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It's Nelly's World

Face It

alec vanderboom



In the late eighties, New York Telephone got themselves a good slogan: "We're all connected." It warmly evoked all the paradoxical longing and anxiety of the ring-and-answer dialectic. There was something a little scary in the thought. At the time, I wrote a poem to someone that conveyed the desire, and the horror too, and I think there was a line in it that went "Oh my god: we're all connected."

In a new era, now, there's something exponentially more frightening, and you use it, and I use it, and we all use it, and oh my god we're all connected by Facebook.

Frankly, it scares the wits out of me. Just as I am frighten
ed by anything big--a rogue wave, say--coming at me whose power I do not comprehend.

The feeling is a bit like that which arose before setting out for a party when I was in my twenties: Who's going to be there? Do I look all right? Maybe no one will want to talk to me. Maybe everyone there will be smarter, prettier, funnier. Maybe I will slink home without havin
g said a word.

On Facebook, all of that is indeed the case. I am paralyzed into silence by the shiny wit and compact humor and alchemical apercus, expressed in sentences as verbally layered as paratha bread, of so many of my friends: these are people who should have been stand-up comics or political speechwriters or, possibly, comic politicians. The day goes on and I think, I really should post something--hey, maybe this!--and when I log on, there are diamonds and rubies scattered across the screen. I'm not going to put my paste jewel from the dimestore up there next to the stuff from Cartier.

Yet this--as astonishing as it is to see bright flashes of intelligence flare and die, replaced by the next burst of wondrous light--is but the simple use to which Facebook is put. It's like the smokescreen: it's what they want you to do, so that behind our backs, while we are diverting each other, they can be doing their . . . what? That's what I don't know; that's the unknown that scares me.

I know this must be going on, because I watched David Fincher's masterful The Social Network. I know because Mark Zuckerberg, the fellow who thought this up, is so scary-smart his mind is literally impossible to fathom. (Not that you'd want to, necessarily.) It was an idea conceived of in anger--and conceived of as purely transactional. A sales catalog of women: See which one you want today!

Because its intention was veiled from the beginning, it remains so, though the number of veils increase daily. We don't really know what they're doing with all the information they're collecting on us. And indeed, I suspect they don't yet know everything they're going to do with it in the future: but there are some very, very canny minds working on that at this exact moment.

What Facebook is good for, for any of us plebeians, is also multivalent, if less empire-building. It can be used to torture yourself, for example: you can troll around your ex, or your ex's friends, if she's blocked you or you've blocked her, and you can see who's doing what. With whom. Where. You can see evidence of parties you weren't invited to. You can see who's the most popular kid in high school: Four thousand friends? Who has four thousand friends? You can have done to you the coldest form of door-closing ever conceived: Defriending. It happens without a word. Slam.

It also shows who doesn't have a life, or at least doesn't in these cold winter days. That's most of us, apparently. The other night I found myself simultaneously engaged in three chats; I felt as if I'd just had a bunch of balls thrown at me with the command "Juggle!" Juggle I did.

You can't hide on Facebook. Or maybe you can, and I just haven't found the secret setting that would allow me to hide. To be a voyeur, without being spied myself. Even at that, though, I would still be watched. Bits of me, cell scrapings, taken without my knowledge. At some point, rest assured, it will all become clear. When we wake up one day and belong to someone else. Someone who is not our friend.