Blog Post

My So-Called Facebook Life

I actually know people who aren't on Facebook.  Really.  I know that is hard to believe but they are out there.  The holdouts.


Most of them think Facebook is about telling people what you had for lunch.  Well, sometimes that's exactly what it is.  And the problem with that is?   I mean, if I meet my pal Priscilla for a walk around the WaDu, I might talk to her about the latest study that shows stress is actually beneficial to your health, or about dopamine latency, or. . . what I had for lunch.  If it is memorable, that is at least as important to our lives as a new study showing stress is beneficial.  It might actually also be beneficial to our health to discuss lunch.  Hmmmmm.


I think that is why I like Facebook.  It is almost always instantly good for my emotional state.  If I'm locked on a sentence when I'm writing, not sure what will follow after that long, trolling dependent clause that I was sure was going somewhere once upon a time . . .    A glance at my bright, peppy friends on Facebook almost always reminds me where I was heading, even if I never thought of that direction before.  ("Reminding" or re-minding, as we say in the trade, is a very important function of Facebook).  


Some of my non-user friends prefer to call Facebook "mindless."  That's actually not a bad thing either, sometimes.  Some days my brilliant friends on Facebook depart from their role as intellectuals and are all affect.  Public feelings, as Lauren calls them, can be particularly powerful, precisely because they are directed not at any one observer but somewhere indefinitely "public" and that means you can catch them or not.  Like mythical raindrops with enough space in between the drops that you can choose whether to get wet or to avoid the rain a while longer.   You can drop in, so to speak, and move in and out of the drops.  ("It's not about me."  Or, "This is so about me!"  I like the dabbling, darting nature of address on Facebook. It's only a direct hit if I want it to be.)


I also go to Facebook because I have a community there whose politics I may not always agree with but who can be counted upon to be suitably disagreeable when something unconscionable happens.  They can be passionate and opinionated and irrepressible.  I love that.  Intemperate.  Even better.  If I'm disgusted with something whiny I'm reading on the Huffington Post or complacent in the NY Times, well, I know someone will have a snarky comment about it on Facebook.  Even better, if I can't bear to tune in to conventional news media, I know on Facebook I will have a remarkably interesting slice through the day's happenings, whatever those may be, and from a slant just slanted enough to be worth my time.


And if it isn't worth my time, something else is one click away.  Facebook doesn't come to me.  I go to it.  And that means I can leave, thank you, without any rudeness.  There is no requirement to update, link, comment, or even like.  I can gawk and stalk or participate away (I'm a writer, what can I say?  I do a lot of participating).  


I also like it that there are many parts of my everyday life that are invisible to other parts of my everyday life but, on Facebook, all the pieces are more or less there, even if piecemeal (to return to the lunch metaphor).  I can update about politics, technology, pedagogy . . . or Ken coming home from the market, an upcoming vacation, learning to moonwalk, mourning a friend or someone admired from afar (o, Merce!) . . .    Not every colleague I meet knows I'm learning to moonwalk with a Facebook friend . . . Not every colleague would find it even imaginable that this academic creature known as "Cathy N. Davidson" (please do not omit the "N.") would spend some part of every hour learning, ludicrously, how to moonwalk. 


Is it possible in this so-called fragmented, decentralized, customizing life of ours that some of these digital devices actually restore community that was lost in the so-called "bowling alone" suburbanized era in post-War modernity?  Is it possible social networks put together the fragmented, alienated self?  Not sure.  But, mostly, it feels good.  Sometimes.  And, when it doesn't, I leave the site and, of course, I go twitter.  Or blog. 


These are just a few mindless thoughts about Facebook on an afternoon where I'm waiting for a call to come in, an appointment to happen, and, well, darn, I'm really not up to the three more tenure files that rolled onto my desk today.  So I take this ten minutes of luxury and see what my FB pals are up to.  Thus this rambling little blog that, of course, I plan to reblog.  On Facebook.  Of course.


Why do YOU like Facebook?  Or do you hate it? (In which case, why waste time reading about it?)  In any case, I'd love to hear . . . who knows, it might inspire yet another mind-wandering ramble about my so-called Facebook life. 


(p.s.  And if the Search function were working as it should on our new HASTAC site, I would send you to my rants on Facebook.  Facebook really does creep me out sometimes, a lot of the times, on issues of privacy and data mining.  Sigh.  Balancing the creepy factor against the warm and cozy human factor.  Like a lot of life.   Sigh and sigh again.)



I'm not on Facebook and I'm not a holdout. I'm part of another group that deserves study: the group of people who were on Facebook and have left it. Why? Because 1) with the way FB constantly toys with privacy and data ownership, you can't help but get the sense that their business plan involves capitalizing on our private lives and likes in a way that's far more brazen than Google; 2) it turns out that the simpler networking technology of Twitter is more effective since it allows for distributed use (off the domain) and asymmetric rather than symmetric following/friends; 3) for friends old and new, I'm easily found online and so don't need the discovery functions that Facebook provides. Might be wrong, but I suspect the group I'm in (ex-FBers) will grow.


Cathy, I agree with much of what you say here.  I too bristle a little when otherwise expressive and thoughtful people deride facebook (and I'm talking strictly about its formal potential, not its corporate practice--a separation that is artificial, I'll grant).  I have also resisted browbeating my teenage daughters about their social networking, as some parents do almost reflexively.  To me, social networking offers another mode of expression, another way of writing, that has the potential for poetry or crap, like any other mode.  Moreover, I think of it in the same way we might think about the mimesis offered by the novel--the everyday, the time-centered, the mundane but REAListic detail.   It is another form of novelistic consciousness, and it promises a kind of solidarity or common feeling.  What could be more obvious?

Beyond that, I like to think of my facebook academic friends as para-faculty, or just faculty, as if they were working down the hall.  It has enriched my scholarly life immeasurably to be back in contact with people I'd hoped to see only intermittently at conferences, if then.  And even better, I've connected with people whom I would have only met by serendipity at conferences, but whom I've wanted to meet for years.  Like yourself!


Trebor Scholz, who is running a fascinating-looking conference on "The Internet as Playground and Factory" in NY on Nov. 12-14 -- -- gave a provocative CCA talk this past spring on the ways in which facebook and other social networking sites seek to monetize your navigational streams.  His catchy slogan was something like:  "Facebook is like a cult or the prison system:  easy to enter, difficult to leave, and while you're there you work for free."  His description of the lengths to which fb goes to keep you from signing off certainly gave me pause.  I initially joined so that I would understand something about social networking for the CCA seminar I was running, but I began to wish I never had, despite the genuine pleasure I get from posting and connecting with friends and simply getting passing glimpses of friends' and acquaintances' lives.  I have found Twitter to be a fabulous site for harvesting links;  the Digital Humanities folks seem to tweet 4 or 5 times a day, and I always find something I'm interested in following up on there.  But there is something about the multi-media facebook format I like; I mostly wish academics would come up with a facebook-like site of our own for distributed groups of specialist to use for collaboration -- ad-free, but just as easy as facebook to navigate.  And not *gated* like most of the University sites. . . .  Which is to say, I find myself on both sides of the love it / leave it question.  These days, I'm still on facebook, and enjoying it, though I often think it's unwise.


I have a music teacher friend who finds Facebook great for marketing.  Twitter, though different, has my attention at the moment because it's short, to the point, and so much to information.  I saw an interesting reference the other day, to the "digerati."  Is that us?


Digerati?  Yeah, I think that's us!


This is such a great conversation that I almost hesitate to enter here because sometimes that can cut off a flow of ideas.  On the other hand, sometimes it can fuel it, so here we go.  I'm also sorry that we're having this discussion now when we're still very much in the beta of our new website and the search function is one of the things that hasn't quite sync'd in the passage from the old Drupal to the new Drupal site (an infamous blip in such migrations).   If it were working, I'd be able to easily link to at least half a dozen previous conversations, all foreboding, I've had on the incursions of Facebook into our privacy and so forth.


In other words, Dan's and Meredith's (and Trebor's) cautions are extremely important for any Facebook user or vehement non-user to keep in mind.  They are right in their critique.  I'm by no means naive about this thing called Facebook. 


Then again, I am a post-Frankfurtian in the sense that I no longer believe that any political space is pure nor do I believe that the impurity of an affordance necessarily means that it cannot be used for some kind of pleasure and good (i.e. thus the post-Frankfurtian moment here).   Like the academy, or modernity, or capitalism, or telephones, or Google, or the local YMCA (to come up with an assortment of random examples that all bring me satisfaction and yet share a certain institutional investments I question), Facebook is both exploitative and offensive to me because of that---and a source of great pleasure that, in an impure way, is also "free."   (Of course my data is being mined so in that sense it is not free, but my data is also mined in many services that I also happen to actually pay for--such as my Visa account or my books purchased on Amazon.)  In other words, Facebook's complicity in business practices I may not like does not keep it from being one of the single most pleasurable sources of diversion in a busy and often entirely solitary day.  Those are not simply contradictions but the kinds of parallel complicit and interwoven conditions that capitalism often sustains.


Now, Facebook Versus Twitter?  For me not an antithesis.  I like both.  I tend to enjoy Twitter more as access to all kinds of information and communication.  I tend to enjoy the affective aspects of Facebook.  To be really simple minded, Facebook brings cheer into my life.  It gives me a sense of connection with people who, because of the contingencies of busy lives, I might not normally interact with--we live far away, we have different requirements and responsibilities, we are too darn busy to pick up a phone.  

I have no problem at all with someone not being on Facebook or being post-Facebook.  Lots and lots of my most technologically sophisticated friends have walked away (or tried:  it's hard, maybe impossible!) from Facebook.    My objection isn't to them.  Not at all.  I understand.  And, as I said, people have to find their own ways to negotiate everyday impurity and implication.   What I object to is those who dismiss Facebook, who are even more dismissive of Twitter, and who do so with the characterization that it is trivial, about what one had for lunch today.  Really?  Twitter helped create a world wide attention to human rights violations in Tehran.  Facebook has become one of my best and most insistent political news filters.  And a source of pleasure in a life spent, far too much, in front of a computer screen.  

I'd love to keep this conversation going!   Anyone else for a critique, defense--or both--of Facebook?




I am both an academic and a member of the clergy. I find that FB is a great place to:
-- get feedback on ideas I am considering in writing my dissertation. I'll write something about Maimonides and universalism, for example, and get responses from my academic friends
-- receive encouragement as I work: if I post a comment about frustration with the pace of dissertation writing, I'll receive a pep-talk from fellow dissertation writers, two of my aunts and someone I knew from High school
-- share in the experience of preparing for the holidays. Right now all of my rabbinic friends are posting notes about their progress in writing High Holiday sermons.
-- keep track of political causes
-- hear from folks on the other side of the political spectrum. I am a liberal who grew up in a conservative town, so nearly all of my high school FB friends take a different view of politics.
-- ask about restaurants in a city I plan to visit
But, for privacy reasons, I won't allow any applications to see my data. I have the strictest settings in place to reduce (but not eliminate) mining of my data.


I won't weigh in about the pleasures or perils of Facebook, because goodness knows one can't escape corporate walled gardens and dataveillance on the web these days. I just found it really interesting to hear from someone who actually uses Facebook as a meaningful online community! My own relationship to Facebook is mostly instrumental: it's a broadcasting and communications device more streamlined than email for keeping in touch with friends and colleagues. I spend very little time actually reading Facebook, or doing anything but replying to messages and comments. I send all my own content to Facebook from outside. I think it's the combination of dispersion and limits: dispersion in the sense that, despite the centralized newsfeed, it organizes information in a cloud and there's no one Facebook to read. Limits in the sense of a very particularized model of "real" identity that is enforced by the discouragement of "fake" accounts and the reciprocal friending requirement.* It's not that I mind being "myself" online, but more fanciful worlds are more appealing -- even twitter, where academics, celebrities, institutions, cats, and TV characters can coexist on the same plane. I'm perfectly satisfied with Facebook, but I'm glad some people are having more fun than I am!


* I am a fan of the internet microgenre of stories retold as Facebook newsfeeds -- but these live outside of Facebook.


Thanks, Julie.  I am so fascinated by all these different ways of using Facebook and have started looking and seeing that my friends use them in a radically different way.  Of my 460 or so Facebook friends, I would say I rely on maybe 20 for a "bead" on the world.  I trust their FB active presence to keep me informed and, besides being there personally in a tough or triumphant time (and then the community is actually quite a bit larger--maybe 50 or 100 even), they are a superb filter on the outside world, highly efficient, as they reblog, repost, comment upon, criticize, or parody exactly the things I would select to respond to if I were surveying the other world.     So what I'm realizing from all these smart comments is that not only is Facebook an arbitrary assemblage of multiple and overlapping communities, and a place where one can perform oneself in multiple ways, but it is also (seemingly a contradiction but not) a good "refiner" of the general news of the world if one wants to use it that way. 


I just checked out FB and, before clicking on the NY Times, I could tell it was a very slow news day.  No snarky comments, no parodies, nothing today--however a whole lot of interesting urls to Internet as Art, How the Internet Got Rules, the Google Book Search Conference on the Future of Knowledge, all of which I will no doubt either read or put in my reader and come back to another time.  So while I agree with Trebor that, while you are there, you work for free, Facebook also works for me.  Free.  (And it makes me laugh.)   btw, I don't find this opposite of Twitter.  I use Twitter too.  I'm not sure why those two are sometimes set as opposites.  A lot of what I read these days on Facebook is reblogged from Twitter.


Thanks for writing!


I'm keeping up on the fate our state budget via the facebook updates of an intrepid progressive legislator, Kyrsten Sinema, who posts from the floor of the legislature.  It is an invaluable resource and inspires a kind of direct politics, with her supporters/constituents/allies offering encouragement and occasionally organizing quick response phone calls or impromptu rallies.  

I'm also friends with Joe Sudbay of Americablog.  He's twittered from Obama press conferences to facebook.  It's fun to watch the conference and communicate directly with him--offering the tv-eye view, and encouraging him to tell Chuck Todd off.....


Nice.  It's fascinating isn't it!  Good luck with that Arizona budget.   What a mess the states have been left with!


I have mixed feelings about FB and have taken FB vacations, so to speak by deactivating and reactivating my account. It is interesting to see how fragmented things are. It made me realize in a way that our digital identities are somewhat fragmented and in some ways our RL identities with regard to self disclosure. For example, my friends I grew up with know things about me that my professors don't know. This reminds me with regard to identity and self disclosure that there are several circles ranging in diameter. How much do I say? My professional self? My personal self? etc.

It is also interesting to see some of my friends interact that have never met before. One of my friends from Florida befriended one of my friends from the UK. That was cool. However, recently two of my friends got into a virtual arguement on my profile page, which was a real turn off. I saw sides of both of them that I didn't know existed. Plus, I was so embarassed because I have some family members on there and professors.

On the other hand, FB has reconnected me with long lost cousins. After my dad passed on, I didn't keep in contact as much with that side of the family. I felt disconnected. Now I was surprised to see my family from across the county on FB and we are reconnecting behind the scenes, which is a blessing. Well, there's my 2 cents. : )



This is very interesting . . . I feel that my life, off of Facebook, is also fragmented, and that FB has an odd way of connecting the dots to different parts of my life, not completely (not everyone I know is on FB), but in a different way than everyday life.  It's all fascinating, and important for each person to decide his or her own protocols for disclosure and participation, for friending or privacy, and so forth.  I, for example, don't Friend my students.  For a long time, the HASTAC team and I weren't on FB together as friends----but that broke down after a while.  I make it clear anyone is free to unfriend me at any time they want if it feels like too many boundaries are jeopardized.  We're all learning limits in a new way.