Monday, October 05, 2009

facetime on facebook

I'm usually about ten years behind technologically--we got our first color TV around 1975, our first CD player around 1990, and I don't have the coordination to text and drive even where it is legal. So it was some trepidation that I opened a Facebook page a couple of months ago. So far, as the expression goes, so good.

I have to be honest about the limits of Facebook. You don't suddenly have any more friends just because you "friend" them at the site. (My sons have 526 and 318 "friends" respectively; I have 40, including two who have never responded.) Nor do people who were annoying, or that you annoyed, in real life suddenly become less so. If you track down your old girl friends, you'll quickly remember why they became that way.

Still, there is a value to the site, potentially a big one. Most of us have a few very good friends and a universe of people we are basically indifferent to. In between there is a middle category: colleagues at other law schools, people we went to college or on overseas trips with, friends whom we teetered on the edge of romance with but never quite went over. (This is different from old girl friends, although it is obviously a fuzzy line.) They are the kind of people, in short, who enriched our lives at one point but with whom we gradually lost touch over the years.

Facebook helps one to keep in touch with just this sort of person, and to rediscover something that is often missing in modern life: the art of light conversation, a sort of banter that is less than intellectual exchange but more than mere indifference. The presence of photographs, and the fact that most postings are open to third party viewers, enforces a sort of cheerfulness that is sometimes cloying but also vaguely reassuring in our polarized, put-down world. On blogs or e-mail, I think nothing of trashing the previous post, although my wife has taught me the value of the "send later" key. On Facebook, I find myself saying "How ya doin' Nancy" to an old friend who had been ill, or "Great photos!" to someone who posted the nth montage of their children and dogs. It's the kind of conversation people used to have with their neighbors, until TV and air conditioning drove everyone inside and your saw your neighbors only on Election Day.

There's something reassuring about all this, even if it frequently tends toward the trivial. We are told that technology has made us lonely and atomized: we connect only with people who are just like us, or only to attack those that we disagree with. Facebook represents a good faith if limited effort to correct the balance. Technology taketh away, but technology also giveth; even the socially challenged can feel part of a larger community once a day. In the 21st century, that isn't so bad.


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