Sunday, September 23, 2012

800 Words: Facebook Likes

In the world of stalking, facebook pages tell you disappointingly little. If you don’t already know the person, it tells you very little at all and very little worth knowing. The best you can do is process the data to say ‘this person seems interesting’ or ‘God, I hope I don’t get to know that person any better…’90% of the time, a person’s facebook posts feel like TMI. If a person you don’t know lists an interesting little tidbit, it’s not uncommon to think to yourself ‘that pretentious little _____’ or ‘why is this person bothering me with this information?’ (And I say this knowing that there are few worse offenders...) When you don’t know other people, you don’t feel as though you’re stalking them, you feel as though they’re stalking you with their information. It’s only when you do know the other person that facebook pages get interesting.

On the page, everybody is dull. A random collection of facts about a person, even a collection of status updates, tells you very little about the person. And anyone whose status updates are particularly self-revealing is a person you want to know less: ‘Aaargh! I hate the world. Especially my sister! Yes you’re an ugly whore who slept with my fiancée!!!!’ To a limit, it’s entertaining to read those sorts of update. Anybody who uses facebook to spill their guts to the world clearly needs their internet liscence revoked (is it better to do that on a blog?...)

But when you know the person, and you see the patterns of their allegiances and the passions they broadcast, the life story falls into place. Like any good detective, you begin piecing together the other person’s biography – not only their talents, but also what’s close to their hearts, what they believe in, and how they came to be the person you now know.

There are lots of people who don’t post on facebook. Though there are some exceptions to this rule, these people generally go by the name ‘fulfilled people’ – those mythical creatures whose lives are blissfully self-contained that they need nothing more than they already have. They have no need to broadcast its contents to anyone outside their immediate contacts. I’ve gone back and forth in my life between being green with envious lust for these people, and simply wanting to kill them. But one day I woke up and realized something truly important for the cause of my own happiness: ‘happy’ people like them are generally incredibly boring. Their focus is so self-contained, their need to experience the world outside theirs so miniscule, that they’re utterly disconnected from reality. They know as well as we do, if they experienced even a modicum of time outside of the sealed world in which they’re comfortable, they’d be as miserable as the rest of us. These people don’t need to be killed, they need to be defeated; and they need to be defeated before they kill the rest of us. Nobody in the world was a nicer guy than Robespierre (I’ve got to stop comparing everything to totalitarian dictators…).

It’s likely that all happy people are happy in the same way, whereas all interesting people are interesting in different ways. Is being interesting mutually exclusive from being happy? Probably not, but a large part of a person being interesting implies that there were setbacks on the path to self-creation. And there is nothing in life more unfortunate than the fact that the frustrations and drama of life is what makes it interesting.

But through those frustrations, whatever they may be, we pick up our habits, our interests, our tics and quirks – and when we do, we pick up those habits which make us more vulnerable. Nobody will get made fun of if they like Mumford and Sons or Dave Matthews Band (at least in a white area), but anybody who admits to preferring Beethoven or Bing Crosby to either is likely to be misunderstood, and therefore at some point in their lives they’ll be ostracized for it - which in turn creates more frustration, and hopefully makes us more interesting still. Not so interesting that we become disgruntled postal workers who shoot everybody but interesting enough that we find worthy outlets for our efforts.

(does that cliché work anymore?)

And once we find worthy outlets for our efforts, we can hopefully find friends who appreciate them. But this is the paradox at the heart of friendship: the reason friendship is so important is that any effort worth making is guaranteed to be misunderstood. It’s very easy for people to bond over a liking of The Beatles or a Spielberg movie  – they’re safe, they’re things everybody knows. To take one example, it’s both more worthwhile and far less easy for friends to discuss a book that only other one person you know has read, and your interpretations of it are very different, and you gravitate towards such obscure fare because you’re both deeply unsatisfied with a culture in which everyone seems so similar to begin with. Before long, you’re reading your dissatisfaction into the other person.  Both of you may hate the conformity of the culture you’re trying to rebel against, but if you’re not careful, you begin to read into that other person all the reasons why a culture more sympathetic to you does not exist, and this person becomes a shorthand for why the world is not more like the way you see it.  

Among those in my closest group of friends, there are two that strike me right now – too different to realize how similar they are. Like me, though differently to each other as much as to me, their lives are defined by an encyclopedic musical obsession. They know each other and we all went to college together, yet unlike mine with them (for once), their friendship seems to be defined by a long series of misunderstandings. Both are roughly my age and both, in their way, are New Yorkers to the marrow. One is the New York of the mid-century; growing up in New Jersey having his kishkes filled with high-prestige music, theater, and galleries in the city. The other is the New York of the late century; having grown up a fixture in artfilm theaters, small music venues, and independent record stores. The former’s music Likes feel like an honor roll of great musicians with a vast public, the latter an honor roll of great hermetic musicians of whom most of you will have never heard. In their way, their misunderstandings are the misunderstandings of an entire city put into the sometimes intersecting mid-Atlantic young adulthoods of our exceedingly weird social circles. One grew up in the New Jersey of urban flight, the other grew up in the New York City of urban decay. One is Manhattan, the other is Brooklyn. One is the optimism of the early 60’s, the other is the realism of the 70’s. One is Frank Sinatra, the other Woody Allen. I often wonder to myself if they’d be almost precisely the other person if they’d lived each other’s lives. And I sometimes wonder if they do too.

There are a number of people over the years with whom I’ve had similar long-term experiences and could draw similar parallels. No doubt I will before too long given my track record of self-revelation on this thing. The point remains that senseless irritation between even the best people is inevitable, and happens for the simple reason that the issues about which they’re passionate really do matter. When people throw their curiosity overboard, they become boring people. It is only people who wear their enthusiasms on their sleeves who inspire real affection, and therefore inspire real misunderstandings. It is only boring people who don’t have to live in fear of being misunderstood.

Facebook is a somewhat useless tool for people whom you don’t know. But for friends, it’s incredibly useful. You look at the shorthand things they put up on their respective walls, you take the things you already know about them, and by piecing all that information together, you peel another layer of the onion.  

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