This morning I posted a photograph of the progress on our garden shed-cum-tea house to Facebook. As the image was wafting its way from my Blackberry to my Facebook page, I wondered if my life (and that of my Facebook friends) has become a reality show?
Well, sort of. I've written a travel memoir before and also done ethnographic interviews for a book about the closing of the South's oldest furniture factory, so i know well the blurry lines between "public" and "private." The content in Thirty-Six Views of Mt Fuji isn't everything about my years in Japan; it is carefully curated and crafted into a narrative about that life designed to be compelling and helpful to readers. Similarly, the interviews in Closing: The Life and Death of an American Factory don't tell every insight and emotion about the lives of the workers profiled there but, like Bill Bamberger's exquisite documentary photographs, give a slice of the life of a factory at its end, intended to help us understand more about that process and about our own lives.
Reality TV shows have many purposes. I admit to being addicted to a number of the ones where the winner becomes famous and, basically, is given a jump-start (an enormous one) to a future career. The combination of talent and performance, of originality and ability to conform to audience expectations, the talent at accepting feedback while maintaining individuality, and the incredible pressure to do all of this at top speed and in the public eye, not seasoned over years and years of trial and error, failure and success and success and failure on and on, is astonishing. I find myself unable to look away. The B-roll background material of these TV shows is as carefully edited as those I make in my own books, usually to make the performers also seem like good, real people who are succeeding, often against some personal odds. Reality shows like Jersey Shore and the Housewives series are, of course, also edited to make a narrative, usually a sensational one. It's all about the narrative.
The narrative on Facebook feels quite different to me precisely because it is interactive. If I post the progress on my shed as it becomes a tea house, someone else is posting the beagle stretching out on the lawn, the opening of this year's amazing crop of peonies (I can almost smell them!), the pie just out of the oven, the adorable birthday cake crafted like a Maryland women's basketball player by the adoring graduate students, and other snippets of real life, offered without cost or expectation to any of us demarcated as "friends." I smile. I feel connected. Sometimes I like what I see or share them to my own Venn-ly intersecting Facebook friends, for no other reason than that they made me happy and I want to pass that random joy on.
Not all of it is happy. Deaths. Depressions. Frustrations over books unfinished. Break ups. These too come some mornings like extended arms, welcoming the reassuring virtual embrace back. It feels good to respond, not sanctimonious or costly, but just simply, humanly good to feel someone's sadness offering itself for comfort and being able to hope that the tiny digital gesture of empathy can make a difference. There's something humbly awesome about the social contract in that exchange.
And political opinion. Legislative cutbacks to education. Headlines. Ranting together against stupidity or violence or inequality. And then, sometimes, there will be an irrelevant, random wonderfulness that someone happens to find on YouTube, a snippet of song or dance or comedy, offered as a little boost to random Facebook friends who might be looking at one of these random acts of Internet kindness to lift a day.
I admit I "like" it, in the Facebook sense of the term. Yes, yes, the privacy issue is enormous and the targetted marketing and targetted content (that I contribute to, of course) of my browser all alarm me deeply. I wish there were an open source worldwide Facebook that knew how to "be less evil" (to paraphrase the much paroded Google motto). Yet, when I feel most alarmed, by life or headlines or the Internet or even my stumbling after the next paragraph, invariably I find myself returning to social media to find those low-threshold impressions of a social world I value and, I hope, contribute too. It's a digital age contribution to a sociality that modern industrial-era capitalism has, in so many ways, ripped apart. It's hardly perfect. Perfection isn't the point, really. Or the choice. "Like" "Comment" "Share": not a bad set of options with which to start a day.