I ended up signing onto Facebook, but only with great reluctance and misgivings. (The short version of why I signed on is so I can keep in better touch with the Knights. Fearless leader set up a Facebook group for us, and encouraged us all to sign on and communicate with each other. So far, we haven't.) I've been on there for a week now. My thoughts on the experience can be divided into two parts.
Firstly, as a human being, I find Facebook appalling. It is every bit the soulless, thoughtless, time sucking vortex I thought it would be. It is, on the whole , a good place to kill time for those whose time is better off dead. Most of what I get in my mailbox is someone reposting an article (and it was rare for them to repost from the original source- each article I got was mainly a repost of a repost of a repost etc etc) with a brief line that amounts to "Yeah! What they said!" The groups I have been invited to join are similar: people repeating the same thing over and over, adding nothing new, endlessly preaching to the choir, and yet convinced that they are the daring freethinkers, and everyone outside their little bubble is a sheeple. People are just endlessly endorsing the thoughts of another, adding nothing to it and seemingly doing it all the time. Almost all of it is trivial at best. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, never before in the field of human communications was so little said by so many so often.
However, as appalling as it is, from my second perspective, that is, as an academic, I find a rather horrid fascination with it. As an outsider looking in, there is something to be studied about this phenomena. Take, for instance, friends, or, more accurately, 'friends'.
I had only been on Facebook for a while when I was contacted by some of my old friends from years ago, who requested my friendship. I actually thought about it for a bit. You see, there was a time, years ago, when I had friends. Good friends, the best anyone ever had. We used to go everywhere together, do everything together, this gang of mine. But then life happened, and my family happened, and the year 2000 happened, and I my friends and I drifted apart, or were wedged apart, take your pick. For a time I would still run into some of them, speak briefly, catch up a little, and then we would exchange e-mail addresses. "Write me," they'd say. "We should stay in touch."
So I would write to them, and they usually responded. Then I would write again- respond to their response- and sometimes they wrote back. If we got this far and I wrote to them a third time, they would never respond to that. I imagine what happened was life. They were out of the habit of communicating with me, I no longer was present enough in their thoughts, so they set aside my letter and decided to respond to it later, and went about the other things they usually did. And my letter would move further down the inbox, and further from their thoughts, and later became never. No letters, no phone calls, no Christmas cards. Eventually, I came to the conclusion that I no longer had friends, and the idea friendship became a fond memory. I would carry on without.
That isn't quite the case now, but for a long time it was. So when these people (one of whom was supposed to be my best man but couldn't come to the wedding because his band was on tour and to whom I had not spoken in about twenty years and who, I understand, has cancer and is undergoing chemo) - plus a few acquaintances- contacted me and requested my friendship, I wondered what it could mean. So I clicked the button and decided to wait and see what friendship on facebook means.
I think I've figured it out: it means nothing. There have been no exchanges between us, nothing. They just wanted me to click that button. I was literally the least both they and I could do. It is deeply narcissistic. They don't wish to talk to me: they wish to talk in my general direction, and have me say "Right on!" I is utterly foreign to me, but that is what friendship now means. I think a sociologist would be fascinated.
I imagine there is much else that would be fascinating. And it is worthy of study- it is even necessary to study it, and study it now, while we still have control groups who are not on the site and who remember that things were once different, in order to see how this is changing us. Because we are being changed. And though Facebook and its ilk do multiply our ability to do good in the world, it also increases our ability to be lazy, thoughtless, shiftless and fruitless. On the whole, I am not convinced we are changing for the better.