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Baruth: In the Kingdom of Facebook

04/09/09 5:55PM By Philip Baruth
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(HOST) The social networking software Facebook hit its peak of popularity about two years ago.  Which means that Commentator Philip Baruth just found out about it a few weeks ago.

(BARUTH) When I decided to sign up for Facebook, I sort of knew that Facebook calls itself a social networking software, but my actual knowledge was limited to the component words in the phrase.  I guess I thought Facebook would be something like a digital social secretary, searching out friends and tending to them, while I remained free to do whatever productive things I like to think I do.  You know, the sort of suave social planner you imagine Kings and Dukes employing back in the Renaissance.  And I was partially right.  Facebook is like a social secretary - if you imagine a half-witted and utterly corrupt social secretary who’s openly taking bribes to unlock the door for people you don’t know or trust.

It works like this: you answer a few basic questions about yourself, and then Facebook immediately offers you a menu of potential friends, people it suspects you might know or want to know.  And you then sniff over this menu and dismiss those that you don’t fancy, and "friend" the ones you do.  Perfect so far: the thing works just like the medieval underling you’ve always wanted.  The process gets increasingly rocky, though, because Facebook is everywhere in space and time, marketing you the way supermarkets push steaks about to reach their expiration date.  And, in addition to suggesting friends privately, the system lets these people apply to you directly for friendship, which lots of people do because they’re secretly selling time shares or steroids.  

Still, once these people have emailed you directly, as individuals, normal rules of politeness kick in - you have to friend them back, or you feel finicky and stuck-up.  But let’s face it:  you hire a social secretary so normal rules of politeness won’t kick in, and you won’t be continually forced into awkward social situations, these made more awkward by the fact that people are suddenly saying and doing things to you that you’re not at all sure you want done.  For example, and excuse my French, people can "poke" you on Facebook.  They poke you, you receive an email informing you that they’ve poked you, and then Facebook gives you the option of poking them back.  So what you now have in your employ is the sort of social secretary who reaches out globally, twenty-four hours a day, to Minsk and Copenhagen and Shanghai, and suggests to strange people there that they might want to poke you.   And, for my money, that’s anti-social.

But you friend them all, because who needs the guilt?  And once they’re all able to access your Facebook page, your wall, they begin posting to it all the time, day and night, videos and political come-ons and risque jokes, and they’re never quiet.  Suddenly, you seem to matter very little.  Your secretary has created a global cocktail party, and no matter how much you yawn and glance at the clock no one ever gets the hint.  So the best thing you can do is switch off your computer altogether, which is the equivalent of just going upstairs and locking your bedroom door.  But it’s no good, finally:  you can’t sleep because you know they’re down there, or in there, or wherever they are, all of them, these strange, lovely people who would do anything for you except take their things and go home.
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