• Paul D. Wilke

Facebook and the One Dimensional Person

Over the past year or so I’ve come to have a sort of love-hate relationship with Facebook, with the trend slowly but surely moving more toward the latter. On the one hand, Facebook is great for someone like me who moves around every few years. I’ve been able to stay in touch with friends, family, and co-workers from all over the world in ways that I wouldn’t have in the past. I’ve also been able to re-connect with old friends and classmates from the pre-Facebook era, excavating them from my memories and returning them to the real world of the present, or at least the "real" world on a screen. In that respect, Facebook is an excellent way to maintain connections, even if they don't run all that deep. It's also a great way to get this blog out there to more people. I’ve also enjoyed sharing humor or ideas with other people, as well as the occasional debate on whatever the drama of the day happened to be. And I will admit it was comforting, flattering even, to get all those well wishes from so many people after waking up from a coma. So that's the love part.

On the other hand, what I hate is that Facebook tends to take human beings and turn them into one-dimensional, cardboard cutouts. Part of that is our fault. As I scroll down my newsfeed, I’ve noticed a few things. Some people just want to say something, anything, even if they don't have much to say at that moment. The boredom shows. It’s not that what they post offends me – after all, most of us have long ago culled the overly and overtly opinionated from our echo chambers – it’s that they tend to post on just one or two topics to the exclusion of everything else. Maybe that’s not fair, but I only have so much time to aimlessly surf the Internet, and I can’t waste it on such trivialities when I could be watching a donkey bond with a goat.

There are, for example, the people who post nothing in their own words, just inspirational memes or beautiful photos of gorgeous landscapes with inspirational memes in the background, not realizing the irony of all those mediated, second-hand aesthetics. I want to tell them they should speak in their own words and not let others do it for them, even if it does not always sound as profound as they would like. Getting ideas from the mind to reality is difficult, but the effort is worth it. Trust me.

Next, come the food porn provocateurs, a fun bunch of epicureans, posting recipes as well as dinner and beer selfies with staggering regularity. These folks understand that dining out with friends is one of the best social bonding experiences there is. I get that and they apparently do too. However, something is lost when looking at a photo online of someone’s eggs benedict with asparagus and brie. It makes me almost weep to see such tiny quantities of expensive fancy-pantsy food on those big, white plates. Really, how much did you pay for that? Participating vicariously in someone else's meal via a little glowing screen is a pale shadow of the real thing.

Finally, there are the cosmopolitan world travelers – in my world, they are legion – sharing +36 photos of their latest adventure and little else – all in the same poses at all the same check-the-box tourist spots. After all, did you really have an awesome vacation if no one saw it on social media? I don't think you did.

There are the Signalers, or those who share a post about something provocative or controversial, usually a social or political issue, or sometimes a conspiracy, but they don't leave any comments of their own to explain where they actually stand on the issue. Of course, we are to assume that the views expressed in the article are the poster's views as well, but you can never be 100% certain about this. If you point out that what they posted is absolute rubbish, or racist, or sexist, they can pivot in any direction, agreeing, denying, or just shrugging it off as a joke, since after all, they didn't actually say anything.

Finally, the best, and rarest, are the wildcards, those few who post a little bit about everything, but not too often, and not too much, and in their own words. They are the Goldilocks of social media whose posts I enjoy seeing the most. I am fortunate to have quite a few friends who fall into this category, but there could be more. I used to strive for that happy medium, but then I would come across an article about something no one else but me was interested in and fail miserably to resist the urge to pontificate about it at length.

And, no, don’t think I’m going to let myself off the hook so easily. Just about everything I criticize above can be pointed back at me. Guilty! While my activity on Facebook has dropped off in the last year or so, a trip down memory lane still shows someone of the “overly and overtly opinionated” type. Did I really think anyone wanted to hear me opine about the Frankfurt School of Philosophy? Or was I just name-dropping like a pedantic ass? And is it pedantic to use the word pedantic in everyday conversation like this?

I think it might be.

Did I think anyone would really care about my interest in the efforts to study a strangely dimming star 1300 light-years away? Or what about my own +36 travel photo catalog with me in the same mono-pose, checking those boxes, living the dream and showing everybody. I'm confident I'm also on many people’s ‘scroll-down-do-not-look’ list.

Fair enough.

Judge not lest ye be judged and no one gives a shit what I had for dinner last night.

Sadly, a Facebook ‘Friend’ is not necessarily any real friend. Casual acquaintances from high school that have not seen each other in twenty-five years are not real friends either; they’re just connections in our personal networks. Plus, I get it: we're all just a little curious to see how it all turned out and how fat, bald, and old we all ended up. It's a kind of harmless voyeurism. As people try to polish their brands online, showing how together they are, they mostly end up sounding like clichés.

Like me, many of these people eventually realize that, after all the effort to stand out, they are just behaving in the same, predictable ways as the rest of the faceless crowd. The people who learn this sad truth start keeping their real selves hidden, offering up only a safely sanitized version, neat, tidy and curated for public viewing.

That’s my great disappointment with Facebook, that I'll only ever get to see the filtered 'you' edited for the general public rather than the real person lying down there, somewhere, underneath all the show. I'll never get past the window display, and maybe that's for the best. After all, we're only ever able to have a few close, intimate friends, people who love and accept us no matter how unexciting our lives are.

The further out we expand our social circles, the more diluted they become and the less value they have. We're performing our social dances in the presence of people we barely know, but whom we still call "Friends." Facebook made us believe it could be otherwise, that we could trade depth for breadth and call it an upgrade. I don't think that's the case anymore. Facebook could have been so much more and is still useful in many ways, but in the end, it became a one-dimensional, and therefore inferior, version of real life, which is already dull enough for most of us, no matter how hard we try to convince everyone otherwise. For all the promise to the contrary, we ended up less authentically expressive, less honestly open, more predictable, dull, and, yes, tedious. Not to mention a helluva lot more gullible – but that’s another post. In the meantime, as '70s folk-rocker Stephen Sills once said it, you gotta 'love the ones you're with.'

That's good advice.