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“The Facebook Sonnet”

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.

Ouch.

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.

image of walt whitman

Would this man have gone on Facebook?

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.

image of a cocaine addict snorting facebook powder

This isn't me. I swear it.

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.

13 Responses to “The Facebook Sonnet”

  1. Would TMIMITW be on FB?

  2. enjoyed the article! It does seem to be high school all over again: all glory and honor to the kids in the popular clique whose most banal postings provoke 5 thumbs up likes and 12 comments of ooh and aah. The trick is not to look, if you have the strength. Lot’s wife didn’t.

  3. Kelly Goodnight May 16, 2011 at 1:28 pm

    I loved the poem – and also your dissection of it. Is it high school all over again – yes, but at least on facebook I have a block button. And if you are a bully or a braggart I can exercise the option to block you (or more discreetly ignore your posts). You are right on about the neediness. None of us wants to be needy, but we all are. Best if we just fess up and say yes, I like it when you like me. There, that’s easy enough isn’t it?

    • Tigre – The Most Interesting Man in the World would not be caught dead on FB, but I hope to qualify on other counts.
      Sawtooth and Kelly – These are wonderful observations, and well put. They get me to thinking about what the word “friend” means when used on FB. Mark Z. could have chosen some other label for people we meet online, but he chose that one. A stroke of genius, no? Layers of need exposed, plus a dose of irony. What do you think?

  4. It all depends from which side we look at things: “it also leads humanity into real friendships, and into love, and into making art.”
    We recognize what we have inside. Thank you Kaze “The wind”

  5. Great and very true poem. Same for the post, but I still HATE Facebook and only go there to promote a new book, or to say Hello to Ted.
    I refuse to bare my shapely behind the way many people do (you don’t, thank G-d, nor does Ted) refuse to talk about my private life and thus, have MANY Ffs (Facebookfriends)but only a few friends.
    Is the word ‘friend’ a stroke of genius? Sure. Mark Z. knows how lonely people are and used that knowledge. I wonder how many real friends that kid has. Lots of money, but friends?
    Actually I should rant like this on FB and not on your super site, shouldn’t I? So solly.

    • Deborah, you should find a DVD of “The Social Network,” a fictionalized account of the creation of FB. Would love to know what you and/or your shapely behind think of it.

  6. I and my shapely behind will go after it right away and will surely let you know.

  7. And here we are, almost two months later: bought the The Social Network DVD, found it a splendid film (technically) and after the last shot, The End and the rest, thought:
    Yep, that’s Facebook. Very few people on it are actually ‘friends’ with one another. It’s one of Facebook’s strange ironies that it should make it possible to get close to more people but only ends up leaving you feeling more isolated than before.
    A sad, rather sick and dishonest affair that made a selfish kid filthy rich and some people very happy. Not me, nor my shapely behind which I refuse to show in public.
    So, why am I still on it? I was told it would be perfect to promote my new novel. Perfect? ONE reaction, one bloody reaction + one message: They told me you had died last year.
    Well, I didn’t die last year and Facebook (Assbook)? Blahblahblahblah
    (Yes, I am angry and forgetting to try to be a lady)

  8. I too started as a blogger and resisted Facebook, and now spend more time than I care to admit on Facebook. I was struck by the poem when I read it in May and also thought about it and posted it on my blog way back then, and was thinking about it again today and found your wonderful post.

    Recently I saw movie “Another year.” One character in particular is very strong and present. In a review (was it Ebert?) someone said that this person walks around with a sign on her that reads, “NEEDY.” I read that and thought, G-d I hope my neediness doesn’t announce itself that blatantly. And then I worried, because if you have to ask…

    I think neediness is human, as is breathing. On the other hand, hyperventilating is not OK. Facebook is a dangerous slope.

    I’m not sure why but I think a blog is much more sophisticated than a Facebook post – as you acknowledged. Something funny (not ha-ha) happened on the way to Facebook. My blogger friends got lured in. Great writers, a great community, has all but disappeared. I try to use Facebook to post quotes and thought provoking links and and and. It feels wrong though. It’s like I’m trying to make it something it’s not. I imagine my three hundred and something “friends” wondering what I’m doing – as they decide to click on the simple button that allows them to never have to see my “updates” pop up again.

    I muiss the good old days of blogging. My blog is going on it’s seventh year. It’s always been a small blog. But in it’s prime there were discussions that spamnned 40 comments. There were posts that got hundreds of hits (I’m told, cough-cough). There was mutual admiration and cross-referencing with other bloggers. That doesn’t happen now. Sometimes I link to my blog on Facebook. Mostly, the response reminds me of Buddy Holly’s band.

    Anyway, perhaps you and/or your readers will see this and know that I saw and liked that poem, saw and liked your post, and that I am.

    • Neil, what a generous and thoughtful comment. Facebook is the Cave of Shadows. I’m going to check out your blog and we’ll compare notes.

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