I was in that generation of kids for whom Facebook was an epic right of passage - I waited, breathless, for my university email address to arrive so that I could join my fellow high school seniors in getting that coveted, no-parents-allowed, (fairly obvious) status symbol which was a picture and a few words of me. I remember filling out the small sample of boxes about my favorite movies, books, music, thinking that somehow putting those personal identifiers online would say more about me than any actual human interaction with actual human beings.
I got to write whatever I wanted, so I proudly declared my faith (Anglican), my politics (very liberal) and my "interested in" (quite defiantly, men and women). I listed all the French literature I had ever thumbed through, from Rimbaud to Baudelaire, and I enumerated the jazz performers who made my heart sing and the love of whom, I thought, made me sophisticated. I created a little world for myself online: one picture of Louise Brooks, a few quotes from Anais Nin, and a mostly unseen reference to my bisexuality.
It was due to Facebook that I met my husband. I joined the JHU Rocky Horror group, quickly agreed to be in the cast, and met the love of my life at a Thursday night rehearsal for what was to be my social scene for the next four years. Without Facebook - I will admit - I most likely would not be married to G.
So thanks, Facebook, for that bit.
The part of me which hates Facebook is the part which is terribly afraid that social interaction (in real life, as they say) will forever be changed by the myth that talking online is the same thing as speaking to a friend in person.
The Internet was once known as the "information highway," and while that sounds a bit silly now, I feel as if the goal of exchanging information should be that for which we, as Internet users, strive. I fear, however, that social media can sometimes do the opposite - we don't always share information. Mostly, we choose to share the banal, like pictures of our food or a recounting of bar excursions or other trivial details of self-importance. Places like Facebook help us focus on ourselves, because everything we do is placed on a grander stage of both the ephemeral and the eternal. Our lives are catalogued quickly and effortlessly, mundane events and casual thoughts listed alongside births and deaths and marriages, and with a refresh of the feed those events are gone - but as my husband would remind me, what you put on the Internet is there forever.
What does that mean for human interaction? Is everything we do important? Is it brief and meaningless? Do we know, anymore, how to ask questions about others, or how to be polite, or how to care? Can we go out to dinner without telling the world?
How do we proceed in a world where what we are is in bits of data - the personal sound bite - rather than in a good meal, a good conversation, and questions which can't be answered by a quick search and a concurrent stretch of uncomfortable silence?
What if we know more about our friends through a status update than through the art of conversation?
Those are the concerns which leave me baffled by Facebook - by our current use of the Internet entire. I hate that. I hate feeling like I'm more valuable online than I am in real life.
But there is, of course, the other part of me, which sees something emerging and terribly good about social media.
I will return to the opening of this post, which addressed my "coming out," of sorts, through Facebook. Frankly, I don't think it was a huge surprise to anyone who knew me that I was attracted to both men and women. I'm obviously very open about that now, and to me it is truly no big deal. But back then, at eighteen, it was a big honking deal, and there was a fair bit of doubt which went into putting that information anywhere, even if only other eighteen year olds could see it. I was invisible to adults, yes - but somehow, with a check mark in the appropriate box, I was more visible to myself.
That level of visibility is what I love, really love, about Facebook.
I recently read an article written by Stephen Fry about his journey with bipolar disorder. It was posted by my grandfather on - you guessed it - Facebook, and I don't know if I've ever been more grateful for the share button. After I reposted the link, two friends reposted it, and this afternoon, my mother mentioned the piece and we were able to talk about Fry's use of Shakespeare and of his mental illness.
It was a real, human interaction.
It was also another moment of visibility for me. Sure, eight years ago, I announced my bisexuality - but today, through a quick reposting and a resulting conversation, I announced, addressed, had no shame in my bipolar disorder. I made myself visible, and not only that, I helped Stephen Fry's visibility, and I was able to share in that with my grandfather and with friends and with their friends, too. Isn't that the sharing of information, the goal, the purpose of the Internet?
Maybe the fact that our lives are an open book online means that we can be more honest, both with ourselves and with the world. Maybe sharing information isn't just about facts and figures but about the human condition - sexuality, social justice, mental illness, compassion, debate, anger, joy, grief, delight. Maybe we share pictures of our food because they convey something about us, something which is both ephemeral and eternal.
When I got Facebook, I put a bit of myself out there, and sure, there was a fair amount of ego involved, but there was also an element of - this is me. It was a stepping stone, a passage which took me from being single and heterosexual and unmedicated to being married and bisexual and openly bipolar (and dealing with it). I mean, here I am, on a public blog, talking about how I can be married to a man and attracted to women and emotionally stable and mentally ill and all of it, now, is no big deal.
I am not invisible. The very root of me is exposed.
I still miss the days when going out to dinner was more important than telling people I was going out to dinner. I worry that our enjoyment of life is inextricably bound by how we present our lives online, and by how many people "like" it, and by how good our food looks through the lenses of our cell phones. I am so torn between the concept of sharing and that of over-sharing. I don't want my self worth to revolve around my online presence.
But I can understand that, perhaps, seeing myself through the lens of social media means that I am forced to "like" myself. I have begun to appreciate the many ways in which my Facebook family shares parts of themselves - statuses, articles, music or video - and that I can share those parts, too. I've been awfully hard on social media in the past, but as I have been writing I've thought about what life would be like without Facebook, and I wonder -
Would I have ever known about Stephen Fry's mental illness? Would I have known about my high school classmate - now living in Europe - giving birth to a beautiful baby boy? Would I have been able to see my ex-girlfriend's awesome band succeed? Would I know what was happening in Asheville, or San Fran, or Washington, or even Baltimore? Would I know exotic dancers, actors, lawyers, poets, housewives, feminists, activists, priests?
Would they know me?
It's flitting, it's permanent, and none of it, none of us, are invisible.
As much as I hate dinners interrupted by Facebook, I love my life with it - an open book, a source of pride, and something worth writing about.
Even if it is in a status update.