Let me put on my old fogey hat for a while - there we go - to complain about things like Facebook. "I remember," it begins, "I remember a time when we had to TALK to each other, organise meetups like civilised people." Here I may smack my toothless gums speculatively. "Those were the days."
Well, no, they weren't. There isn't anything I'd particularly trade from the days of home-only telephones to shiny new mobile phones that we can use to call anyone anywhere, such as when I called my parents in Seattle from a boat in the mid-Pacific using some kind of new-fangled satellite relay business. Of course, it was prohibitively expensive, but that's as may be. Being stranded on a dark highway in the middle of nowhere is (probably) no one's idea of fun, yet I'd wager people were also more willing to stop and help in the days before mobile phones, too.
It all relates to that idea of a global village, in which we all live, but don't know the names of our real-life neighbours. Why would I try to start a conversation with someone I don't know and don't particularly care about when I could be chatting with strangers across the world who share my interests? "But," you might counter, "won't that leave you with a terribly narrow world-view?" Yes, fellow conspirator, it will.
People are constantly aware of each other in a way that was previously impossible. I'm reading E.M. Forster's Aspects of the Novel at the moment, and he says the reason we prefer characters from novels is because they allow us a peek into the depths of self-disclosure that we can never attain with even our loved ones in real life. Unfortunately, Facebook has put paid to that theory.
I'm more aware of what the people on my Facebook friends list are doing than I am of what I had for lunch. I check the site once a day, if that. However, the amount of self-disclosure people are willing to get into with their status updates is phenomenal. Much of the time, it's not information I need to know. Often, it's information I don't want to know. But unloading your psyche on the Internet, like eating red jelly until you throw up, can be both cathartic and a mark of poor judgement.
The real world is prevalent in so many aspects of our lives - necessarily - that I'm quite happy, when playing my little iPhone games, to be left alone, however briefly. But, through my own choice, I'm also a member of OpenFeint. I must be the only person in the world who gets immersed in Jojo's Fashion Show 2, or Pocket Frogs, because I find the experience of receiving an achievement incredibly jarring. It reminds me that I'm playing a game which, funnily enough, ruins my immersion. If being a kickass fashion designer only required me to choose which shirts and pants to put with which shoes, I wouldn't need to be playing the game, now, would I? Then it wouldn't matter if real life intruded because, hey, I'd be living the dream. Or something.
But through OpenFeint I'm also connected to Facebook, which means these games can post little updates to my Facebook account. Then I might have someone comment on it, and find me in game, and we might chat while my frogs are jumping around... But we'll never speak in real life. That would be weird.
I had a strange moment of vertigo yesterday, when I was having a casual chat with a coworker, and was playing Words With Friends at the same time. Rude of me, I know. However, I thought I was replying to my boyfriend's uncle, and didn't want to forfeit the game by leaving my turn for too long. I hit send, a message tone went off somewhere else in the building, my coworker excused himself, and about a minute later I received a reply - from him - to my previous word placement. I answered the wrong person, and an imaginary game of Scrabble overtook our real-life social interaction. I had to sit back and just try to take that in for a moment.
But now, to creativity. If, as Mr. Forster says, the reason we read novels is to get to know characters the way we never can in real life, but real life suddenly includes elements of very personal self-disclosure, and from more realistic sources than we might otherwise get in a novel, where does the fantasy fall? If I want to write a believable character, I need to map out their psyche, figure out their motivations, their personality traits, their past experiences, their relationships with their friends and family members - the list goes on. If I want to see what self-disclosure looks like, I only have to sign into the Internet. Where, then, does the draw to discover a character from the inside out, to get to know another person so deeply that they feel almost a part of you, the details of their lives are so intimate - where does that desire go? Fulfilled, is it now worthless? Is Facebook superceding my desire to write?
All I know is that I write best when I'm relaxed. Or, conversely, when I have a deadline, but never, ever, when I'm worried about something else. Being so hyper aware of the worries of the people around me, I become constantly on edge. This doubtless has more to do with my personality than any particular facet of social networking, but essentially while Facebook et al may be a way to share, they are also a way to unload. I've seen no end of arguments between friends, in a public forum, that should have taken place behind closed doors. I don't need to know why person x and person y are fighting. In fact, if they're my friends, I probably don't care about the details, because I don't want to take sides. In a way, all I really want to quote and reappropriate is this statement, from Ms. Bartky's On Psychological Oppression: "...this being-made-to-be-aware of one's own flesh; like being made to apologise, it is humiliating."
In novels, we can know as much as we want about the characters, because they don't exist. When the line gets blurred between person and person, offline and online, when we find out information about others that we consider should be kept secret, we are humiliated. It's important, here, to remember what our old friend Epictetus says : "Men are disturbed not by things that happen but by their opinions of the things that happen." My reaction to all this super-intimacy malarkey tells as much about me as your reaction to my reaction tells about you.
Given the veracity of our circumstances, can we ever write this accurately or this unpredictably? Can the words I put on paper ever approach the humanity of status updates? Possibly not, but fiction is art, not life. Just as real conversation is boring to read, so too would a series of status updates be nothing more than a trail of loosely-connected vignettes. I just wish more people were aware of the stories they were telling online. Maybe then they wouldn't feel so vulnerable to criticism all the time.