Lately I’ve developed a new social mutation, a kind of internal timing reflex when it comes to the low art of hanging out. It’s a close cousin to the one-Mississippi, two-Mississippi count I used in college to time how long it took at a party for someone to ask “What’s your major?”, or the one that kicked in a few years later for how long it took coworkers to ask, in the months following my wedding, “So: how’s married life?” But these days the setting and the people have changed. I’m at a bar, or a dinner, or having a smoke, and the players aren’t extras in my daily life anymore. They’re close friends, people I’ve known for sometimes decades, and what I catch myself gauging now isn’t how long it takes for them to ask about my status, but instead about the status—or the profile photo, or the link, or the comment, or the “like”—of real humans we know in common, and how those humans filter their distant lives through a crude, blue web portal.
“Thing is, A.’s just preaching to the choir with the liberal outrage links…”
“Did you read that thing B. posted? Oh, you shared it? Oh then that’s how I saw it…”
“Yesterday C. liked a page for ‘Sluts.’ Right under D.’s kids’ birthday party pics in my feed, I just see C. likes Sluts—”
And so on.
It used to be that this sort of conversational turn would come paired with a doomed complicity, a reluctant break from the standard regimen of TV / work / books / movies / that last time we hung out / work. But it lasted only as long as it took for someone to point out “we’re talking about fucking Facebook,” after which the topics thankfully snapped back to the real-world order. I don’t know when it happened (2010? 2011?) but the shift was heavy and insidious, and now it seems like “talking about fucking Facebook” has become the new conversational order. Depending on the context and how well we know each other, my time spent with friends now goes from zero to full-tilt-Facebook in less than ten minutes. And once the topic’s breached, there’s talk of little else. It’s as boundaryless as it is genderless—male friends, female friends, all of us in the vicinity of our thirties, all of us locked into some indignant semi-gossip about who’s got the funniest statuses, the best pics, the cutest kids. Whose updates are obnoxious, or whose seem sad and dire in their insistent joy. Whose posts make us feel useless, whose make us feel better, and, most importantly, whose we’ve unsubscribed to entirely.
“We should really stop talking about Facebook,” someone will say now.
“I know, I know,” someone else will say.
Then, as a group, we proceed to do no such thing.
But what, exactly, are we talking about when we talk about how people “are” on Facebook? A decade into its existence, its seems that those of us Zuckerberg originally built the thing for—mid-aught undergrads and twentysomethings—still seem at a crossroads in our acceptance of not just the medium and its pull over us, but also the power of Facebook as a sly innovator of the social more. Relationship statuses, birthday wishes, check-ins, the utterly useless “poke”— as early adopters, we gave over to it all jaggedly, and with no shortage of guilt and shame. (I didn’t relent until 2008, at age 30, after everyone I knew had stopped apologizing for enjoying it.) Probably because we still remember a time where we got along without Facebook, the residue of that shame still haunts our activity there, even while the reach and etiquette of Facebookery continues to evolve into something formidable. The web is clogged now with listicles and SEO clickbait featuring tips and no-no’s: how to post, how not to, who to fear becoming, how to comment, when to “like”, etc. — all of it swirling into a stew of nebulous, Fanny Burney-type decorum logic. To a generation who came to Facebook with little beyond an itch to spy on the evolution of people we once saw naked in high school, its not hard to see how that shift in language—and that’s what Facebook interplay has become now, a language—might provoke a response not unlike the one we had when Ice Cube started headlining family comedies: Oh, so this is like, a real thing then?
Which could explain why, to us, Facebook still feels like less of a given and more like a social experiment. Only for this one, we’re both the experimental group and the moderator, responding to our surroundings while at the same time gauging that response, providing real-time commentary on it. To one another. A lot. Yet of all the Facebook conversations I’ve had, none are more thorough than the ones I have with other writers, like me—people attuned to the reflexivity of experience, the power of mannerisms to create character and, above all, story. The talks are exhausting, and can last for hours (I’m not discounting myself here), but the bulk of it is less gossip and more in the spirit of Aristotelian detective work, searching for the holes in the stories of Facebook characters and how they apply to their real-life counterparts—what doesn’t add up. And once we get past the general status-and-photo talk, we arrive always at some version of the same question, one that’s plagued every Facebook conversation I’ve been a part of in the last year or so: How can X be such a nice person in real life, yet such an asshole on Facebook?
It’s a question that’s usually answered with heaps of praise for the real-life person in question; how they’re “really just an awesome person, so nice, seriously, but fuck: if I see another post about how lucky X feels to be married to the amazing Y, or how Z fought the indignities of a grocery line to triumph in their unstoppable quest to be their own biggest fan—and it goes on like this, devolving into some armchair, semiotic no-man’s land where none of us can tell which of the two—the person or the profile—advertises the “real them” more effectively.
Which points to the core problem with Facebook’s goal to be the most lifelike avatar of our true selves. With every effort Big Blue makes to deepen its humanity with photos and videos and widgets and timelines that stretch back to the very moment of our births, it greater exposes an unsettling schism in its depiction of us. Facebook captures everything about us but our essence, in effect creating an uncanny valley of human personality, where the tiny ways in which our profile fails to fully broadcast the “soul” of our being nullify the ways in which it succeeds. We exist in on Facebook only as flat characters, robbed of any arc, converging in a themeless, expressive limbo. Unlike with Twitter, which is somehow empowered by its ephemeral break from anything resembling a true identity (See: @nottildaswinton, @mayoremanuel, @drunkhulk, etc.), Facebook has become handcuffed, as its evolved, by its commitment to the opposite.
As such, an expression of id-like emotion on Facebook—So very happy for Jenny Decker and Scott Raner!—lacks, to the real-life person reading it, any of the drive, psychic tension, or context that led to that emotion. Like with all flat characters, in the storyline of Facebook there are no hurdles or denouement for any of us. And worse: there’s no way to concoct a moment that’s truly shared, which, given the goal of Facebook, can lead to an acute, dissonant kind of irony.
More than once I’ve heard friends confess to spells of deep loneliness and alienation as a result of steady Facebook exposure, that ticker stream of cleverness, cluelessness and self-promo scratching at something nameless and aggravated in each of them. And while I’m sure that’s no doubt triggered by something at least a little FOMO-related, it’s just as possible that the Facebook brand of loneliness could also be a result of inching that close to versions of people you care for, then realizing you’re helpless to tap in to the layers of intangible depth that brought you so close to those people—your friends—in the first place.
The whole predicament creates a distance fuzzy and subtle enough to be immeasurable, but that doesn’t stop me and my friends from huddling in perplexed circles, talking it out as if we’re psychotherapists. But I can’t tell if what we’re doing in these conversations is trying to measure that fuzzy distance, or if we’re mourning the loss of our perceptions of someone’s personality, or if, instead, what we’re really doing when we talk about Facebook is nothing more than plain and simple longing—missing our friends, wishing they could crawl their real, 3D selves through our gleaming little phone screens, have a seat, order a drink, and settle the issue for us once and for all.
Mike Scalise’s work has appeared in Agni, The Paris Review, Post Road, The Wall Street Journal, Indiewire, and a bunch of other places. He’s received fellowships and scholarships from Bread Loaf, Yaddo, Ucross, and was the Philip Roth Writer in Residence at Bucknell University a while back.