(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, March 3.)
My brief relationship with Facebook is over. In retrospect, I now realise it was doomed from the start.
The age difference was against us. Facebook is a bright young thing – gregarious and outgoing, a compulsive social networker at ease with an online world in which people share their intimate secrets.
I, on the other hand, am crotchety and suspicious. I guard my privacy and quickly lose patience with the unfathomable protocols of navigating in cyberspace. I have reached that point in life when time becomes precious – too precious by far to waste trying to master the intricacies of a social networking website.
In other words Facebook and I were fundamentally incompatible. Last week, realising we had no future, I broke off the relationship – or, in the sterile language of the digital age, I de-activated my Facebook account.
I admit it was painful. Over long, sleepless nights, I had come to terms with the futility of it all. Facebook, however, remained full of hope and optimism to the end, convinced we could make it work.
She didn’t make the breakup easy. When I clicked the “Deactivate” box on my computer screen, up came photos of all my Facebook “friends”. “Your Facebook friends will miss you,” said the accompanying message reproachfully. “Are you sure you want to deactivate?”
I guiltily averted my eyes from the beaming faces before deciding this was a low-grade form of emotional blackmail and clicked again to confirm. Our unhappy relationship was over.
I would like to think it was an amicable parting. I bear Facebook no ill-will and she, once the initial shock had subsided, seemed open to the prospect of a reconciliation. At least I must assume as much, because only minutes after deactivating my account I received an email from Facebook inviting me to reactivate my account at any time. No hard feelings, no recriminations.
Looking back, I can now see that the relationship was strained from the start.
It came about by accident when my daughter sent me an email inviting me to look at the latest online photos of my grandsons. To do so, I had to click on a link that took me to Facebook.
If only I’d known where that fateful click was going to lead. Facebook wasn’t prepared to let me look at my grandsons without finding out a few things about me first, such as my name, my sex and my date of birth.
I impatiently filled in the necessary details, not realising that in the process, I was creating my own Facebook page. (For the benefit of those sensible enough not to dabble in such things, Facebook is what’s known as a social networking website where you can share messages, photographs and suchlike with “friends” online.)
So fast and slick was Facebook’s act of cyber-seduction that I was entangled in her web without realising what was happening. Within minutes – literally minutes! – I was being bombarded with requests from people wanting to be my Facebook “friends”.
I don’t mean to give the impression that I’m an exceptionally popular or charismatic individual whom everyone is eager to befriend. As flattering as that might be, I suspect the same thing happens to everyone who joins Facebook. They become part of a virtual community in cyberspace and everyone else rushes to welcome them.
Some people may find this charming but I found it oddly unsettling. However, not wanting to seem churlish, I agreed – albeit rather uneasily – to become their friend. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to be friendly with them, you understand; it’s just that I didn’t know where all this was going to lead, or whether I could control it. Besides, I had always been a pathological non-joiner.
How these “friends” instantly knew I was on Facebook is one of those mysteries that only a computer geek can explain. Suffice it to say that receiving all those welcome messages was a bit like joining one of those strange religious sects – the Moonies, perhaps, or Hare Krishna – where you are so overwhelmed by friendliness and goodwill that you couldn’t possibly offend your new-found companions by saying that you’d rather they kept their distance.
People then started putting messages and pictures on something called my “wall”. I was invited to respond but demurred, not wishing to conduct such public conversations. I was aware there were ways of configuring my Facebook “settings” so as to ensure privacy, but really – was it worth the time and effort? I decided it wasn’t, especially since I had other ways of contacting these people if I really wanted to.
I thus resolved to leave my Facebook page in a state of permanent hiatus, as it were, hoping it would die a painless death from benign neglect. People would soon stop visiting my page, I reasoned, if there was nothing to see there. But alas, I was forced to bring matters to a head.
In the process of entering my personal details on Facebook I had been required, as mentioned before, to give my date of birth. Normally I am fussily proper in such circumstances, but on this occasion I lost patience with the hoops I was being asked to jump through and impetuously chose a birth date at random. Sharp-eyed readers of my Facebook profile, including my daughters, subsequently chided me for shaving a couple of decades off my age, but what the heck.
What I hadn’t counted on was my Facebook friends sending me birthday messages. And so it happened that on February 22, the date I had fraudulently entered as my date of birth, I was embarrassed by a string of effusive greetings – five months early.
This presented me with a dilemma. Did I accept the birthday greetings, thus compounding my harmless act of dishonesty, or did I risk offending and humiliating my well-wishers – and possibly alienating them for all time – by telling them they’d been taken in by a bogus date?
I chose to confess my sin, but was deeply embarrassed at having to do so. It was at that point I decided my relationship with Facebook couldn’t simply be allowed to wither on the vine. Who knew what other traps I might fall into in the meantime? No, the relationship had to be terminated.