“God please wake me up from this nightmare.”
–A Facebook friend’s post
I have 461 Facebook friends and, you know, shit happens. So the odds of shit happening to a few of these “friends” is likely. And shit has happened. And I have watched it. And it’s weird. It feels like I am somewhere I shouldn’t be; looking at something I shouldn’t be looking at. Like I am hiding in some person’s closet with the door open a crack, peaking into their bedroom watching them sob and kick their feet alone on their bed.
It wouldn’t feel this way if these people were my real friends. If they were my real friends and tragedy struck, I probably wouldn’t be spending so much time on their Facebook page. I would be with them, or I would be on the phone with them, or I would be thinking about them. If they were my real friend I would also know the whole story, the whole, tragic story. So I wouldn’t have any reason to keep checking back to their Facebook page. Trying to find clues in the comments. Tip offs in their posts. To figure out what exactly happened. Tragic detail by tragic detail. What happened that was so bad to this person that their homefeed is tumbling with the “I am so sorry” and the “You are in my prayers” posts from friends of the friend who I don’t really know in the first place.
Facebook’s Edgerank score is determined by the profile pages you visit and interact with the most. The pages that host the photo albums you always click on right when they are posted, or the profile that you often comment on, or the profile where you just look through the comments. Profiles with the highest Edgerank score will have the greatest visibility in your own newsfeed. (That is, when you are looking at your homefeed through the default “Top News,” as opposed to “Most Recent,” which is just a timeline of post updates.)
Over the last year or so I’ve noticed that the “friends” I am seeing in my homefeed regularly aren’t really my friends at all. They are the “friends” who I watch. I watch them in a similar way that I watch Real Housewives of New York or Teen Mom, I watch them mainly as a smutty pastime.
You know these people. The major over-sharers. The ones who don’t hold back anything. The ones who you watch (in smutty delight) when they post something that is so inappropriate or disgusting or over the top that you call your (real) friend to tell them to look at it too. You say, Can you believe they posted this? Why would they ever post this? You’re not annoyed, you’re sort of giddy. You’re giddy in the same way as when you’re watching a really ridiculous fight Andy Cohen is trying to mediate on Bravo. By checking back to these “friend’s” Facebook profiles you know you’re not being friendly, you’re not being a nice person, you’re not checking in. You are entertaining yourself. You are rubber-necking.
“Societies have always been shaped more by the nature of the media by which men communicate than by the content of the communication.”
-Marshall McLuhan, 1964
If Facebook allowed personal profiles to have their own analytics, in the same way an administrator of a Facebook brand page is able to see the Insights for the page—what wall post got the most views, what day brought the most unique users to the page—it might get creepy. Birthdays would be high profile view days, so would life events like a relationship status change to “Engaged,” say. But would it start to get disgusting if you realize boatloads of unique visitors are pouring in after, for example, your mother died? Would it be too much? Or would it be comforting? The friends, the strangers, who are coming to your profile, more than you ever realized, to watch. To watch what happens next. To watch whatever that terrible thing that happened, happen.
As an owner of a Facebook profile page shouldn’t we have rights to this data? To realize our reach? To comprehend the audience of our lives?
“And to the degree that the individual maintains a show before others that he himself does not believe, he can come to experience a special kind of alienation from self and a special kind of wariness.”
–Erving Goffman, 1959
Facebook is a two-way street though. I am participating too. As I mentioned, I have 461 friends. Some of whom I invited, some of whom requested to come in, many of whom I completely forget are there at all. To be honest, when I am putting up a Facebook post I am only consciously aware of a handful. Namely, the few close friends who the post or photo or link might be directed towards, and then I often remember that my coworkers are also watching too. But that’s it, really. All of those other hundreds of people in the middle? I sort of have forgotten they are there at all.
Who am I? To those hundreds of people in the middle. Am I a person or am I, like many of them are to me, just transforming more and more into a character of a story I am watching? Chapter by chapter being written in status posts and photo albums and relationship statuses and colleges attended, all in real time on my homefeed. Look! It’s someone I hardly know’s birthday. Look, there is the bat shit mom who posts about her child’s diarrhea. Look, there is that guy who I never knew in middle school in the first place but now he’s a body builder and I really do get a kick out of his over the top, often times actually really sexist, Facebook posts he blasts out All The Time. I just can never believe he says the things he does.
I don’t know these people. Or actually, I know these people really well. I know these people so much more than I feel like I should know them. So much more than they probably realize I know.
“Television brought the brutality of war into the comfort of the living room. Vietnam was lost in the living rooms of America – not on the battlefields of Vietnam.”
-Marshall McLuhan, 1964
Facebook has brought the lives of really loose acquaintances and near strangers into my living room. I am obsessed with a boy named Henry whom I never met. Who is dead. There are other dead people I am obsessed with whom I very likely would never have realized died at all if it weren’t for Facebook. But Henry is the most lasting dead person obsession.
Henry is the most lasting obsession because his mother, who is a mom blogger, continues to provide content about him. Ongoing content that pops into my homefeed, which I click and then read all about on the blog that was created specifically for Henry’s death. Which was of a drug overdose when he was 18. She created the blog, “Justice for Henry,” because she thinks that the Knoxville police mishandled the case very badly, and that there are guilty people involved in her son’s overdose that were never taken to justice. This is a big part of why she maintains the blog, the Facebook profile, and the updates. But I think the larger part is that she needs a reason to continue to write about her son. A reason to keep him relevant. To keep the posts and statuses alive. Facebook, social networks, blogs, have given us all a new place to live. Maintaining a blog and a Facebook profile on behalf of her son, in a way this mother is keeping her son who is dead, alive in our homefeeds.
Have you watched a person die who has a Facebook profile? And how that Facebook profile turns into a memorial. And how at first the profile overflows with posts about people who can’t believe their friend is dead. And time passes as it does- the weeks, the months and then the years. And there is less and less posting on the Facebook profile. An occasional “I still miss you” from somebody close. A few people noting the anniversary of the person’s birthday, or of the day he or she died. But the posts are infrequent. Months in between. The profile begins to remind you of a gravestone with a bunch of old, dried out flowers half blown away in the wind.
You have stopped checking the profile by this point anyways. Because you didn’t really know this person in the first place. You were just their Facebook friend for one reason or another. You just happened to watch their story unfold–in photo albums and comment streams– until that tragic, shocking end. That you wouldn’t have probably even known about in the first place. If it wasn’t for Facebook.