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Performance anxiety (Facebook edition)

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If the fool would persist in his folly, he would become wise. — William Blake, “Proverbs of Hell”

I noted recently that writing has become a performing art, one where we writers all have to be promotional and public. I’ve been mulling that over in regards to social media. Specifically, Facebook.

I made my first business career developing the consumer side of what we once called “cyberspace,” but I was quite late to Facebook. Most close friends who wanted to keep up with my personal life soon wised up and Friended my wife. My main reservation was Facebook’s awesome store of personal data (even now, my Facebook account is still under a different computer login than my work or personal logins), but it seemed harmless enough — shared humor, family updates and the occasional expression of political dudgeon by people whose politics I knew well.

When I signed up for the Superstars Writing Seminars, I joined their very active private Facebook group for news and updates on the seminar, and by extension, on the writers’ individual careers. To my great surprise, a lot of those people Friended me on Facebook — most before ever meeting me, and the rest after a very limited interaction (though you learn a lot playing Cards Against Humanity, and none of it good.)

I was bemused. Why on earth would these people want to Friend me? Did they care about my son’s new style of dancing to 80’s pop? Would they be as thrilled by the new retaining wall we’re getting as I am?

My folly was in not recognizing that Facebook has become a public space to the exact degree that one is a public person — and performing artists are public people, and writers now performers. This for me makes Facebook an increasingly staged and risky place. In Soho where she lives, a major fashion model can go shopping without makeup and in sweatpants — but when that same model hits the stores at Mall of America, she is not shopping. She is making an appearance, as rehearsed and planned and calculated as any Oscar Wilde bon-mot.

Thing is, I have plenty of friends, and extended family, for whom Facebook is not that space, and whose socializing there is more honest, more mundane, and in some ways more substantive. If I actually become a successful writer, commenting to me on a Facebook post will be the equivalent of meeting your friend for coffee when your friend is on a reality-TV show and has a camera following everywhere. Little-f-friends, are you ready for that? Am I?

How does George Takei do it? Does he have some group for actual real friends (I like to think he’d call it Shirtless Swordsmen) where he posts the things that are both mundane and actually meaningful? Does he have a separate account that his actual friends know? Or is the risk that something unguarded might get shared simply too great? Is there a real George Takei online?

Facebook has no answer for this. Facebook’s business model really doesn’t care about the sincerity of an interaction so much as its volume. Near as I can tell, new social networks like Ello are more about streamlining the performing aspect — they email me curated works of art, not curated comments about grandchildren. Diaspora*’s quest for privacy was a reaction to Facebook, not insincerity, and besides it has wholly foundered on their misunderstanding of people who are not Cory-Doctorow-class nerds.

I even wonder if this isn’t the seed of Facebook’s downfall as a cultural force, this creeping insincerity, this shift from coffee-house to stage. Or of course, it could be the fuel to their ever greater rise — Facebook! Everyone’s tiny American Idol!

Maybe we need a social network which has a monthly subscription fee and no ads, where people can only be themselves with friends they actually like. Of course, what happens when your boss asks to be your friend on that one? Will you really feel like you can tell your boss, no, that one is just for my real friends?

In the end, is cyberspace all an act? Is the only real life, real life?

Author: Anthony Dobranski

I'm a fiction writer, mostly.

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