Adventures in Facebookland

I recently went on a binge of uploading and tagging photos to the Facebook. For many years, I have been reluctant to do so.[1] However, a person’s Wall/Timeline is now the first place I go to for the low-down on someone in whom I am interested – platonically, physically or romantically. It is my storefront, my brochure, my catalog, and my perennial report to the world.

Like a front yard garden, a Facebook profile is what most people see in the moments before they knock at my door, yet it requires constant vigilance lest it becomes home to an army of weeds or squatters. This is why I gave in: I wanted to promote an image of myself as someone who has, and has had, a rich social network and many an adventure locally and abroad, and who is happy and able to celebrate the good times of others. That may or may not be complete bullshit, but it is the impression I would like to give.[2]

I was very selective about the photos I chose to put up – none that, in spite of the years, would be clearly awkward, such as a schoolmate dirty dancing with another guy at our Year 10 formal. Nor have I uploaded any photos of people with whom I fell out. I also put a note in every album stating that I would oblige anyone featured in any of the photos who wanted their image removed.

Overall, I uploaded some 300 photos across a range of 17 years: from a bike tour and student exchange in Year 10, to living on campus, teaching in Japan, and in Melbourne. I found that those photos featuring the most number of friends together received the most attention. People extended comment threads while bonding over group-photos, such as a photograph of several close friends and I after our end-of-Year-10 excursion. I was impressed with how quickly people starting suggesting tags for others, which spread the news about my postings.

As for whether any of the photos will manage to support my off-line social networking strategy, perhaps the best indication so far would be a chance encounter with an old friend. In spite of not having chatted for over a decade, I soon discovered that he had been following the Facebook uploads – and my blog – with great interest, and he was eager for a hardcopy of one of my books. In addition, I think that my current practice of posting a photo from each weekends’ adventures has provided a useful talking point with friends.[3]

The most significant outcomes from this exercise, though, have been unexpected.

One poignant moment was having the 14-year-old daughter of one of my ex-school mates – who is married to one of my old neighborscommenting on a photo of her mother, then 16-years-old. “You look so cool…,” she writes, and I think of how busy my peers have been getting married and having children, and how long it has been since high school; long enough that, a child born at its conclusion is now a teenager reflecting on a photo of their mum at an almost identical age.

Having omitted all of the purely landscape photos, it also became quite apparent how my life has had photographic ‘blackouts’ – looking at the online albums for a few of those years amidst the last 17, there is the strong impression is that I have done very little. I might write books, mix music, and cycle up mountains, yet I still look to my photos as the annual report of my productivity.

After all, unless we do something with friends, it is as if we might as well not have done it, right?

Yet those years were not necessarily lonely, or sad, or wasted – often very much the opposite. Many were years of simple routine – spending my evenings either dining in with a partner and a bottle of wine or leaning over my course reader. They were years where I rarely stepped out of my mind space long enough to think, ‘This would make a lovely photo.’ Others, admittedly, were indeed dark, however, the years when I have tried to be everyone’s friend and taken the most photos have also been the times that I have also ended up feeling the most alone – so go figure.

I imagine archaeologists must frequently experience what this photographic retrospective has left me feeling: viscerally reminded of how much we have achieved, as well as achingly awareness of how much we have lost. [4] For I look back at the photos, grouped according to chronology, and feel the heft of the years on my mind, each with varying psychic tax rates. I realize the extent that I am subject to the ebb and flow of history – my own and that of my time. I resist the idea that I am the mercy of events around me – and yet I find, in these Facebook photos and others, a record of a person caught up in the world.

End notes

[1] For starters, I prefer to store my photos online through Picasa, and I do not want to do so on yet another site. I am also very wary of Facebook in general, and the thought of giving them even more of my stuff has been off-putting. Finally, I hold out from throwing my lot into new technology or social networking services, but once I do, I generally embrace it with vengeance.

[2] Other, rather sneaky objectives have included increasing my Klout score – which has been dropping at an alarming rate – as well as encouraging people to ‘friend’ me on Facebook – since I Facebook have already chastised me for being a ‘friend’ whore.

[3] Did I succeed in my other objectives? By the crudest of metrics – my skyrocketing Klout score – the answer would be yes. However, no old high school or university friends or acquaintances ‘friended’ me. In fact, very few existing Friends messaged me directly at all – which again goes to show the disparity between ‘Friends’ and friends.

[4] Once more, I feel like John Oldman in Man from Earth who after years of wandering has lost every tool he has used and every person he has loved, and now with nothing to show for himself except the fantastical story he tells.