Somewhere between the time I hit publish on the first post on this blog and today, my writing changed. Back then in 2003 I mainly wrote for the benefit of a couple dozen readers, some of them friends I had known for some time. Those readers I hadn’t met in “real life” were few, and thoughtful, and generally writing on their own lightly trafficked blogs, and some of us became friends as well.
This blog, called Creek Running North back in those days for the watercourse nearest the house I lived in then, was started as a refuge. I was editing environmental magazines for a living back then, feeling myself oppressed by the litany of bad news I had to process every day, and I wanted to be able to keep a diary of sorts. That first post involved a garter snake that had darted between my feet a week before as I ran along a levee on the south shore of San Pablo Bay. I remember that encounter much more clearly than I remember what bad news was happening for me to edit that week.
The inevitable ironic thing happened: the blog soon got more readership than the serious environmental magazine from which it was supposed to be a respite. I made a mistake: I didn’t change what and how I wrote as a result. I kept it personal. I kept it confessional. Over those first few years as my dog Zeke aged and died, and then as my marriage to Becky ground to an end, I used this blog’s audience as therapy and confessional and ego support. And I did so without asking how any of the other people whose stories I was sharing how they felt about my doing so.
That might have been okay. There is room in the world for writing like that, and despite that older version of the blog having become largely centered on the lives of Chris and Becky and Zeke for a while, neither Becky nor Zeke ever complained about it. At least not to me. The Zeke book came out of it, for one thing. There’s a remove to paper and ink that I think takes away some of the false intimacy found online. While people can and do write comments on passages in a book, few expect the author to reply.
Things changed as I moved to the desert. The blog’s focus changed somewhat, languishing at times, becoming monomaniacal on a particular topic at times. My work here got me the gig at KCET. My readership grew, as did my writing’s reach and influence. That is a wholly good thing: I am incredibly lucky.
Another thing happened as I moved to the desert: the way people interacted with blogs changed radically in the space of a couple of years. Facebook opened itself to the public in 2006. Behind the curve as usual, I joined in September 2007. Twitter came around in 2006 as well, and I joined that in the last hours of 2007, with my auspicious first tweet embedded here:
Smarter people than I have expounded on the effects of Facebook and Twitter on the world of blogs, on the tenor of social discourse, and on the human cardiovascular system. Each platform offers the writer a mix of good and not so good. Readers can now hold conversations about a piece of writing that the author of that piece may never see. It’s much easier for writing to go viral now than it was in 2005. There’s no longer any need for a person to have a shred of technological expertise before holding forth publicly before large audiences. You may have noticed that I am assiduously refraining from assigning any of those phenomena to the “good” or “not so good” categories. I’m not so sure myself.
Twitter is its own animal and I am not there so much any more. Its use is straightforward: read or don’t, engage or don’t. But I am realizing, these last months, that I have been using Facebook wrong from the beginning. I thought I was hanging out with friends. Instead, I’ve been broadcasting.
In my defense, I couldn’t really have known.
Here’s the elevator version: I devoutly wish Facebook had used a concept for its basic unit of connection other than “friend.”
At this writing, I have 1,277 Facebook friends, a number that exceeds the number of people I can actually bring myself to think of as friends, using a broad and shallow definition of the term, by a factor of about four.
There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that: it’s merely the usual American English deflation of intensity of meaning of a formerly meaningful word. The way “love” has come to mean a mild preference for one commercial product over a near-identical product, “awesome” to mean “acceptable,” or “freedom” to mean easy access to a freeway lane with no traffic, “friendship” now means that you’ve clicked a link.
But it fooled me for a long time.
I’m pretty sure there’s a reason none of us had 1,277 actual friends before the word got devalued. Behavior in friends that can seem quirky, endearing, or even just mostly tolerable if a few of your couple dozen friends display it can become overwhelming when you scale that group of “friends” up to four figures. For example: if you have 20 friends and ten percent of them are in the habit of giving you unsolicited and not really helpful advice, that’s something with which a mostly emotionally healthy human being can generally contend. At 1,200+ “friends,” that ten percent becomes exhausting and demoralizing. (Keep that in mind when commenting on this piece, thanks.)
Or let’s say one of your 20 friends is given to argument for its own sake after drinking a couple beers. You can tolerate it, or you can go into the kitchen when he’s holding forth in the living room, or if things get bad you can take him aside and ask him to knock it off. If the equivalent five percent of your 1,200 “friends” do the same thing, the emotional impact is much, much larger.
Hell, even the wonderful and uplifting things friends do get overwhelming at 1,277 friends. I have more than a dozen unanswered messages from Facebook friends who plan to be in town in the next few weeks and would love to see me. Every single one of those invitations is appealing. All of them en masse? That’s different.
That roster of 1,277 friends I have at this writing would be a lot larger if I hadn’t spent a fair amount of time over the last few years removing people from the list, sometimes because they posted something egregiously offensive, but sometimes over behavior I might well easily tolerate in a real-world friend. And sometimes it’s been over behavior that I couldn’t fit cleanly into either bin, like the person who was the first to click “like” on every single link, photo, idle observation or cat picture I posted for a month and a half.
Facebook’s choice of terminology confuses us all, I think. Tell us often enough that someone is our friend and we start to feel an intimacy that may not actually exist. That one burned me last year pretty hard, as for example when Facebook “friends” messaged my then-partner to inquire as to the state of my mental health when I was going through a rough patch.
It’s come to this: the more Facebook friends I have, the lonelier and more isolated I feel.
And that sucks, because at the core of my actual relationship with most of those 1,277 people is that they read my writing and get some value from it, and are kind enough to act on that appreciation. Sometimes that kindness comes in the form of tossing money my way, without which I’d currently be in a lot worse shape financially. Without the support of those 1,277 readers (and others), I might well have ended up homeless a couple years ago.
That appreciation is almost wholly a good thing, though I have been increasingly uncomfortable with the persona I seem to have developed, in part due to my own increasingly careful curation of what I share online. I’ve made some sharp departures from past practice in what I choose to share. I’ve learned the downside of oversharing the personal stuff, the effects on both myself and those I love. There are glorious aspects to my personal life right now that will remain offline. I have scaled back my shared life to include mainly my writing, sporadic political rants, pretty photos of the desert and an occasional dog face.
And that curation has had an odd effect: since I’m less eager to share my frustrations and nagging doubts and insecurities online, the version of myself that appears online has fewer of those things. People fill in those blanks and apprehend me as some sort of desert-saving hero, or at least anti-hero. Need I point out that that is manifestly a false assessment? I sit on my ass all day, to the detriment of my spine, and try to write clearly enough to be understood, and try not to lose my temper on a handful of occasions per month when I feel like a few people choose to misunderstand me anyway. There are heroes in this world, the clinic escorts and public school teachers, the people who advocate for the indigent and rehab injured wildlife and keep transmission lines out of National Monuments. I write about those people. That’s different. It’s a great gig, but I notice a marked absence of capes in my closet.
Anyway. Much of my relationship with those 1,277 “friends” is gratifying and touching. And yet I found myself thinking, the other day, how much I wish I could use Facebook the way almost everyone I know uses Facebook: to keep in touch with loved ones and an assortment of fond acquaintances. I have a professional page to feature my work life; how nice would it be for my personal page to be, well, personal?
And yet because I failed to anticipate the combined effect of my inappropriately personal writing style and the spurious stranger-intimacy Facebook engenders, there’s only one way for me to get even partway there. I’d lay ten-to-one odds that at least a couple of the 300-400 strangers I plan to drop from my Facebook friends list will have their feelings hurt.
And I never wanted that.