Tuesday, March 24, 2009
I’ve been on Facebook for a little over five years. I joined when you had to be part of a college network, although at the time I was out of college. I joined the nearest college network to my town, Illinois State University, using a friend’s email address. My friend happened to be a professor and graduate student at ISU.
For a couple days, I seemed to enjoy the privilege of having access to thousands of coed profiles. I was single, living in a college town, and the technology of Facebook lured me into the fantasy that if I could chat with these college girls then maybe they would want to go out with me. After all, I wasn’t that old—just four years out of college.
But this misuse of social technology was bound to catch up with me. In less than two weeks, some of the students in my friend’s class were asking him why he was “poking” them, a feature on Facebook that invites the multiple connotations of flirting, getting someone’s attention, and an overt sexual act.
More than once, my friend blushed in front of his freshman classes. “You’re on Facebook,” his students announced. “What? No, I’m not,” he replied.
Suffice it to say I’d been conducting my nefarious social mingling under his real name. That night he gave me direct instructions to take his name off the profile. He said he could lose his job if the English faculty thought he was flirting with undergraduates.
After a couple pointless dates with college coeds, I gave up the pathetic and futile quest to find love (or something like it) over Facebook’s channels. I went on a Facebook hiatus and lived in the real world, oblivious to the improvements and expansions in social technology. Meanwhile Facebook was opening up its doors to companies, organizations, the United States as a whole, and finally, most of Europe and Asia.
I’m still part of the Illinois State University network, even though I’ve never gone to school there. My connection to ISU is thus purely coincidental. I’ve changed the email address and put my name on the account. I’ve chosen a pseudonym for my profile (because I’m a writer and I like pen names), but people can search for me under my real name. I’ve also dutifully filled in the blanks about myself, adding my favorite bands, movies and television shows.
On the surface, Facebook is a narcissistic distraction from daily life. It provides a cross between the mindless absorption of the TV set and the obsessive self-involvement of the bathroom mirror. It also provides a voyeur with enough material to last a lifetime. The minutia of status updates, pictures, videos, top ten lists, interest groups, invitations, and games, this is the white noise of Facebook constantly buzzing; a social hive for restless young (and mid-life) Americans to retreat to; a place where, at least momentarily, we feel less alone and more connected.
Over the years, the lost figures of my past, lovers, classmates, fraternity brothers, even downright enemies, have slowly accumulated onto my friend list. From kindergarten on, these lost figures were coming out of the cyber woodwork to greet me. My typical Facebook reunion is one of unanticipated glee or terror, depending on the memories and the length of the conversation.
High school acquaintances, girls I befriended at summer camps, old teachers, some of my parents’ friends and a couple odd relatives have found their way to my profile; the friend list grows over time, forming an interesting social mosaic.
Of course, these people are my friends only according to the loose Facebook taxonomy. Some of them I haven’t even met before. Some are in fact strangers. Others I’ve met and known for vast chunks of time, but honestly, I never really cared for them. And finally, a large group of my Facebook friends seem to fit the term, but only partially. Yes, we were once friends. But for last ten or fifteen years we haven’t said a word to each other much less knew the other person still existed.
What about my real-life friends? Ironically, most of them are not on Facebook! They refuse the technology like children refusing treatment in a dentist’s office.
So I’m keeping up with a handful of people whom I call my “friends” and who fit the bill better than anyone else on the list. We’re communicating to each other every five or six months on the weakest possible thread—doing a sort of call and response to the most general of questions, “How’s life?” or “What are you up to?”
I ask myself: Could I live without these exchanges? Could I live without the photo updates? Do I really need to know what my ex-girlfriend’s husband looks like?
This is not the past. Nor is it the present. It is the past interpenetrating the present. The people I once knew in high school or college have only a faint resemblance to their former selves. They may look the same, but there is something different about them. Marked by the passage of time, they are different people.
I could never really know these people, could I? A sporadic conversation through a private message board can only yield so much information. Nonetheless, I’m drawn to this virtual carnival of friendship as I indolently peruse the photo albums of old classmates and acquaintances. Their personal pages tell me so very little and yet that seems to be part of the fascination, the little colored fragments here and there which allow me to construct a fable of their separate lives.
There is activity everywhere. The buzzing of status updates, comments, and wall posts gives the impression of life behind the profiles. Located on my homepage, front and center, is the “friend feed”, a social ticker tape that informs me of everyone’s doings. New friendships are announced, as are modifications to profiles and new photos or videos.
Facebook didn’t really make a difference to me until I actually met one of these lost figures from my past. That is, I could have easily existed without the technology. It was an odd curiosity to glimpse through the photo albums of my old classmates, but not a necessity for social well-being.
After I broke up with my girlfriend, I found myself—once again—indolently browsing the pages of my “friend’s” profiles. One picture in particular caught my attention—my childhood best friend, Brad Dolin, and another childhood friend, Emily Crement, are standing together on a gymnasium floor, smiling for the camera.
In fact, I had seen the picture before. It was a classic in the annals of Butler Junior High memorabilia. I had grown apart from Emily, who now had a son. I wanted to reconnect with her and so I commented on the photo.
Within seconds of posting my comment, I received a message on my wall—not from Emily but from someone else. The note said, “CHRIS!!!!!!!!!!!! ALASWAD!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”
In another couple seconds, this mystery person friended me and soon I was looking through her pictures trying to recall who on earth she was. Her main profile pic was striking, a ravishing young woman in an oriental green and turquoise dress. Half of her face is covered in shadows, she holds her arms behind her back, and stares down at the camera.
“These are the pictures of a model,” I thought as I continued my detective work.
“Do u pronounce ur name like leyth??? answer me that” showed up on my wall; and “THAT IS MY FAVORITE NAME IN THE WORLD. IT MEANS LION OR HEART OF BRAVERY IN ARABIC”
The name on my Facebook profile is not my real name. I think I've already said this. If you Google "Lethe Bashar" you will find a plethora of links related to this adolescent misfit. I’m a fiction writer and choosing a pseudonym for my Facebook profile seemed appropriate. Lethe Bashar lives out the drama of my rebellious past life in distant places like Madrid and Las Vegas. The novel encompasses three websites and is collectively titled, Lethe Bashar’s Novel of Life.
The mystery woman knew me from somewhere because now what appeared on my wall was, “omg how is mandy?? how is ur dad ?? i am soo sorry to hear about your mother”.
How did she know my father and sister? How did she know that my mother passed away?
Looking through her photo albums only increased my bewilderment. Either she was in the mafia or some kind of celebrity. A number of pictures had magazine logos on them. She was definitely a model. There were pictures from photo shoots and many glamorous poses with handsome men. In almost all of the pictures, she gazed inscrutably at the camera without the slightest smile on her lips. Her eyes were arresting and I wanted to know more.
“I don’t like talking back and forth on the wall,” she said. “Let’s use chat.”
And so we began our excursion to Yahoo Messenger, another bit of technology that has since become a favorite of mine. At last this woman’s identity was revealed to me. It took me far too long to guess who she was but this was a girl from my childhood.
She rode on the school bus with me over twenty years ago. Her mother dressed her in a white Christian Dior coat. She giggled at me when I jumped on the bus and ran down the aisles. Sometimes I infuriated her with my clowning around.
Perhaps my greatest surprise that night over Yahoo Messenger was our mutual, spontaneous interest in each other. I had reunited with friends on Facebook before, but this experience was totally different. . .
There is a whole story to tell about what happens next. But, for the moment, I’m going to protect my friend’s identity and choose to not give away any more details. All I will say is that we did indeed meet. And we are now happily engrossed in a romance of sorts.
ARTWORK BY MERJIN HOS