Sometime last year I joined Facebook. And then I forgot all about it because it was too confusing to me. Then some months later, I logged back in and began playing around with it. Well, the rest is history. I'm completely and 100% hooked! Not only does it have Instant Messaging, my favorite feature, but I've also reconnected with sooooooooooo many people from my past: Mary-Beth, my partner in crime from high school; Kathy, an old co-worker of mine from my all time favorite job (IMI Systems - had to give that shout out!); Ronnie, my childhood neighbor growing up. The list goes on. Me and Mary-Beth actually got together over Thanksgiving after 13 years apart. Thanks, Facebook!
I'm not much of a phone person. Never have been really. I prefer email to the phone any day of the year. And now, Facebook is right up there with email. And lately it seems that Facebook has become all the rave. Everyone's on it. Everyone's talking about it. Just about everyday I find someone new or they find me.
Retreating behind the digital veil started long before the Internet existed, with the advent of answering machines. "People would call a phone when they knew the other person wasn't available to pick up," says Charles Steinfield, a professor at Michigan State University who co-authored a peer-reviewed study called "The Benefits of Facebook 'Friends'". "It enabled them to convey information without forcing them to interact."
Perhaps this is the key. Jenny's online sociability and offline silence probably has less to do with digital retreating than time management. Facebook offers e-mail, IM and photo sharing in what Neill calls the "one-stop shopping" of online interaction. "It's not surprising to me that it's replacing other forms of communication," says Steinfield.
It's still surprising to me, however, this combination of Orwell and Wall-E that has humans watching each other through computer screens and socializing in quasi-isolation. Neill says Facebook has brought her closer to her already close friends, those she has little time to see because of kids and work. "I know more about them now than I did when I was in regular contact with them," she says.
I believe her. But I can't help wondering: If Facebook for some reason suddenly ceased to exist, would people like Jenny revert to phone calls or visits, or would they lose touch altogether?
I probably won't find out. Instead, I gave in. Last week, I sent Jenny a note — through Facebook, naturally — requesting a get-together. She accepted. When we met up, it seemed we were closer than I'd thought. I knew about Jenny's son's part in the school play, about her sledding expedition and what she'd cooked for that big birthday dinner — what we'd be sharing if we still lived in the same neighborhood and talked regularly, the inane and intimate details that add up to life. That constant stream of data is some digital form of closeness. "A beautiful blossoming garden of information about your friends," as Neill puts it, adding, "I don't see how that can be a bad thing."