The 10th birthday of Facebook last week caused me to recall my miserable pre-Facebook existence, when methods of procrastination were sorely limited.
As a stay-at-home writer, phone calls were unruly and hard to control. What if the other person wanted to tell a long story? What if she wanted me to really pay attention?
I could have a bit of contact with the outside world by scanning the newspaper or listening to the radio. But for me the switch in media was too jarring and tended to trigger frantic snacking, which often led to napping.
I needed a way to remain in my chair, at my screen, but be able to check in on friends without having to make small talk or even hold up my side of the conversation. Although I didn’t realise it, I also needed a chance to spy on semi-strangers and relatives and people from my past without breaking any laws.
I needed access to video snippets and newsy bits that someone else thought were funny or touching or bizarre. I needed a simple way to keep up with neighbourhood gossip and industry rumour. All while investing precisely as much time and attention as I wanted to, with no reciprocal responsibilities or guilt.
In short, I needed Facebook.
Satisfying the semi-social, procrastination needs of middle-age writers may not have been what Mark Zuckerberg had in mind when he launched Facebook, but he can count that among his accomplishments nonetheless. Thanks to him, with one click I can leave work, get out of my own story for exactly as long as I wish, then return to work. Better than ruby slippers!
I assume all Facebook users find their own community. I write children’s books, so the people who “friend” me tend to be teachers, librarians, other writers or readers. And they’re there for me.
Just the other day, I couldn’t remember the title or author of a book that I wanted to recommend to a friend, so I asked the communal Facebook brain. All I had to go on was the general subject and my memory of the cover art.
Within minutes I had the book’s title from a middle school librarian in Massachusetts whom I’ve never met. She probably came across my question while doing her own procrastinating.
Another time recently, I posted a picture of the grubs I found infesting my flower beds. By nightfall they’d been identified, remedies had been suggested, similar insect stories shared, sympathy extended.
What I didn’t expect when I first started using Facebook was that just through the accumulation of “status updates”, which are rarely more than a sentence or two, distinct personalities would emerge. Not all, but many of my 1,429 Facebook friends who began as total strangers have become virtual friends.
There’s also something wonderful about the ease of ending Facebook friendships. I can simply block anyone I find annoying, and they never know.
And when blocking isn’t enough, there is the delicious joy of unfriending.
The overzealous debut author who believed that relentless self-promotion via social media really was the path to success: One click, and he’s gone! The NRA kid whose response to school shootings was that the teachers should be armed: Unfriend! The antiabortion and marriage protection fanatics: Click, bye-bye!
But Facebook friendships can also pull you into real-life dramas.
I have one Facebook friend who is suffering from severe depression. She recently checked back into the “whack shack” (her words) for electric shock treatments, which she described in detail. She writes about her plight with humour and charm, but it tears my heart out. I find myself as anxious about her illness and treatments as I would be about an actual blood-and-bone friend.
Recently, a sweet guy I’d never met, and only knew from his Facebook posts, died. I learned this when his brother announced his sudden death - on Facebook. I was stunned, and totally blindsided by the depth of my emotion. But I wondered if I was entitled to be sad over a total stranger. Was it voyeuristic? Ghoulish? Inappropriate?
The sorrow felt entirely real, but it was embarrassing.
I secretly went to his Facebook page and found that I was not alone.
Alongside his real-life friends and family, many people who had only known him on Facebook posted condolences and memories and prayers. His online community mourned. We comforted one another. Some of us eventually became Facebook friends.
Maybe those of us who connect on Facebook care for each other and cry over each other in the same way we do over beloved characters in novels and movies.
As a fiction writer, I take those relationships seriously. So even if the whole Facebook world is just a new kind of fiction, the laughs are real, and so are the sorrows.
And the procrastination is exquisite.
P.S. This first appeared as an op-ed in The LA Times.
Here is the link: