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September 18, 2009

Poke Without Fire

By Spear's

Yes, it’s instantly addictive and in some ways quite revealing about other people – but what Facebook lacks is any real sense of intimacy, says Vanessa Neumann
IF HELL IS other people, Facebook is its Fifth Circle.

In the Inferno, Dante Alighieri reserves the bottom rung of Upper Hell for the most self-indulgent: the wrathful fight each other incessantly on the surface of the swamp-like water of the river Styx, while the sullen or slothful lie gurgling beneath. While on Facebook there is not much violent debate, there is an awful lot of gurgling: over 250 million global gurglers in fact, half of whom log on daily. Including me.

I’m disappointingly stereotypical, it turns out: the over-35s are the fastest-growing demographic on Facebook, known to its users as FB, like a diary acronym for a secret lover. We have made it entirely uncool for those for whom it was meant: randy adolescents and twentysomethings who can’t stop expressing their views.

Neither can middle-aged men it turns out. Who knew that given the right forum, they would gossip like little girls?
Regardless, I’m hooked; FB is indeed a force majeure, an ‘irresistible force, overwhelming power, esp. an unforeseeable course of events excusing fulfillment of a contract.’ Meetings and deadlines go unheeded, and everyone seems to be posting at work and through the night.

Insomnia is a common complaint, and it’s no wonder with so much to say to a global audience before whom you can express every passing thought, from the incisively political to the mundanely solipsistic. If that weren’t enough, there are comments and chats and email-like messages, all of which can be done simultaneously. And here I always thought of myself as shy and private. Well, no longer.

FB’s global stream of consciousness prominently displays cultural differences, from the more American-style status updates on mood or health or weather, to the more Zen or ennui-racked Continentals who seek to educate the heathen masses with their curatorial art postings or their Zen nihilism (my all-time favourite was a terse ellipsis that read simply: ‘…’), to some reticent Brits who lurk in shadows, rarely posting anything of their own, but reading everyone else’s, their skulduggery only coming to light in the rare note of concern or condolence.

BUT REAL INTIMACY is oddly missing in this latest addition to the stack of communication options. Like cards in a deck it’s hard to know which one to pick, what the right level is. With FB, email seems too intimate, texting beyond the pale and calling, unspeakable. So real human contact gets stretched out ever more beyond our grasp. See you in the virtual world rather than the real one, mate.

Since it obviates a phone call or a meeting, replacing it instead with more contact at a shallower level, I find it bemusing it gets blamed for so many illicit affairs. Instead it loads every contact with a J. Alfred Prufrockesque angst: ‘And indeed there will be time/ To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”’

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What I haven’t yet dared is a ‘poke’, explained by a friend as ‘a virtual arse pinch.’ An American friend described it as ‘saying, “Hey!”’ Yeah, but, ‘hey,’ what? I can’t yet crack where in the deck that card is.

But ‘I am no prophet — and here’s no great matter’, for social angst over technology began with the answering machine. A paradigmatic scene in Doug Liman’s career-making 1996 film Swingers captures this. Geeky Jon Favreau is a desperate-to-make-it-in-Hollywood comedian being led astray by smoothie Vince Vaughn.

Favreau rings a girl he has just met to ask her out on a date, but he gets her answering machine, which promptly cuts him off. So he calls again, and gets cut off again. And again. Until he leaves so many messages that the relationship runs its course from courtship to jealousy to rage to breakup without their ever having a date.

Likewise, I was recently comically ‘defriended’ by someone whom I’ve never met but had originally requested my friendship. Never mind; I had another new friend in minutes.

Oddly enough, this hyper-accelerated disposability is a virtue. Such repeated relentless exposure to everyone’s thoughts and activities, quickly reveals their personalities in a matter of days, rather than months or years.  Wheat is sorted from chaff, without hard work or heartbreak or indeed ever waiting for a call.

If that isn’t progress, I don’t know what is.

Hell has gotten a bad rap after all.

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