20 Things I Learned from Living Facebook

1. Facebook Isn’t Shallow:  True, Facebook is a bit like a community lacking any art, poetry, religion or strong democratic institutions.  However, it is only as shallow as most public places.  We don’t typically have counseling sessions in the grocery store or philosophical arguments in a public restroom.  Why would Facebook be different in its public format.  But here’s the beauty of it: so often in links and comments and private messages, there’s a depth available on Facebook that we sometimes miss in 3-D.  We get to wish happy birthday, send gifts, offer badges and play games.
2. Facebook Is Real Life: I went into this experience thinking of Facebook as this half-real, mythical place where I could be better than myself.  I could talk less and listen more and tell a better story.  After examining “real life” and Facebook, I’m convinced that Facebook is simply another manifestation of how we convey reality.  There are moments when the medium pushes the interaction toward the artificial, but more often than not, I’ve found that most phoniness comes from me and not the medium.
3. Facebook Is a Spaceless Space: People mistakingly speak of “using” Facebook, as if it’s a tool. It’s not. It’s a site where people connect.  And thus, it exists in this strange zone of being totally private and totally public, bound by local customs and yet transnational, a neutral zone that has its own social norms.  It’s an experience in paradox.
4. Facebook Is a Pleasant Place: In many respects, Facebook makes me a better person.  I wish people happy birthday and comment on their photographs and give a thumbs up without ever offering the middle finger.  Yet, pleasant has its own limitations.  There’s no intimacy in Pleasantville which means I have to break the Facebook norms if I want authentic relationships on a social network.
5. Facebook Has Serious Limitations: While I embrace social media, the embrace is more like an awkward camp counselor side-hug. Doing Facebook in-person reminds me that social media compresses social interaction into something quick and efficient.  Sometimes this works.  Other times I need slow relationships.

6. People Aren’t Shallow: Not really, at least. They may seem that way when they wear a scowl or they wander too slowly through the aisles of the grocery store. But it’s all a part of following social norms. Ask them a ridiculous question about cooking unicorns and it has a real disarming effect. Prove that you’re vulnerable and they react with depth rather than scorn. It’s a beautiful thing.
7. Technology Criticism Is Rare: Most often when I ask someone, “What is the danger in capturing life on a camera?” the response is, “I’ve never thought of that before.” It’s not that we’re shallow.  It’s just that media criticism is somehow relegated to geeks and hipsters.
8. We’re All Hiding: True, we hide behind social media.  However, we also hide behind social norms.  Perhaps it’s a part of being social.  We’re part of a herd. We need to survive.  Yet the very process of blending in is precisely what keeps us away from others.  When I’m transparent, people can see me.  When I’m not transparent, they can see right through me.
9. Strangers Aren’t Scary: I learned to drop some of the residual childhood stranger danger fear and recognize that people are generally kind.
10. We Are Common and Diverse: I didn’t expect to see anything this deep.  However, when I had to break past my own fear and venture toward others in unusual ways, I realized that people were very different from me and yet very similar to me at the same time.  This wasn’t a new observation.  I had a hunch this was true.  This process confirmed it, though.

11. The Medium Shapes the Interaction: Social media shapes my identity and my ability to communicate.  When I blog, I keep paragraphs short.  When I’m on Facebook, I rarely tell stories.  When I share a pint with a friend, I’m more likely to say something witty or cynical than when I’m on Facebook.  I’m also more likely to interrupt and dominate the conversation and then leave the room feeling guilty for being bombastic.
12. The Medium Is Unpredictable: As much as I would like to believe that we can control the message through some kind of pure method of communication, the reality is that every medium is unpredictable in its overall consequences.
13. The Medium Is Relational: We don’t use media. We interact with it.  Yet, we also relate to others through the medium.  This sense of dual relationships with both the people and the medium can be both challenging and fun.
14. There Is No Perfect Medium: Every medium has limitations.  Text lacks body language, but it allows for imagination.  In-person interaction allows for engagement from all five senses, but it’s limited to physical geography and real-time.
15. The Real Issue Is Power: Technology allows us to harness incredible power at our finger tips.  We can use this power for entertainment by shooting pretend birds at pretend pigs.  Or we can use this power to reshape society (like the revolutionaries in the Arab Spring).  However, regardless of our intentions, power changes people.

16. I Am Afraid: Whether it was asking a butcher about unicorn meat or getting an autograph from QT, I had to come to terms with my fear of breaking rules or looking ridiculous.
17. I Need People: This experience forced me to see how much unnecessary space I’ve created in my life with my friends.  I tend to pride myself on my self-reliance.  However, I’m seeing the value of community and relationships.  Moreover, I’m glad I was able to do something crazy (and sometimes scary) with Christy.  It was a reminder again of how much I need her in my life.
18. I’m Broken: Living Facebook forced me to recognize my fear, jealousy, confusion and insecurity in relationships.  At one point, I really hurt someone with no malintention. It was humbling.
19. I Am Creative: I already knew this was true, but I kept a part of my creativity hidden.  I tended to stick to writing, where my creativity looked a little more polished.  This was a chance for unvarnished creativity in some real unexpected moments.
20. I Need to Slow Down: Now that this experience is over, I want to bake cup cakes more often and write letters to friends.  I want to slow down in conversations, too, so that I intentionally say, “I like that,” or listen entirely before I post a verbal comment.


Day #40: What Does It Mean to Connect?

A couple of years ago, I sought out my best friend from middle school.  We were two isolated geeks, spending our lunch time talking politics and music on the cold concrete benches of our junior high.  I was curious about his story and I wanted a sense of continuity in my own narrative.

I searched through Facebook, wondering if I would come across as an old friend or a creepy cyber-stalker.  We reconnected.  He shared his thoughts on Jose Gonzalez and I shared my opinions on Sufjan Stevens.  It wasn’t awkward, but it wasn’t a profound reunion, either.  Then, in typical Facebook fashion, he slowly disappeared from my “relevant” news feed.  The algorithm had decided what I had suspected intuitively: that it was nice to reconnect, but we would quickly go slide away again.

My friend Grant found me on Facebook.  “Found” is one of the few terms that Facebook gets right.  I hadn’t even realized that I’d been playing a very adolescent game of hide and seek.  However, after a strange falling out in high school, we spent almost a decade in silence, it felt like a gift when I was found.  And as Grant and his fiance sat in our living room, I realized that time and space and even games of hide and seek can’t poison friendship.

Friendship isn’t a tree that grows.  It’s not something that requires deep watering.  It’s a wild grass that doesn’t die even when it grows dormant.  It doesn’t have roots.  It has rhizomes, reminding us that we are interconnected through a shared story.

Christy is better at reconnecting through Facebook.  Perhaps it’s her personality.  Or maybe it’s the geographic benefit of spending a lifetimes in one city.  Whatever it is, she has met with former childhood and high school friends numerous times.

*     *     *

The term “desert” conjures up images of emptiness and solitude. It’s where you go to get lost. Uninviting. Spiky plants. Animal skulls. Lifeless. A great place for a Messiah to fast. For me, though, the desert is a place of beauty. Forests can feel crowded, suffocating beauty with a noisy positive space. But the desert has a minimalist beauty – a sense of negative space, a purity, a solitude, a place for perspective.

It might be an act of sacrilege to zip through the desert, fueled by a combustable engine. But right now I’m drawn toward the beauty of place and space and distance and everything else that my digital world cannot offer.

People. Places. Things.

Right now, it’s impossible right now to see a “friend” as a verb.  It is.  It exists.  A rhizome.

*      *     *

I’m nervous about visiting Dustin and Katie, because I don’t want them to feel used. I don’t want them to think they are a gimmick for a blog post. Instead, I want to include Dustin, because he is the only long distance friend who has ever made a conscious effort to remain connected despite the distance.

A few years back, they lived in Portland. We both got busy and I sort-of assumed the friendship had died, not out of malice, but from apathy.  One afternoon, while sorting through bills and colorful coupons and deceitful letters promising free cash, I saw a humble envelope written with a human hand.  Inside, Dustin had written a letter affirming who I was and how much he had valued our coffee-fueled conversations.

Dustin is that kind of a guy.  He’s thoughtful.  He’s intentional.  He knows what it means to value people over place or things or even the most pressing verbs.  The danger in social media is that we still feel connected despite the geographic space.  I read his status updates.  I occasionally comment on his blogs.  But we aren’t connecting.  Not really.  And I’m struck by the notion that a two hour drive is a small cost for a friendship that means the world to me.

As I drive to their home, I recognize that I haven’t planned this out.  This isn’t like Facebook.  There is no guarantee that they’ll be home.  I knock on the door and wait.  I knock again and wait.

I drive toward the hotel recognizing one of the real barriers toward deeper friendships: my lack of planning.  See, Facebook makes it easy.  Just click a button.  Post a comment.  Bam.  Friends are connected.  Right now, though, my complete lack of foresight and organization have prevented me from connecting with a close friend.

So, where do I go from here?  I could keep my distance.  I could write it off with a “that’s too bad.”  But I don’t want to.  Forget about Living Facebook for a moment.  I still want to reconnect with them.  I’ll just have to plan.  I’ll make some phone calls.  I’ll work out of an area of weakness (logistical thinking) because if the desert can convince me anything it’s that there is a very real minimalist beauty in a close band of friends with whom I will feel loyal to for a lifetime.

Day #39: I Like Everything

I call up Javi the Hippie and explain, “I’m at the thirty-eighth day and I have nothing planned for Living Facebook.”

“How about liking it?” he suggests.

“I already gave a thumbs up at the beginning of this process,” I explain.

“This is different. You’ve given the thumbs up and liked comments, but this is a whole different thing.  Haven’t you seen how it works?  You get this update saying that George likes paradox and sweet potatoes.”

“Okay, that’s different enough,” I respond. “I like nuance and bubble wrap and Blue Bell ice cream.  I like time with my family and In-N-Out hamburgers and the San Francisco Giants.”

“Too bad I can’t unlike something for you.  I’d unlike the Giants and Sufjan Stevens,” Javi explains.

“It’s possible to unlike something you like, though.  Kind of a passive-agressive Facebook thing.  But I guess that’s how life works.  I remember I really like Jack Johnson until every one of his songs sounded the same.”


“So, your turn,” I tell him.

“I like getting all my work done early so that I can have fun later,” he says.

*     *     *

There’s a lot of liking on Facebook. I get it. It’s designed to be a pleasant environment.  It’s an emotional gated community, a relational Disneyland, a candy shop for social interaction.  It’s Mr. Rogers.  A land of many cardigans.  A place to play nice.

Play: a place to have fun.  It’s social media. A medium for being social.

Play: a place to wear masks and recite other people’s lines. It’s social media.  A place where we become the entertainment.

And yet, it’s human and human’s aren’t always nice.  It’s life and life isn’t always pleasant.  So we find ways to sneak cynicism into it by using *dislike* in comments or sending sarcastic messages or posting angry messages. We reach that long-line-in-Disneyland moment where we simply can’t play nice.  We grow weary of sounding like Paula Abdul, incoherently liking everything.

Sometimes I wish they had other buttons beyond “like.”  I wish there was a “meh . . .” button with an apathetic glance or shrugging shoulders.  Or maybe a, “I’m sorry, I wasn’t paying attention” so that your friends know that when you were on Facebook you weren’t truly present.

Sometimes when I yearn for authenticity, I get bitter about the pleasant side of Facebook.  Like a moralistic, chumpy Ned Flanders, I want to answer, “What are you thinking?” with something snarky.  I start thinking that deliberately pleasant environments might actually make people less pleasant.

Then I watch my kids laugh at a pleasantly goofy Pixar short and the happy side of Facebook makes more sense. I need Mr. Rogers and Disneyland and candy shops, because the world can be dark and cynical and I yearn for a place to be better than myself. I yearn for a playground.  I crave intimacy and identity and affirmation and thought it is imperfect, Facebook provides that.


I call up a former colleague and say, “I just thought you should know that I like the moment when you collect the entire dryer lent in one rectangle.”

“Me, too,” he says.

“Yeah, it’s like a work of art.  In the wintertime, it’s abstract.  I wish I could frame it.”

“You’re odd,” he tells me.

“I know.  Hey, Javi likes getting his work done early so he can hang out with people later.  What do you like?”

“I like fresh cut grass.”

And so it goes again.  We go through a process of sharing what we like.  Simple things.  Popping dry rose pedals.  The first note of “Stairway to Heaven.”  Laughter.  I hang up the phone in a good mood.  Maybe I need to do this more often.  Maybe the real mask is my sarcastic humor.  Maybe I need to make more room in my life for gratitude.

Day #38: Poking People

“I made sure to poke people,” Christy explains.

“Really? I didn’t think you would,” I respond.

“Yeah, it was strange.”

“Any insights?” I ask.

“Poking is as useless in person as it is on Facebook.”

“Okay, so what exactly did you do?” I ask. Poking

“I randomly poked a few people in the arm, times when a gentle fist and tease would have been more common.  I guess poking is sort-of like punching someone in the arm, which sounds worse.  But really, poking is more painful.”  She’s right.  Poking is a deliberately annoying gesture reserved for tormenting siblings on road trips.

“So, what were your conclusions about poking?”

“It’s strange, probably more painful that one intends, awkward, and nobody should do it.”

“So, what types of physical interactions should Facebook add? Should they add the awkward man hug or maybe an Obama-style fist bump?” I ask her.

“I think Facebook shouldn’t try to mimic this type of social interaction. Or maybe it should be limited to only online. I don’t know. Poking was weird though and I won’t do it again.”

“So, what should we replace real-life poking with?”

“The Facebook poke function is to remind a friend of your presence, incessantly. Could we just loan our kids for a day? They might remind a friend of us while making incessant demands. I have it! We could stop by their house everyday for a period of time. Ring the doorbell everyday at 5:00. and yell, ‘I’m here. Goodbye.’ Then we could do it again and again.”

I’m struck by the notion that Facebook has managed to create their own version of socially awkward social interaction.  Poking isn’t popular in person or on Facebook and for good reason.  It’s odd.  Perhaps that’s a step toward online authenticity.  Maybe the poke function is precisely the tool to say, “I don’t know how to gently remind you of my presence, so here’s the tip of my finger jabbing into your ribs.”

I’m not surprised that something as bizarre as poking found its way into Facebook.  After all, we essentially allowed one of the world’s most socially awkward men (Zukerberg) to redefine our social interactions forever.  Is it any surprise then that there’s a touch of eccentricity to the system itself?

Day #36 – Comment on a Photo




Do I capture life for the sake of the story; a butterfly in a jar, graven images on cave walls? Do I desecrate the moment?

Or am I creating something beautiful, making sense of the now to avoid the historical amnesia of incessant futurism?

I begin the process by looking for a wall where we can comment on people’s pictures.  However, after calling three friends, I soon realize that most people have abandoned the family photo for framed art or empty walls.  Christy visits Colorado and Texas and runs into the same problem.  So, we switch from wall photos to photo albums.

My mom stops by the house and hands us a stack of albums.  It’s a disjointed postmodern narrative, telling the story in fragments; sometimes backward, sometimes chronologically.  I open one book and experience a flood of memories: crimped hair, Hammer pants, and memories of the “My Buddy” advertisements.

I turn to another album and glimpse into my parents’ youth.  My dad is young, idealistic and smiling as he carries my sister on his shoulders.  In another photo, my mom is smiling with an authentic joy, but also with a sense of deep thought.  It’s a subtle reminder that I am the product of two people and one love.

Joel asks my mom about my childhood.  I listen intently, recognizing that my most primitive memories are held, not by my own mind, but in the mind of my mother.  I know that it’s possible to flip through a virtual album on Facebook or iPhoto, but right now there’s something powerful in the physical, tangible act of holding an image of myself and sharing it with my son.

Micah asks me, “Is this Brenna?”

“That’s actually Aunt Susie,” I explain.

He stares at the photo and looks at Brenna, then shakes his head and turns the page.  He stops at random moments, asking me if the picture of Mickey is the “real Mickey” and if I really lived in a place with all those trees.  He flips indiscriminately through the photos, deciding  to comment on random details.

It’s real-life Facebook, with a constant stream of random comments. Except here, when Micah pulls an LOL, he’s really laughing aloud.

I asked Christy some questions about her experiences:

1. What did you do to share comments on photographs? Can you describe the experience?

I asked my friend, Tracy, if I could look at her pictures on her phone. She looked quizzical, but said yes. As I scrolled through shots of her kids and pets, I started commenting on pictures that I liked or had questions about. She answered my comments directly, but also often added a comment and shared the picture with her sister. We all three engaged in picture sharing and commenting for quite a while. I told Tracy later that I’d done that for the Living Facebook blog. She admitted that it was strange when I first asked, but that she also enjoyed the time.

2. Were you surprised at how hard it was to find photographs on people’s physical walls? I think it was simply a matter of timing (one friend packing up to move), and being out of town meant limited on friends’ homes to choose from.

3. Why do you think wall photographs (in real life) have become so unpopular? I read in a magazine article on home decorating a few years that you should avoid having family or personal photographs displayed because when guests are in your home you could seem narcissistic. I wonder how many people have bought that message?

4. How were the in-person photograph comments different than those on Facebook? I look at my friend’s pictures of their new babies on Facebook and they are adorable. It’s different when a new mom hands you a picture of her baby with shining eyes and reverence in her voice. Many of my friends on Facebook are not folks I’ve kept in close touch with through the years so looking at pictures satisfies the question, “What do you look like after so many years?” Sharing pictures in person is more like asking, “Who are you? Share some of your memories and the people or things you love, those that have shaped you.” If I have to use the bathroom in a friend’s home, I often walk slowly down the hall and glance at photos displayed.

5. What have we lost in our lack of physical photo albums? We still have photo books, the modern equivalent of an album. Online photo sharing simply means nobody pulls out the family photo album and subjects guests to an unexciting cruise down memory lane. If, however, someone wants to see shots of your family and the vacation you took, they can. Maybe the lack of albums has impacted the amount of picture cruising we do with the children in the family who are not online.

Day #37 – Friending My Father

Note: Christy will be sharing her experiences in joining a Mafia and commenting on photos (which we both did).  So, no, I didn’t forget how to count.

A few weeks into this project, Javi the Hippie and I run into my parents on the way to a pint-sized collaboration session.  I’m not sure how to navigate the two worlds colliding – both of them having a view of one another based entirely upon my own interpretation.

“They seem really nice,” he tells me, “but it seems as if you’re on slightly different frequencies.”

“What do you mean?”

“Like a similar station, but they’re AM and you’re FM.  Just different waves, that’s all.  Similar message, but a very different delivery.”

It’s a rare moment when real-life matches Facebook (I keep using the term “real-life” as if Facebook is a realm inhabited by unicorns, gnomes and other fantasy creatures).  On Facebook, my mom is my friend.  So are my old college classmates, childhood friends, former students and distant relatives.  I approach conversations unsure of which world will enter this vaguely undefined space.

It was strange for me the first time that my mom appeared as a friend.  Not that she’s unfriendly.  It’s just that I hadn’t seen her as anything other than my mom.  I had to rethink this concept of friendship for a moment and reconsider how our relationship had changed.  The conversations had become deeper.  I was hiding less.  And somehow, when she would stop by and we’d talk, I knew that she saw me as a grown-up and we shifted toward being equals.

So I call my dad up and ask for help with the sprinklers.  Within minutes, I admit that I don’t know what I’m doing.  Instead of shame, I experience a vague sense of relief. Instead of talking down to me, he talks as if we’re equals.  We’re working on a complicated project and I haven’t reverted back to an insecure twelve year old trying to prove something to someone who never once asked me to prove anything to him.

I think I sometimes missed that when I was younger.  I saw my dad as respected and competent and yet somehow rugged.  I didn’t see how someone who was so externally rough could be so internally gentle.  But he is.  In a very masculine way, he’s one of the most tender-hearted guys I know.

We share collective disappointment in leaky valves and collective joy when the sprinklers finally work.  We’re both impatient at moments, but we give one another the permission to be impatient.  I ask too many questions.  He gives directions with too many steps.  We’re imperfect together and for the first time I see that this is as good as it gets with my father – to be together, truly present, working toward a goal together.

I’m never truly comfortable with the work.  I never feel entirely at ease with dirt under my fingernails or long periods of conversational silence or the recognition that I am a bad student and a slow learner in something so vital to my family.

My hands still feel clumsy, but the relationship isn’t.   It doesn’t have that ethos of an awkward man hug.

As we drive toward Home Depot, he shares a part of him that I’ve never seen before.  No tears or anything.  Just a few honest thoughts about life.  He talks about aging and health and his future.  For a moment, I forget that he’s my dad.

On the drive home, we venture into politics.  It’s a verbal spar that got me into trouble at a younger age.  However, this time it’s different.  It’s humble.  The give and take is intense, but it includes common ground and nuance and paradox.  We both ask more questions this time.  More importantly, we give one another the permission to disagree.

As we enter my home, I’m struck by the fact that I like my dad.  I’ve always loved him, but I’ve wondered if we’d be friends if we met as strangers in a workplace.  Right now, though, I’m thinking we’d become friends.  Maybe he’d even become my mentor.  I’d come home and tell Christy, “I met this cool old guy at work.  He’s smart, but he’s practical and even though we see the world differently, there’s this strange sense in which we are so much alike.”

Quinn the Business Bohemian once defined a friend as someone who looks out for your best interest whether it feels good or not.  At the time, I blocked parents from the definition, but now I’m realizing that they fit this as well as anyone else.  So without an automated message, I managed to friend my father.

That evening when my kids are asleep, I flip on my Pandora station.  I listen to The Format’s “On Your Porch” and then I shut off the station, find the song on my iTunes and play it on repeat.  Tears stream down as I recall the memories of my childhood: playing on the boulders at Shaver Lake, late evening games of catch when he was wiped out from work, playing the “Snafu” on the Intellevision, funny stories and footsie pajamas, icy cold games at Candlestick Park and the sense that my dad was so clearly present and loving and strong.

And he still is.

Day #34 – Support My Cause

In Iran, they use social media to criticize the autocratic atrocities of the ruling theocracy.  In Egypt, they used Facebook and Twitter to organize a peaceful democratic revolution.  In America, we have Facebook causes, too.  The difference is that we start petitions with no political bearing whatsoever.  We start causes like, “learn to use your goddam turn signal” or “that’s what she said.”  We get to be politically active without actually having to commit to anything.  It’s what Jefferson would want.

I start out with a clipboard and a piece of paper.  As I walk to the library, I plan to get petitions for the cause, “Nineteenth Avenue Pedestrians Need to Learn to Use the Crosswalks.”

I know the cause seems a bit cynical, but I have a personal connection to the dangers of jaywalking.  A few years back, as I pulled into the QT, I watched a mother dart across the street with her stroller.  A Mac truck slammed on its breaks too late.  I explained the details to the man at the counter.  He called emergency and for a moment I felt like I did the right thing.  But I didn’t.  I didn’t act.  I talked.  I wrestled with my fear of blood and tragedy and my desire to move away.  Then I walked toward the scene.  However, by the time I reached the street, I saw the first responders carrying a small body bag.

*     *     *

When I walk up to the front area of the library, I meet a man who is promoting the cause of Save Our Schools.  He starts talking to me about the death of democracy, the need for public schools and the march in Washington he will be attending.  He says that teachers have become too passive, willing to talk loudly but unwilling to act.

I walk away with my clipboard, fueled by the shame I feel in my lack of social action.  For all my talk of civic virtue and social justice, it hits me that I’ve become complacent.  In an effort to support my own family, I’ve shut the door to social responsibility.  I’ve become a spectator, supporting causes on Facebook and yet refusing to take physical action in real-life.

That evening, I meet up with four other guys.

“Would you support the cause Nineteenth Avenue Pedestrians Need to Learn to Use the Crosswalk?”

“I’ll sign up for that one.  Just the other day, I watched a man try and wave down the bus.  He was flattened and as his girlfriend screamed for help, I drove away and asked my kids not to look.”

“People have no idea.  I had a kid walk within inches of my truck when he was jaywalking. He was clueless.”

So we talk.  We share the tragic stories that we’ve seen.  We admit to our own inaction.

“I’m not sure it’s even illegal in Arizona,” one man explains.

“Maybe it’s time we start something,” I say.

So I do something unusual for me.  I write a letter to the City Council.  I start a plan for public awareness.  I have no idea where it will lead.  It still feels like a bunch of words and very little action.

*     *     *

“Christy, when you get back into town I want to do volunteer work,” I tell her.

“I think that’s a great idea.  Maybe we can bring the kids along.  I want them to think beyond themselves.”

“I want to go to the food bank.  It’s a cause I believe in.  I used to do stuff like that with my students, but I don’t know.  I guess I got lazy or something.”

“I’d like to serve with you,” she says.

Maybe that’s the next step with in-person Living Facebook Causes.  Maybe we get a group together to volunteer at a food bank.  Maybe we shift from words into action.