which estranged friends had most recently come out of the woodwork; whose profile was cool and whose was too “Facebook-y”; who was a “Facebook abuser”: “He tried to get all of the people on his friend list to send his mom a birthday note!” The dark art of stalking ex-boyfriends on Google began to shift over to Facebook, as many more personal details were suddenly available there. “I saw Facebook pictures of my ex with his new wife and their new baby on a private jet!” wails a friend. “That was too much for me.” She sighs. “I can’t believe I’m stalking people’s babies on Facebook.”
The deeply voyeuristic pleasure of Facebook, wherein one feels as though one were sucking the very life out of the person whose profile one is viewing, was only part of the story, and many of the conversations that I had with friends about Facebook quickly catapulted past Jane Austen and into the territory of Eckhart Tolle, as we confessed the details of deep exchanges that we’d had on the site, the healing that was going on. A friend got back together with her ex-husband, who had resettled in Norway; another reconnected with a friend who had supported her when she was experiencing sexual abuse as an adolescent. Facebook wants you to form these bonds; it wants to create “folksonomies,” an academic term for what we’re doing when we tag people’s photos and write Facebook haikus to lovers and in general pass the network more and more information, because, by the law of network effects, the more that you parse out your relationships to other people, the stronger their networks become.
Here is another parable about web 2.0 culture: In nursery school at Bank Street on 112th and Broadway, a kid used to bite me—a lot. It was a progressive preschool in the seventies, and crazy stuff happened there—one day, my friend’s mother jumped in front of the subway after she dropped her off at school, and Bank Street chose to share this information with us in class. Gabe would bite my arm while we playing during recess; he would bite my leg when I was coloring in my book; he would bite me when we lined up by size in the hallway, where I, the runt, was always first. (He also put another kid in an empty refrigerator in the teacher’s lounge, briefly.) It took six months for the school to figure out that he was biting me, because the penalty for biting was getting sent home for the rest of the day, at which point the torture abated.
Gabe ended up at Fieldston, and I’d seen him a few times on the Manhattan prep-school social circuit, but I never knew much about him. One day he friended me on Facebook. We agreed to meet for a drink, and he looked sheepish as he told me things that I never knew. He had a learning disability as a kid and suffered from severe ear infections. When we knew each other, he couldn’t speak in full sentences and every day after school he had to meet with a speech therapist. “I was confused and angry as a kid,” he said. “I was so traumatized by my health problems that I didn’t mind fighting. I wasn’t scared of anything, because it couldn’t possibly hurt worse than my ear infections already did.”