Thursday, April 7, 2011

The problem with Facebook

Elizabeth Zelvin

I recently rescued my Facebook page from a sneaky little trick the gremlins that control the site had slipped in: adding a default option in which I don’t see all my friends’ posts (except those I’ve chosen to hide, which includes any games or generic silliness), but only those I had interacted most frequently. All of a sudden, what I had to read when I went onto Facebook went way, way down, and I’m afraid that all the friends I’ve collected because I want them to see my posts think I’ve disappeared too—or worse, not even miss me. It’s only by chance that I spotted the “Options” menu way down at the bottom and was able to restore the full range of news and status posts from my Facebook friends.

I understand Facebook a lot better since watching the movie Social Network twice. I’m a great admirer of Aaron Sorkin (creator of West Wing), who wrote the screenplay, and I trust him to have gotten it right. Facebook was created by college kids for other college kids, who do want to know when their friends have a hot date, eat the whole box of brownies, or pop a pimple. No wonder grownup writers and other adults have trouble replicating and maintaining the Facebook tone.

My problem finding the right thing to say frequently enough to keep my Facebook presence active is complicated by the fact that in my “other hat,” I’m a therapist, and moreover, one who works online with clients all over the world. I don’t know if any of them has found my Facebook page. But they might at any moment. So I can’t put anything on the social network (or any other public area of cyberspace) that I wouldn’t want even one of my clients to read. I’m not a psychoanalytic therapist, and I do make the occasional benign disclosure. But even therapists with traditonal office practices have to maintain rigorous boundaries, and it’s a clinical and ethical disaster when they don’t. So there go the hot dates and the pimples. (For the record, I have neither.)

Writers on Facebook are under a lot of pressure to keep the majority of their posts out of the realm of BSP (blatant self-promotion). The two topics that most of them draw on most frequently are pets and food. Unfortunately, neither of these topics works for me. I don’t have a dog or cat for good reasons. I’m severely allergic to cats, and I live in Manhattan, so getting a dog would involve scooping poop daily for the next fifteen years, a price I’m unwilling to pay. Yet animal people love to write about their pets and hear about the pets of others. On Valentine’s Day, one of my Facebook friends shared that her husband demonstrated his love by cleaning up dog vomit (her very words) without being asked. The animal lovers were happy to hear it, and nobody seemed to find it at all unromantic.

So what’s wrong with food? Everybody talks about food. Some publishers insist their authors put actual recipes in their books. Blogs like Mystery Lovers Kitchen, whose bloggers include our own Sheila Connolly and my friends Krista Davis, Avery Aames, and MJ Maffini, are immensely popular. Everybody talks about bodies too, their own and those of others. Most Americans have absolutely no boundaries on this topic. They comment freely on who’s gained or lost weight and disparage their own too-much or not-enough body parts not only to their intimate friends but as publicly as TV award shows. Last time I went to a stand-up comedy club, the performers made as many jokes about bodies, mostly their own, as they did about drug use.

As the author of Death Will Get You Sober, I’m already barred from making ho-ho-ho jokes about drinking and drunkenness or blogging about margaritas or martinis. My next book, Death Will Extend Your Vacation, tackles the sensitive topic of eating disorders and compulsive overeating, a group of illnesses that is even more misunderstood than alcoholism. My protagonist Bruce and his friends take shares in a lethal clean and sober group house in the Hamptons. When they’re not dropping dead, their housemates are acting out with food. Eating disorders are the source of deep, deep shame and are as hard to overcome as any other addiction. And they’re killers, not only anorexia and compulsive eating with obesity, but bulimia, which doesn’t show on the body people see but can be even more extreme. So no, I’m not going to make jokes about chocolate being better than therapy or share how I pigged out on Thanksgiving and can't close the button on my pants. And that’s why sometimes I open Facebook, stare at that blinking cursor inviting me to share, and have nothing to say.


Sheila Connolly said...

I agree. Facebook makes me feel old, even though most of my friends come from the writing community, both authors and readers, and they're not necessarily any younger than I am.

There's something about the limitation on length that makes you try to reach for a really zingy post--but sometimes that means it's either too cute or too sarcastic, neither of which represents your real voice.

I'm amazed at how many people seem to be on FB all the time. How do they get anything else done? It says something about our national attention span, doesn't it, if you can derail your train of thought every few minutes to check your wall?

JJM said...

Well, some of us use Facebook as a respite when we're doing work that takes concentration and brainwork. My mind has to rest and let the subconscious keep working on the problem at hand or I end up with horrendous headaches, but if I get up and wander around I lose track of time too easily. (I work for a museum ... )

It looks like I'm on Facebook (and checking out blogs) a lot, but it's less than it looks. I have no doubt a lot of others are doing the same. That's my story and I'm stickin' to it. ;-)

Besides, it's just about the only social life I have. [shrug]

--Mario Rups

Patty said...

Normally I check FB twice a day, before work and before bed. I've contacted many people I had lost touch with including several cousins and it has been fun.

Why is writing about writing considered BSP? I love the posts that talk about struggles with plots or what research you were doing today (even if you don't get specific, a post like, spent three hours researching a plot point for my WIP). But then, I consider BSP to be those that jump up and down and say "buy MY book" multiple times, every time they are on. Bothers me not a all to see someone say my release day is today, have you heard?

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Patty, glad to hear it--I wish everyone felt like that. :)

Sandra Parshall said...

I like the little snippets of other writers' work days. Much more interesting to me, as a writer, than something like "Just had my teeth cleaned." And, of course, I love to hear about anybody's pets. I know of several readers who "discovered" me on FB and have become fans of my books (actually buying them! Mario is one of them), but mostly I regard FB as fun, somewhere I go for a break, as Mario says.

Diane said...

I'm with Sandra. Maybe I'm more comfortable with it because I was a computer programmer. And believe me, I'm no spring chicken.

I am in FB contact with friends I went to HS with in the 60s. And recently a young man (28) who was a member of I group I know died. Worldwide, we knew the next morning, and a memorial page was set up. That was extremely instrumental in getting out info for his memorial, where to stay, airport pick up info, memorial set up, etc. From a friend who actually knew him and went to his memorial, a huge Texas church was filled to standing room only. Fellow Marines, current and vets like himself, members of Ride2Recovery, a wounded vet support group, and Team Rubicon, a volunteer rapid response rescue team. He was an active member of both. And of course home town friends. As well as messages from others who knew him but were overseas. Couldn't have been done as efficiently or quickly without Facebook.