November 30, 2008

I know most people see Facebook as a positive thing and an opportunity to make new friendships, but I'm worried. It's opened up a whole new world of paranoia. I always knew I had the potential to alienate people in real life but now I can drive away thousands of people in cyber space too?

I joined Facebook because I was told to I had to. "You're missing out," Sophie said.

I enjoy missing out. There's plenty to be gained from it. Whenever I've panicked about missing out and then forced myself to go somewhere, I've invariably returned home thinking: I wasn't missing much at all.

But missing out on what's going on with my friends is different. The disparate nature of peoples' lives means I feel like I'm always in catch-up mode even with close friends.

So Facebook is a tool for staying in touch. For most of my friends it has replaced e-mail. Now even texting and phone calls have become a chore. I'll get through to Barack Obama before I'll get through to Liza.

Plus, I've always wondered what my friends are up to when they're not available to meet. Now I know. Facebook means I can get status updates and as soon as I joined, one instantly appeared on my screen.

"Liza is folding laundry." I felt so included. God only knows what else I've been missing.

The messages poured in congratulating me on joining. One said, "I can't believe it!" and another: "I'm so happy for you." Then the phone rang. It was Sophie. "I'm so excited!" She said, "Finally!"

You'd think I'd gotten engaged.

In real life, my friends are disinterested and distracted. But in cyber life people are very excited (!!!) about everything!!! The levels of emotion are off the charts. Everyone is so effusive. And curious. People I've never met before and have no interest in meeting are asking me questions about what I think and how I feel. My new fake friends have raised the bar.

A lot of people who have become friends with me have no idea who I am. Which suits me fine. These are great friends to have. I've also enjoyed reconnecting with people I haven't been in touch with for 20 years and catching up in two sentences. Does it get any better? Essentially we're saying: "Hi, not dead".

The only thing better than having a social life without ever leaving the house is having no obligations or responsibilities for maintaining this beyond an occasional click of a button.

You can't get mad at a friend on Facebook for not getting back to you and I've found that disappointment and rejection that would normally upset me is non-existent in cyber life.

All of which has led to a startling discovery: I'm so much better as a virtual friend than I am as a real friend.

The question is, how to carry it over.

Thanks to the status update I can read about what everyone is doing if they choose to post it. Once you've agreed to be friends with someone this update comes automatically. I thought about posting my own status update but figured ""I just woke up - going back to bed - may snore" wouldn't be of much interest.

I was wrong. There's no minutia too small to report.Nancy is tired. Karen is eating cereal. Then people can comment on these updates. I try not to waste time but it's hard to overlook comments like: "What kind of cereal? Bran? I love Bran!"

I wish I had that much enthusiasm about something.

Then there is information about my friends that is slightly unnerving. For instance, I'm waiting for Jessica to get back to me and a week has passed. Suddenly, a status update appears.

"Jessica has just spent 8 hours doing nothing and is incredibly bored."

Now what? I'd like to think I haven't heard back from her because she's busy with work or family commitments. But apparently doing nothing is preferable to talking to me. I don't want to know that.

I don't mind the status updates when people are blowing their nose. I feel productive when I read those. But the ones like "Mike is thrilled with his new multi-million dollar deal" are trying. It's a constant struggle not to get depressed. And I don't even know who Mike is.

But the saddest thing of all is the people I used to be friends with, with whom I still share mutual friends. Facebook will voluntarily suggest the rejected friends as new friends. This means their photo pops up on my screen whether I want it to or not. This includes ex boyfriends. And they're always smiling.

And what about the people I regard as friends in real life who haven't approved me yet? Are they ignoring me? There's no way to know. If run into them in real life, do I pretend we don't know the truth? No one will ever say, "Yes, I'm ignoring you" in person.

My friend Jon hasn't gotten back to me yet and I went to his page. He has 2,000 friends. But I'm not worthy?

Conversely, the opposite isn't any better. I was approved by Rocco DeSpirito, the famous chef who I met once. That's sweet, I thought, he remembers. Until I discovered Rocco has nearly 5,000 friends. Now I don't feel so special.

I predict it will all end badly. Sophie is annoyed because I'm not using the status updates. "That's the best part!" Other friends have wondered why I haven't been in touch. I'll end up losing my real friends because I don't have enough time for them thanks to keeping up with new people I'll never see or speak to. It's a lot of pressure.