It was late at night, and I was scrolling through Facebook on my iPhone. Like millions of others I'm sure, I use Facebook as my personal insomnia tool.
I was browsing through the usual stuff—fun memes, political endorsements, the latest on gay marriage, peaceful Gandhi-esque sayings. You know, the kind of stuff that can either seem uplifting and so damn true! or else seems like so much drivel, depending on your mood.
And then I came across a post from a friend about this guy, who she’d met at a party once. He was a famous underground comic living in San Francisco and he'd just died.
Spain Rodriguez. I put my phone down and stared into the dark room. Oh my God, I thought, Spain died. I’d known Spain—not well, but I’d met him on a number of occasions and I liked him. I mean, he wasn’t just a Facebook friend. He was a real person, a genuinely a nice man. More importantly, he was my friend Susan Stern’s husband.
Like a lot of people who are still friends on Facebook, I’d fallen out of touch with Susan. I worked with her many years ago and then had the privilege of writing about a touching film she’d done on her father’s “rational suicide.” We’d hung out a bit after that, but then, you know, we’d lost touch. The way it happens.
I sat up in bed. Someone I’d known had died and I’d only found out about it because I happened to have insomnia.
And that’s when Facebook gets weird.
Before Facebook and social media, people met, made connections, sometimes became bosom buddies. Life happened. People moved. People changed. People drifted.
The high school friends we swore our allegiance to went on to live their own lives. We went onto ours. And suddenly, we weren’t friends anymore. We weren’t enemies. We just didn’t have each other in our lives on a daily basis.
It took me a long time to accept that this is just the natural course of things. I once read somewhere that we have evolved only to be capable of having something like 40 real connections in our lives. Makes sense. In a village, we wouldn’t know that many people.
In today’s world, we meet thousands. Probably more. Sometimes we make connections; sometimes we keep them.
Before Facebook, every so often, there’d be a reunion. You’d go and find out who got married, who got fat, who had five kids, who went off to live in religious seclusion. Or maybe you’d run into an old friend who kept up, and could give you the inside scoop on your whole crowd.
Now of course, we just stay in touch by Facebook. Facebook is a perpetual, non-stop, never-ending reunion. I’m friends with people who remember that I was always the first person to raise my hand in the third grade; that I went through a punk phase in college; that I once aspired to be a scientist; that I did other things that I hope are not memorialized online. I’m friends with old teachers, old lovers, old co-workers, cousins, people I met once at a party, people I interviewed, and people I’ve never met at all.
And usually it’s all fine. I randomly find out who they voted for in the last election. That their kids got A's on their last report cards; that they are newly in lust; getting interviewed; taking exotic vacations. It comes and goes in my feed like a stream, as one friend put it. Sometimes I’m in the stream. Sometimes I’m out. Often a post will make me stop and pause.
But sometimes, like that night last week, it makes me freeze cold.
Sometimes the posts are like a gut punch. Someone writes about the cancer she’s fighting. Someone writes about the suicide of a friend.
And sometimes, someone dies.
It’s immediate, visceral, and shockingly intimate.
Facebook is this thing that is online that lives on our computers and our phones. It is flat and digital and cold.
It is about silly memes and political punditry. It’s about the ordinariness of our daily affairs.
But it also is something more. It is bubbling with births and deaths and sickness and celebration. It is, regardless of what you think about Facebook as a company, about our relationships and human connectedness.
Ultimately, it’s all about us.
Janet Kornblum is a journalist and media trainer. She has been using Facebook since it was only available to those with a coveted .edu email. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or just find her on Facebook, any time of night or day.
Photograph by Mooganic