September 20, 2007

The Obligatory Facebook Bashing Column

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Some time between September 2006 and September 2007, Facebook became an evil, corrupting medium of social destruction driven to blackmail America’s future with concrete proof of its drunken stupidity. Or at least that’s the impression you’ll get by reading any article about Facebook on any college campus over the past year. For some reason, columnists at college newspapers across the country have found it necessary to lecture their readers on the dangers of the wildly popular website—taking every opportunity to patronize Facebook, to condescendingly bash every idiosyncrasy presumably in order to gain some sort of intellectual high ground over the band of aloof savages previously known as Facebook users. I am not one of these writers. I wouldn’t call myself a Facebook enthusiast, but I get pretty excited whenever I get a friend request. I enjoy the drunken wall posts my high school friends send me at 4:00 am. I’m all about laughing at old pictures, even if that means pictures of me going to a Halloween party as a pedophile are publicly accessible. Amazingly, I see nothing wrong with a site that lets thousands of Flight of the Conchords fans group together in the name of folk-parody.

However, as I college-aged writer, I am obligated to voice some sort of outrage against Facebook. If I don’t bash the site, I’m fairly certain a gang of college columnists wearing coffee-stained T-shirts and horned rim glasses are going to come in the night and take me away to some hazy cave where I’m going to have to sword fight Paul Walker’s character in The Skulls for my freedom. Hence, out of fear of my life, we have the impetus for my Facebook bashing column.

The day before freshmen move-in day at Cornell, August 16th, was my birthday. I celebrated by driving for four hours and sleeping at a Comfort Inn. When I finally moved in and got settled down, I logged on to Facebook. To my absolute delight dozens of people, many friends and many random people I’ve met once or twice, wished me a happy birthday. Thirty-five people, to be boringly statistical about the matter, wished me a happy birthday. Awesome, happy birthday to me. Despite my giddy elation, I couldn’t help but think that these people didn’t actually know when my birthday was. They just logged on to see if anyone tagged them in a picture. When they found their queues empty, they stumbled upon the daily birthdays and subsequently went about the ritualized practice of wishing people happy birthday via Facebook wall.

To test my theory, I recently “changed by birthday” from August 16th to September 16th. The conclusions were…conclusive.

At the end of the day on Sunday, September 16th, my wall was filled with 21 posts concerning my birthday. Five of those posts were along the lines of, “You’re an idiot, it’s not your birthday,” and the rest were genuine wishes of happy birthday. In addition, there were six wall posts that appeared in my notifications but didn’t appear on my wall– a.k.a. six people realized their mistake and rescinded their birthday wishes. A few things stand out.

First, sixteen people wished me a happy birthday even after seeing the wall posts revealing me as a birthday fabricator. That means sixteen people saw my sister say, “It’s not your birthday,” and wished me happiness anyway. They trusted that Facebook was more likely to know my birthday than my sister. One of my friends even said, “Happy FAKE birthday.” How do you genuinely wish someone a happy birthday after one of their friends exposes them in caps-lock?

I can forgive those birthday well-wishers who don’t really know me well enough to know my birthday. I don’t know their birthdays either, but then again I’m not going around wishing people I’ve talked to maybe twice happy birthday. But two of the well-wishers were people I’d classify as close friends, people I’d actually wish happy birthday. I’m talking top ten on the good friends list. Don’t they remember their identical sentiments of happy birthday just four weeks ago?

An additional close friend called me and was thoroughly confused when I told him that no, it wasn’t my birthday and no, I wasn’t getting drunk in celebration.

I was happy to see that only one complete stranger wished me happy birthday. I expected a flock of random people to descend on my wall, but that wasn’t the case. I’m not sure what exactly that means. It either means that I think strangers are creepier and stupider than they actually are, or that I think my friends are less stupid than they have proven to be.

In the end, it seems that I haven’t bashed Facebook as much as I’ve bashed the people on Facebook. And I think this is the point that many of the Facebook-bashing columnists have missed. The problems blamed on Facebook are almost universally problems not with the system but the people within the system. If a high school kid has a picture of himself drinking at school posted on Facebook and he is suspended ex post facto, that is his fault for being an a idiot, not Facebook’s fault for allowing it. Giuliani’s daughter joining the Barack Obama Facebook group doesn’t make Facebook destructive; it makes Giuliani’s daughter destructive. Facebook is a medium through which young America is able to exhibit its aloofness and stupidity. Believe me, if you take that medium away, our stupidity will find another outlet. Columnists say that Facebook is ruining lives and destroying families because they refuse to accept that it is we who are the destroyers. In this culture of victimization Facebook has become the defendant– a scapegoat for the inadequacies of the guilty.