An Innocent in the Land of Facebook

It started innocently enough. An acquaintance e-mailed me and, using a new verb with which I was unfamiliar, asked if she could “friend” me. Considering she was already a friend, her request was not readily understood. Is the verb “friend” more intimate than the noun version? Will this involve touching? Should I consult a priest or parole officer before replying?

Being the trusting individual that I am, I clicked on the link in her e-mail, followed the on-screen instructions to fill out a few lines of personal information—name, gender, criminal record—and clicked again. My life hasn’t been the same since. It was as if I had walked through the back of a wardrobe and emerged in a snow-covered woods illuminated by a single lamppost, against which leaned a huge and menacing ape-like monster with only one eye. (Sorry. Sometimes I get that Narnia book mixed up with Lord of the Rings.)

Apparently, I had signed up for something called “Facebook,” a virtual universe where people stay in touch with each other on a daily basis with—and this must be some kind of Facebook rule—the most banal humdrum that simply must be shared. “I’m having coffee and reading the paper,” a friend writes on her page, an idle comment that God Almighty—who knows all and sees all—would probably fail to note, but which nonetheless triggers an automatic e-mail telling all her friends that she has just “updated” her page. This is now archived into a permanent space on the World Wide Web, despite the fact it would be of interest only to a parent (“What, you can read the paper but you can’t call your mother?”) or criminal investigators looking for behavioral clues as to why, after finishing the newspaper, she walked out of her house carrying a meat cleaver.

Far worse, an incoming Facebook alert triggers one’s inner zombie. You can’t not click on the link, enter your password, and wait expectantly, because a friend could be informing you she has an incurable disease, or has been appointed to the Obama administration, or just received a MacArthur genius grant. Nope. Just drinking coffee.

Who invented this? It’s pen pals from hell, but without the collectible foreign postage stamps.

After “friending” the first person, I got another request. A month later I’m up to 97 Internet friends, some with names I recognize, others that are familiar but whose faces are not. Being new to this universe, I simply “confirmed” any new friend that came along, praying that I would not, at some future date, have to write stuff in all their yearbooks.

But can I trust these new “friends”? Are there junk friends on Facebook like the junk e-mail I regularly get? Do advertisers pose as friends, so when I “friend” them I inadvertently sign up for vinyl siding, or a new cell phone, or a speed-dating seminar?

And what if someone asks me to friend them but I don’t want to? A colleague says just ignore their request but never, under any circumstances, click the “Ignore” button, because that could offend them. And they might come after you with a cleaver.

And dare I invite someone to be my friend? What if they don’t want me as their Facebook buddy? What if they click “Ignore” and suddenly it’s high school all over again? Do I need this in the autumn (okay, early winter) of my life?

See how much anxiety this is creating for me? (Should I get a date for prom now, or wait until later?) Suddenly, I’m an insecure teenager again, but without the comforting cowboy-themed bedroom in which to take refuge.

THE ARCHITECTURE OF Facebook—not to mention the vernacular—is also confusing. Apparently I have a “wall” that people can write things on (“I’m going shopping, then to a Save Darfur rally, then back to shopping”), but I don’t see anything that looks like a wall on my page. Just lots of photos and quotations from people (“Okay, I’m back. Good rally. Now off to Target!”). And if people put something on my “wall,” can I take it off without turpentine? Frankly, I’d rather they just spray-paint something on the side of my neighbor’s garage. A lot easier to read, and then I could clean it off.

And since being on Facebook basically means having your own Internet site, it takes hours each day to maintain, most of which must be done during the work day to avoid using personal time at home. This may not go over with the boss, so make sure you keep a computer game in the background of your monitor at all times. That way, if someone walks by, you can quickly change your screen to the game, so people know you’re actually working.

Ed Spivey Jr. is art director of Sojourners.

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