Browsing through The New Yorker this weekend, I encountered an unnerving little poem by Sherman Alexie called “The Facebook Sonnet.” It did what poems are supposed to do: It got under my skin. As, of course, has Facebook, which 10 years ago did not exist and 18 months ago I’d never logged onto and today has me hooked. I am by no means the only addict, so I thought I’d share with you Sherman Alexie’s well-nigh—but not quite—lethal blow to my spirits.
THE FACEBOOK SONNET
Welcome to the endless high-school
Reunion. Welcome to past friends
And lovers, however kind or cruel.
Let’s undervalue and unmend
The present. Why can’t we pretend
Every stage of life is the same?
Let’s exhume, resume, and extend
Childhood. Let’s all play the games
That occupy the young. Let fame
And shame intertwine. Let one’s search
For God become public domain.
Let church.com become our church.
Let’s sign up, sign in, and confess
Here at the altar of loneliness.
It’s a sharp object, this sonnet of his, and it does draw some blood. That’s because it’s not just a barb thrown at those who use Facebook to reconnect with the past, as if they could forever—he does put this rather harshly—“play the games that occupy the young.” No, it’s also aimed at the rest of us for throwing our deepest longings into the “public domain,” and for sacrificing our dignity on “the altar of loneliness.”
Here’s what he’s calling us. He’s calling us needy. Who wants that?
Yet I would argue that we’re all needy, and that it’s no insult to be told we are. Right alongside—hell, intertwined with—the universal need for love and affirmation is the equally universal need merely to be heard and acknowledged. Let’s face it: 500,000,000 people—some one-seventh of humanity—are on Facebook in the hope that attention will be paid. Facebook has just hit humankind like lightning and shorted the wiring. We’re now able to act without inhibition upon the urge to be recognized, and—in ways both real and virtually real—find a response.
I’m not saying that 500,000,000 people can’t be wrong (as evidence they might be, check out this list of the 100 most popular Facebook fan pages). I’m merely asserting that if 500,000,000 humans get involved in something, its appeal must be pretty basic. It would be nice, of course, if so much of what goes on there weren’t like the hallway of a middle school in between classes. And it would be nice if all Facebook interactions could be handled with more maturity and discretion and simple civility. But we’re not all mature and discrete and civil. And, of course, it would be nice if the creeps didn’t show up; but it would be odd if they didn’t. The vast majority of Facebook users are in that bell-curve middle of humanity who mean no harm, and who want amusement or recognition (mostly that) or companionship or a little excitement in their lives or just to feel better than they otherwise would.
I don’t go on my Facebook wall for nuance–to get it or give it. Nor to say things that would take more than a moment for a visitor to absorb. I do that here.
But that’s my point. I understand the urge in others because I understand the urge in myself: the urge to declare myself, to explain myself, to sing myself (a rich tradition: see Whitman, W.), and, with luck, to find sympathetic souls out there who will say, “Good.”
The urge to write a thoughtful or entertaining blog post is merely a refinement of the urge to go on Facebook and say, “Wow, rockin’ morning here in Altoona!” Both increase your chances of finding some sympathetic souls. As Ras pointed out here just last week, 52 percent of bloggers get into blogging to share their “personal musings.” That kind of blogging—this kind of blogging—is two steps above tweeting on Twitter, a multitude of steps below trying to write Leaves of Grass, but of a piece with most of the poor schlubs on Facebook. I can’t look down on them.
I know what you’re saying. You’re saying: “Kaze, you’re a lab rat. You wait around on Facebook until you get a “like” or a “comment” or a “happy birthday” from a person you don’t even know, and then your lateral hypothalamus lights up. You’re a dopamine addict. And as for the blog, it’s just another dopamine delivery system. You count your readers on 317am, and when the numbers get high, so do you.”
True enough. But if ever there was an actor who didn’t act for the applause, or a writer who did not live in hopes of some reader’s praise, or a chef who didn’t want to see us clean our plates, then I’ll take it all back. It’s not just loneliness that is salved when some stranger applauds, or some reader understands or some customer in the restaurant lets out a happy sigh. It’s the bird in the tree who tweets and waits to hear, out of the depths of the forest, the same sound returned. And while this urge may create a lot of foolishness of the sort we encounter on Facebook, it also leads humanity into real friendships, and into love, and into making art.