Sunday, May 30, 2010

Facebook and other vices

Driving manically around the Western Cape Province, as I am at the moment, in the vain attempt to get everything ready for the hoards which are supposed to be arriving from abroad for the 2010 FIFA World Cup, and the hoards which I know will be pitching up at Provincial Public Viewing Areas, I get to listen to quite a bit of radio.

And on one programme, there was an interview regarding the new privacy settings on Facebook. Apparently, there is an issue. There has been something of a revolt in the Facebook community and Facebook has responded to it by upping the ante in relation to privacy settings. As I understand things, it has something to do with who can see your profile. The person who was being interviewed said that he didn’t do much Facebooking, because he was rather old fashioned in relation to friendships. He didn’t want to have such a wide circle of friends able to read everything he said to all his other friends. And that got me thinking.

When I first encountered Facebook, introduced as I was by my internet connected partner, I was appalled by it. I was appalled by the level of inanity I encountered. There were people I was connected to (in one way or another) telling me what they had for lunch; what they thought of the weather; what they thought about random issues; what they liked at that particular moment, or not; what happened to them in the lift, and so on.

There were pictures of all sorts of things one would normally avoid, unless one were to be trapped in one of those “Oh, I must show you my pictures of my trip to Venice” moments. There were groups about this and groups about that. There were causes about this and causes about that. There was an unbelievably witless thing, which I never got to the bottom of called “Farmville”. There were suggestions about who I might like to befriend, even though I had never met them before. And so it went.

I wanted out immediately. To my horror, I discovered that it was impossible to delete one’s profile. You could sort of make it dormant, but never delete it. I made it dormant and felt extremely relieved. My partner smiled wistfully and just carried on with his Facebooking and Tweeting and all the other things he does on the internet.

It didn’t take long and I was back. Doing many of the things which had so repelled me in the first instance. There was (and is), to be sure, a kind of social voyeurism, which is satisfied by it. I have discovered the block button and have blocked all the wildly Evangelical Christians and irritating racists I had somehow managed to get entangled with. If I get a friend request from someone I have never heard of, with no explanation or context, I just ignore it. I seldom – very seldom - join causes, no matter how important they might seem. I automatically delete (or is the word “unfriend”) anyone with anything to do with Farmville. And I have to say, I am a whole lot happier about my association with Facebook. I did have one extremely unpleasant encounter, with someone I was not connected to and the incident warned me that this mechanism could be less than benign. But despite it, I have continued.
But I have to wonder, is the whole thing just simply narcissistic? I have a whole lot of friends who are not on Facebook, and when I think about it, they are my closest friends. Most of them are not on Facebook because they either don’t have the computer literacy, or because they have taken a deliberate decision not to be. And we service each other as we always have done. We occasionally call each other to catch up on news. Perhaps we email each other. We see each other for a meal. We go to each other’s houses and talk to each other.

And all the bits which happen between encounters are filtered. They are either ignored, or they are selected for updating. But they are seldom paraded in a completely unessential fashion. Let me give an instance in my own Facebook behaviour, which is perhaps questionable.

I often go onto Facebook and read about everyone else’s day. Then I think, “Well, what can I say?” Now my day, believe me, is seldom anything interesting enough to publish. “I sat in a meeting for most of the day, listening to people jabber on about boring things”. There is nothing interesting or even mildly curious about that. Why would you tell anyone about it?

So then I think, well why not put what I am listening to at the moment. So I put “is listening to … (some fairly obscure 20th century composer)’s … (equally obscure piece in a foreign language)…”. And I often get responses to that. By the one or two or three people on my list who either have actually heard that piece, or who have heard it and liked it and are glad that there is another person in the universe who likes it as well.

So why do it do it? Why do I tell EVERYONE connected to me what piece of music I am listening to? Isn’t that as bad as telling everyone my dream last night? Or the menu I am planning for my next dinner party, to which they are not invited?

Well, I don’t know, fully. I think there is an element of conceit in it. And curiosity – exploring the off-chance that there are others in the universe with a similar mien. I also think there is an element of neighbourliness. I suppose it all depends, psychologically, which element is dominant in one’s personality.

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