Over the summer, I took a proper look at Facebook for the first time. The executive summary: I didn't like what I saw.
As an information-professional-in-a-research-led-university (that's what it says on my passport, honest) I have to try to keep up with "social media", for the simple reason that's how the majority of students experience the world. True, I have this Grumpy Old Man thing going on, where I repeatedly try to persuade my colleagues that finding things a bit difficult to find is an honourable tradition in higher education. Might even be the point of the whole thing, maybe, d'ya think? But I know it's a lost cause.
At least the current generation don't have to memorize core texts, in the way mediaeval scholars once did. Why, they don't even have to buy, copy out or photocopy core texts, as we 20th century students did. The library has either bought access to e-book versions or taken the trouble to copyright-clear and digitize individual key chapters for them, then made them freely accessible via the online catalogue. They need never get out of bed. Have smart-phone, will study. The pill-form degree cannot be far away.
We were all caught napping by smart-phones. Three years ago, most of us didn't understand apps, or the differences between the Apple and Android platforms (not to mention also-rans like Blackberry and Windows). We thought it was pretty whizzy that all students were able to use our resources on their laptops in the campus wireless environment. Why would anyone want to scrutinize data on a screen the size of a large matchbox?
Because they just do: that's how they lead their social lives, idiot. I frequently see little groups sitting at a table sharing a coffee break, silently engaged with their texts and tweets on their phones, and busily "liking" stuff on Facebook. The downside of all this is obvious to anyone over 40, but there has to be a massive upside, doesn't there? Or why would smart young people spend so much time doing it?
I decided to investigate, so -- fearlessly -- I signed up for Facebook. There seem to be three camps, where Facebook is concerned. There are the Professional Oldies, who like to pretend that anything involving a computer is Satanic; to them, Facebook is final proof of that proposition. Then there are the enthusiasts: "Come on in, you'll love it! You'll have 10,000 friends in no time!!" Naturally, I'm a bit wary of them, in the same way I'm wary of Jehovah's Witnesses and exercise fanatics. Finally, there are the Facebook Survivors: "I tried it, and barely escaped with my privacy intact..." They pressed survival tips on me -- Dos and Don'ts, recommended settings, the phone number of a good cult-debriefer.
Having signed up, the first thing I did was to seek out genuine friends, and to "friend" them. Hey, look at me over here, being all ironically contemporary! Be my "friend", friend!
So. The first thing I discovered was that most of my friends are extremely infrequent Facebook users: they were on it but not in it, so to speak. It took weeks for some of them to notice they had a new "friending" request (that was their story, anyway). They had not updated their own "status" for months, years even. It seemed they had joined up, toyed with a few updates, then forgotten all about it. It seemed they didn't get it.
But the next thing I discovered was that, as soon as they did friend me, all their other "friends" piled in, like a coachload of garrulous gatecrashers. Help! Mind that carpet! A good many of these people were updating their status every ten minutes with the most unbelievable rubbish. This was incredibly annoying.
The thing is (and I almost feel I should be ashamed to admit this), I do not care about the ephemera of the lives of people I do not know and will never know, much as I'd like to hear every little thing from my actual friends. I don't want to see a stranger's daughter's baby snaps, or read about that delicious meal in a Seattle restaurant, or join a campaign to save a neighbourhood shop in Belgium, or be puzzled by unfunny cartoons, or pretend to admire cute (and not so cute) pictures... I was overwhelmed and repelled by this endless, churning tidal wave of stuff that hundreds of strangers "like" and, incredibly, therefore want to share promiscuously with the entire Facebook universe. Argh! My friend's "friend" is my enemy, it seems.
The Facebook Survivors helped me out, of course: unfriend people with too many chatty friends, they said, change some privacy settings, if necessary get a new identity and move house to somewhere without broadband. As much as anything, though, I was annoyed to find that Facebook seemed to bring out my inner Professional Oldie. I simply couldn't see the point of it. And that, of course, was exactly what I had set out to discover. I, too, didn't get it.
So, with the ending of my summer Blog Break, I did what everyone else had done: I walked away, shut the door, but left Facebook turned on and the door unlocked. Occasionally I have a peep, but don't go in. Like my friends, I am also now on Facebook, but not in it.
And, please, don't even think of asking to be my "friend". A refusal often offends, as the sign over the bar used to say.