Friday, November 6, 2009

Piazza Facebook

The social network as urban district

In the nine months since I first stumbled my way onto Facebook, I've come to believe -- "realize" is too strong a term to describe a perception that, given my general state of ignorance about social networking, I must regard as provisional -- that relatively few of the people I've friended are in fact regulars at the site. Upon getting new accounts, most of us plunge in with a combination of uncertainty and excitement, vaccuuming up contacts and poking around the various features. But once the novelty wears off, Facebook seems to fade into the background somewhat. People may visit when they get a Facebook message in their email account, but may otherwise never initiate contact that way or gaze at walls or profiles.

Which is not to say that Facebook necessarily becomes a kind of personal fad, like a video game or a new pop album you play obsessively for a while and then forget about. It remains an invaluable tool, especially as a kind of interactive phone book whereby you can contact someone eve
n if you don't remember an email address, or seek information on a new or prospective acquaintance. Its utility is likely to be a source of durability long after it has lost its novelty.

I sometimes sense aversion, even distate, surrounding heavy Facebook use. For the lurker, it can be a hu
ge time-waster. For those inclined to post, it can be all too apparent evidence of self-promotion, if not clinical narcissism. I've been on both the giving and receiving end of a comment like "You've been quite active on Facebook lately!" and it's not hard to discern passive aggression mingling in there with any overt admiration or approval.

My motives in getting a Facebook account were largely utilitarian: I did so simultaneously with launching this blog, and used Facebook as a marketing tool for the blog (it remains an important component of my modest audience). Still, I was as enchanted by it as many of those who joined without such motives, and, I'm somewhat surprised to say, have become only more in the time since. Lately, in the odd moment when I go just for the hell of it, I do so with a recurrent visual motif in my head: the piazza San Marco in Venice.

What's odd about this is that I'm sorry to say that I've never been to Italy, much less Venice. So there's double sentimentalizing going on, both of the Facebook I know and the famed public square I don't. But I somehow imagine, as I scroll down my wall, that I occupy a small window looking out on that public square. Each post, with its little picture of friend or acquaintance -- or, let's be frank, virtual stranger -- is like a person wandering across my purview at the time I happen to be there, or someone sitting at her own window across the square. Given the traffic that passes through on any given day, and the fact that I'm only at my window a fraction of the time, I miss most of what happens. I have about 500 friends, and at busy times of the day any post that goes up will pass from the top to bottom of my screen in a few hours (if that). Thus it is that time is becomes a kind of space; the range of my vision, depending on the light of day, can be anywhere from three to ten hours wide. Whatever the width or length, there's always someone going by, a sight to see.

And, occasionally, something to hear. Among the traffic I witness, there will be an occasional voice that hails me across the square, or that I will call out. Our communication will be public, a wave of approval that all can see, or a comment of greeting or praise that many will witness (or, perhaps comment upon as well). Occasionally, I will receive communication through the back door, as it were, mail that arrives outside the view of the square but which bears an inseparable relationship to it.

I'm not sure how far I should extend this metaphor; I could speak, for example, of the businesses that peddle their wares (I certainly put mine on display), or the authorities that administer or police the square (we all worry about their trusworthiness even as we benefit from them). If there's any larger point here, it's about the way cutting edge technology tends to be enlisted in the service of traditional longings and imagined pasts, in this case an urban village in which everybody knows your name.