I find myself on Facebook frequently depressed, scanning a stack of status updates and indulging a sense of longing. Sometimes this longing is for the kind of free-wheeling, spurious socialization that Facebook is, I think, intended to fulfill. More often it is an indirect-but-intentional side effect, a sort of emotional welling similar to the sensation induced by spinning in place and staring at one point in the sky, trying to get at the pleasures of dizziness.
Still, Facebook is nothing if not a great attempt at soul food, social gumbo, a way of pouring all your human beans into a technological broth meant to be tasted slowly and continually, but never finally consumed. For me, though, there’s never a second-day savor, when all the ingredients have had a chance to get close and then get closer. On Facebook, there is no second day, only a string of successive first days, where the flavors are as distinct and expected and satisfying as ever they attain to being in their individual merits, spicy or flat, sweet or confusing, but never able to blend into a carefully seasoned curry. All Facebook status updates, by virtue of their endlessly equal march regardless of content, jostle each other in a manner that’s neither congenial nor rude, but perfectly homogeneous in their exclusivity, as though we’re all suspended in the broth’s bubbles. As though we are a broth of bubbles.
Any given day, a friend — “friend,” as a reference on Facebook, is a smooth-turning knob with stops at Total Stranger and Actual Friend, and where any setting to the left of maximum implies a degree of personal spin, making Facebook, at times, a very performative space. One friend might post about her terrible day while another blurbs his involvement with an ongoing and controversial political movement. Someone else will add to his long list of affirmations, which makes me wonder if he’s struggling, and then a long-silent acquaintance might pop up and scrawl a quote, newly meaningful to him — “We are all a lost generation” — but often with no explanation as to how or why it’s meaningful. Novelty is the necessary conclusion. Or sometimes there is a quick explanation, but Facebook is insufficient to any touch but the lightest. The Facebook flowchart of responses allows for only a few pathways: 1) mysterious brevity, 2) dry humor, 3) zany humor, 4) witty humor, or 5) inappropriate humor. It’s a jackpot when a response hits all five numbers at once.
This is, by the way, entirely an account of self-implication. I admit that I’m guiltier than any of my friends when it comes to putting on a Faceface. I’m forever chasing Facewit, Googling other people’s Facequotes, responding as if I’ve known the origin for time out of mind, and, generally, trying to sell others on my Facebrain, which bears only an incidental resemblance to the slower, technologically unassisted gray mass.
So for me Facebook is frequently a bummer place, despite being a place for friends — “Friends” probably the apt gross reference to the collection of amicable relationships found there, but also as a reference to the TV show that mimics Facebook’s strange, planar desolation. Always content to zone out to a familiar melody, it was years before I realized just how weird “Friends” is as a story. Every season, the plots and characters are almost exactly the same. (Perhaps, though, there’s some truth in that.) Ross wants Rachel, but can’t have her. Sometimes it’s the reverse, Rachel wanting Ross, and that’s a nice change. Chandler is always witty and fumbling. Sometimes he isn’t quite as fumbling — cool when that happens. Ross is fumbling and charmingly witless, but he has a Ph.D. in paleontology, which no one ever wants to hear about even though they’re all close friends and this is his life’s work. Joey, too, fumbling, and with a sexual power that is never convincingly established, but the audience is meant to buy it, even when Matt LeBlanc is on the Doughnut Diet, so fine, I like dougnuts too, and sex — there’s a Category 5 joke there somewhere. Phoebe’s idiocy always resolves into spacey wisdom and Monica’s relentlessly anal drives are always mitigated because she can cook. The show is perfectly flat. Nothing is really emphasized — other than the idea that friends matter — or is allowed to gain much traction. But everyone’s so pretty. Nothing is ever established, or asserted. There is wordplay.
And, yes, I get it, it’s a sit-com, so the joke’s on me if I take it too seriously, but that’s just the thing — I really do like Friends. I will watch Friends if it’s on. I’ll even get excited if I catch the first show in its hour-long, late-night, two-season syndication. I’ve seen all the episodes, I know the jokes, I know the characters. But if it’s on, I’ll watch it, because these people are the ultimate others, with problems I don’t understand because they’re not actually problems, like a meal of human chips, salty and tasty, but not really food. Perfect, though, for convenient, relentless consumption.
As is Facebook — it’s the way to eat your friends as salty, bite-sized chips. And I don’t pretend that Facebook seriously interrupts or interferes with the meaningful relationships of my life, because it doesn’t. But if you’re prone to ennui or the mild spiritual malaise that comes with, well, living, Facebook can be a technological pharmakon, killing while it cures in a trade-off that’s very nearly equal, but not exactly quite. The argument might be made that Facebook does nothing, that it merely mirrors what’s happening within, but that ignores the significance of form. When I’m not on Facebook I don’t think about my friends in terms of a collection of brief, running notes, nor do I spend time trying to invent ways to present myself in that format. Meeting friends is not, generally, a drive-by experience that emphasizes rapid-fire cleverness. For now, on Facebook, this is always the case.