Last month, there was news that Facebook was going to charge everybody who has a face on the social networking site. The amount was going to be $4 or something like that, no matter the number of friends you have. That news may have excited the parents of a twelve year old girl who is suing them for not allowing her to use the computer. A school trip is due; she needs to monitor the progress on the internet. The parents want her to read her books instead. She spends too much time on the computer, chatting away with friends on social networking sites. She has a presence on nearly all of them. She has a space on Myspace and a big face on Facebook. She is also a twitterer, so she has a great following on Twitter.com. There are a few more she keeps discovering. Sometimes she chats with strangers she would never meet. And that is dangerous for a girl of her age. Three or four hours a day on the computer is quality time wasted. Next, a wife divorces her husband for looking at women flirtatiously on the internet. Ironically, she had met him on a dating site, on the same computer that is now a family property. Then, a friend finds out that he is in the same social networking group as his nemesis. His rival of many years knows somebody who is friends with his best friend. What is worse, the arch enemy sends him an invitation for friendship. There, a few thoughts come to play: Does he pretend that he hasn't seen the invitation or ignore it altogether? There is also the all important consideration of civility and etiquette. One thing leads to another and they are good friends again, at least on the social networking site, after all those years. At a point, the wisdom in the whole computer friendship business begins to haunt him: Is this social networking thing necessary at all? Well, the consolation is that the site may have helped him unearth a few important contacts he had missed since high school.
They call it social networking but it is the whole of society cramped into a devil of a thing called the internet. It may well be called social incest because it is too entangling and frankly, sometimes very useless. So, is there anything like privacy anymore? When I first signed on to Facebook, any user who visited the site might have noticed that I was the freshest face alive. 'Write on a friend's Wall', the instruction had said. So I started pouring my heart out to a long lost girlfriend who had jilted me years ago, shamelessly disembowelling the gory contents of our relationship. I thought the message was meant for her consumption alone, so I went on, politely asking her to forgive the wrongs of the past and consider a possible comeback. It was a very long but interesting romantic plea, the kind any Desdemona would be pleased to hear from an Othello. Later that evening, my wife surged towards me, quizzing: "Do you still love your ex in London?" "Hun, I haven't spoken to her in a whole year", I lied. "Really, you spoke to her today", she moved. "Me, I have no idea what you are talking about", I insisted. She dragged me to the computer, opened the Facebook page, and read my message aloud until it broke my tympanic membrane. She left to walk the dog, fuming, "Quezi, as she pronounces Kwesi, I think we are done." I went back to the site to see what went wrong. Well, everything had gone wrong. The whole world had read my story. I had left my telephone numbers for her, so a few friends called me, including those who are not even on Facebook.
It seems you can't save face on Facebook. Why would I write on somebody's wall and the whole world gets to know? There were a few more mistakes I made. I had provided my cell phone number when signing in, so whenever somebody poked me or wrote on my wall, my mobile telephone providers charged me for texting me that information. The same information would be in my email account and on Facebook at the same time. That redundancy was worse than anything you would expect in any civil service organisation. Then, there is the status column, where people just say anything on their minds. The messages range from what they are eating to their plans for the week. Consider something as incredibly uninspiring as: "I am eating good old yoko kari, and it is yummy, yummy." Does the whole world need to know what somebody is eating for lunch? Occasionally, you would read something sensible. A few writers post their articles on their profile, something I have only recently started doing.
What about the private photographs that have suddenly become a public album? Friends are allowed to comment on your photos. Often, it is refreshing to see how old friends had gotten married and taken photos with their families. That is also a good way to gauge those who are still single. A newspaper editor, who had shared a room with me in university, wrote against my profile picture: "Room, you need to shed some kilos. You are looking chubby." Another friend in America teased: "Your bushy moustache is ideal for filtering foamy beer. It looks too academic and intimidating. Please borrow a razor." Often you will see the photographs of some celebrities and a message asking you to be a fan. All you do is just click on add, and you are the latest fan. Of course, there is a chat room, where you can exchange instant messages with friends in your contact book. Sometimes, you don't know what to think when you invite them for a chat and they don't honour the invitation. You try it the second time, then you consider deleting them from your book. Would they know that I have taken their name out, you ask yourself? Then the assurance follows, almost instantaneously: They will not be notified. So, you go ahead and check them out. After that, you wonder the use of all that. Maybe you should close your account altogether and concentrate on more important things.
I considered signing out from Facebook when I met my 23 year old cousin on the site: "Bro Kwesi, I didn't think I will see you here. I thought Facebook was kidstuff", she typed. I asked why she didn't have a picture on her profile. "I don't want to advertise myself to the whole world," she opined. That was when I decided to try Twitter.com, thinking that I would see an adult face to social networking. I didn't know about it until a celebrity dumped her boyfriend earlier this month for spending too much time on the social networking site. On twitter, twitterers just twitter, like twits, talking about nothing important. There, you have a following, fellow twitterers, who type their minds out about nearly anything under the sun. That is exactly what the site is about: Tell your followers what you have been up for the day. Some users have several thousand followers, and they spend time each day telling them how bad their day at work had been or how their dog did something funny at the vet. Is that how cheap modern communication has become?
Yet, the site has a great following, and it has received lots of commendations. The New York Times describes Twitter as "one of the fastest-growing phenomena on the internet." Newsweek puts it even more poignantly: "Suddenly, it seems as though all the world's a twitter." That is more than an accurate description of the meaninglessness of today's fast-moving, internet-dictated life. Intelligent pursuits seem to have given way to cyber social networking, where people are happy to tell friends every step they take everyday of their lives. You wonder: Do folks get time to read any book these days? No wonder the newspaper industry is suffering. The internet pretty much rules us, bringing together friends, news, articles for sale, videos and documentaries at our pleasure.
What about blogging? I have often been advised: Why don't you set up a blogsite where people can easily access your articles? Certainly, that is useful; at least more useful than perusing photographs of friends on Facebook or just twittering away on Twitter. I am yet to enter the blogosphere, but I have visited a few good blogs. It is the most useful thing any writer would consider doing? Blogs may have their own problems, but its informative character makes it a worthwhile venture. It is serious business, which could also be fun. You can still post your wedding photos on your blogsite, but blogging is essentially about stuff, usually stuff like this, not photos of people's lovely children. So, maybe I will enter the blogosphere very soon. It doesn't take much to go there.
Do folks like to read from the blogsite more than the traditional newspaper? Well, since all the world is a twitter, it seems people would be happy to jump on your blog after seeing their face on Facebook or catching up on updates on twitter. By the time they are done with all that, they are too tired to settle for any boring story on the credit crunch or on Afghanistan that is tucked somewhere in the middle pages of a broadsheet. So, that is how the computer is sucking the print from the newspaper.
But, friends, lets ask ourselves: Is social networking all we bargained for when we hailed the internet as the greatest invention of this century? Often, I would quickly close the Facebook window when my wife walks into the living room. "Are you still on Facebook? Read a book, honey", she would say. You don't come across as a serious person if all you do is chat on the internet and look at photos. So, I feel a weird sense of guilt whenever I spend more than thirty minutes on the social networking site, especially when I have articles to write and the pile of subscribed news magazines staring me in the face. Then, there is the television, which, fortunately, does not engage my attention as before. You can always refuse to answer the cellphone or simply turn it off. Life isn't all about communication; sometimes you need a private space to think, even if it means holding yourself incommunicado. But, will they let you be?
Social networking sites work just like Keep Fit clubs. Not everybody wants to join. Those who join have the choice to stay on or sign off. So, what am I going to do with Facebook? If I sign off, my wife will think I am the most ungrateful bastard alive. How did I meet her? We had met at a conference somewhere in southern Ontario. All participants had their name badges hanging around their necks, like bulldogs. I memorised her name and later that evening typed it into the search engine on Facebook. I didn't need to do the usual pep talk or ask for her number. I am crap at the ice breakers; I always end up saying something silly. I don't have funny jokes or sweet words that women want to hear. Sometimes all I do is feed into their eyes and goof: "Do you always look this beautiful on Fridays? I wonder how the world will bear with all that beauty for seven days in a week." I am better on the computer. Facebook was five years old last month. Our Facebook brokered relationship is only three months old. We both have miles to go. Wish us luck.
Benjamin Tawiah is a journalist. He lives in Ottawa, Ontario.
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