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.


The Part I Haven’t Been Sharing

In re-reading older posts, I’ve noticed a disturbing trend in this blog.  I’ve self-censored it.  I’ve written a highlight reel rather than highlighting the real and in the process I’ve appeared to be much bolder than I truly am.  The truth is that I’ve gotten scared.  I’ve chickened out.  I’ve had a bold plan in my head and decided, ultimately, that it broke too many social boundaries or sacrificed my sense of public propriety that I hold dear.

These are the parts of the story that Christy knows.  We both share moments when we decided, at the last minute, to abandon the experiment.

Here are a few examples:

  • Failing to ask a barista at Starbucks to sign my cup as “Starbucks,” as an autograph for a fan of the chain.
  • Failing, at the last minute, to go to the public library and get people to sign up for a cause I believe in
  • Failing to share my drawings or pictures with some of the strangers I’ve talked to
  • Failing to write something more meaningful in a private message
  • Failing to create an event with an invitation
I’ve considered turning this blog into a book.  However, if I do that, I want to revise this story, not to save face, but to lose it; to drop the mask of bravado and admit that there were moments I wasn’t able to face my fear.  I need to recognize that throughout this journey I have been as much anti-hero as I have been a hero.
Just thought I would spell that out in case people didn’t do.  Sometimes I get scared, really scared, and I hide socially.  And sometimes I hide the fact that I hide.

Somebody Else Is Doing This . . . Sort Of

I’ve had a lot of people e-mailing me, retweeting and mentioning the following video:

I have mixed feelings about this.  A part of me gets scared that I’ll look like a copycat, even though our experiment happened first.  After all, his video is well-produced and it’s gone viral.  Can’t say the same thing about this blog by any means. (A simple glimpse at the few hundred visitors and small handful of subscribers will prove that)

I can’t claim to be “the first” to do this, either.  Although it felt original at the time, I’m sure it’s been done in the past.  My hope is that people will see the difference between that video and this project.  I’m hoping they’ll see it as complimentary rather than competitive.

It’s the difference between a poem and a novel.

His video begins with the presupposition that Facebook is all about friending strangers and then invading their personal space.  The result is a somewhat awkward Jackass-style series of interactions.  Our presupposition is that an in-person Facebook should reflect the way we interact on Facebook.  So, we friend strangers, but they are the aquintances we meet in the real world – the cashier at Target who we’ve never left a positive comment for or the barista at Starbucks whose name we never knew.

Thus, instead of seeing how awkward and artificial social media can be, we’re often coming to the opposite conclusion that we will live more authentically in the “real world” if we live a more Facebook-like experience – sharing pictures, asking about books, enjoying live music, handing out positive notes.

Social media did not come about out of a need to be more socially awkward.  Instead, it met a very real need for identity, community and belonging in a postmodern, lonely planet.  The extent to which it works online is debatable.  The extent to which it can work in real-life has been mind-blowing to me.

This blog is also different in the fact that we try and doing everything people do on Facebook for an extended time.  Instead of attempting to do it all at once in a day, we want to take our time and reflect on the process.  Again, it’s a novel and we’re trying to make sense out of the setting and how it is reshaping the characters.

Don’t Blame the Medium

“We need to do something about cyber bullying,” a teacher laments.  Note to self: if someone is still using the word “cyber,” then he or she probably has a skewed view of social media.

“I know.  It’s a real problem.  But you know what’s worse?  Oral and pencil bullying.  I’ve found two notes on the ground where someone was bullied and you wouldn’t believe what I heard out in the playground,” I point out.

“Yeah, but Facebook is so public.”

“And a rumor isn’t?”

“But Facebook is a place where bullying is more prominent.  I just don’t think kids should be on it.”

“You know what site has the worst bullying?  The cafeteria.  That place is rife with bullying.  Maybe the kids won’t eat.  Or maybe they can eat in silence.  That would stop the bullying.  I mean, you could argue that it’s a condition of the heart, but I think we’re better off blocking a site instead,” I point out.

I get it.  I wasn’t nice.  I could have been more diplomatic in the conversation. However, I’m tired of blanket statements about how Facebook is “making us” into something, as if we’ve become unblinking, unthinking cyborgs who can’t figure out a respectful way of using a medium.

Throughout this week, I’ve been surprised by the depth of social interaction on Facebook.  Whether it was a meaningful dialogue with former students, an encouraging message from Brad the Philosopher or the often witty and thought-provoking discussions based upon status updates, Facebook felt intimate and meaningful.   Social media aren’t making us shallow.  Instead, each tool provides the potential for depth that is often missing in our urbanized face-to-face interaction.

*     *     *

“I bet you’re finding that it’s deeper in person.  You know Facebook makes us shallow,” someone tells me.

Tell that to the Arab Spring and the pro-democracy protestors who harnessed social media to create a revolution.  Or tell that to the people on my social network who are writing some of the most beautiful impromptu eulogies for a curriculum specialist who died two days ago.

If Facebook seems shallow, it’s because humans can be shallow.  If it seems boring, it’s because we can be boring, often when we are hiding out of fear. If it’s a place of bullying or sarcastic remarks, it’s because humanity can be dark.  But Facebook is also a place where students thank former teachers for the difference they made and it’s a place where we remember a life well lived and it’s a place where we rekindle old friendships.  If Facebook feels beautiful and broken, it’s because humanity is beautiful and broken.

True, technology shapes us.  No doubt the long attention span of the nineteenth century or the image-obsession of our current age are both formed by the most dominant contemporary media.  However, it’s more complicated.  It’s always a reciprocal relationship, where technology shapes our culture and the culture shapes the medium.

It is deeply human to use technology in positive ways.  It is also deeply human to use technology for destruction (think the nuclear bomb or Jamestown Intervention software).  But it is also deeply human to believe the lie that we are either deterministically programmed by the medium or that we can create a techno-dystopia where the medium never has any harmful effects.  The bottom line is that our relationship with technology will always be paradoxical in nature.