The other night I friended the first boy who ever kissed me. Five minutes later my sister’s high school boyfriend friended me. In real life, I’m a staid 51-year-old who spends my days mostly alone, writing at my computer. But ever since social networking became my favorite form of procrastination, I’ve felt as flighty and distracted as a 14-year-old.
I’m part of the AARP posse that has been eating into Facebook’s demographic pie since 2007. That’s when the network, launched in 2004 to help college students connect, opened its ranks to anyone with an email address. Today, according to company statistics, most of Facebook’s 175 million active users are still undergrads. But the fastest-growing segment is folks over 35. I’ve tracked the trend in the growing number of wrinkle-cream ads appearing on my homepage. I’ve seen it in the increasing proportion of middle-aged friends on my list. And I have felt it instinctively, as my Facebook identity has evolved with the changing environment online.
Like lots of my peers, I joined Facebook as a mom. A year ago December, my kids were home from college and they touted Facebook as a convenient way for us to keep in touch. It is. Now we no longer have to ask Sophie to send us photos of her apartment or track Sam down to figure out he’s off playing Ultimate Frisbee. Being Facebook friends with our children has also made us privy to info they weren’t sharing directly. When we’d moved from Burlington to Providence six months earlier, neither one had complained — much. We got a different message when we saw a colorful bit of graffiti Sophie left on Sam’s wall. It said, “Rhode Island: the stupidest state in the union.”
It wasn’t as if we’d stumbled on a photo of her flashing for beads or doing beer bongs. And yes, it was their idea to grant us this window on their lives. But reading what she’d written to her brother still felt, well, invasive. And it brought up the issue of how hard we should be looking. Did Sam actually want me perusing pictures of his late-night parties? And did I really want to see them? Should I be reading exchanges between Sophie and her friends? Don’t they deserve a little privacy? Of course they do. And when they want it, she reminds me, they don’t post on Facebook.
Still, what might not have felt like too much information to them sometimes made me a little squeamish, like when someone carries on a loud personal phone call in public. I can’t resist listening in, but I also sort of wish they wouldn’t let me. And what about the person on the other end, who didn’t consent to being listened in on, but whose voice is clearly coming through the phone’s speaker? That’s how I felt about my kids’ friends, whose photo albums and conversations with my offspring were now available to me.
One rule I set for myself early on: If one of my children’s friends — or my friends’ children — invited me to be their friend, I’d accept. But I would never initiate such a request. That would have been unfair, like your boss asking you out — saying no can be awkward. Besides, the idea of soliciting friendships from young people felt creepy and pathetic.
Then again, maybe I was making way too big a deal of this. When one of Sophie’s high school friends wrote on her wall, “I see your mom is stalking you,” I wasn’t sure how to take it. But before I’d had a chance to overthink the situation, this same kid sent me a friend request. Now I could see pictures of his classmates, follow his academic career and read random messages from his buddies. I was glad to have been legitimized, but I really wasn’t all that interested. I preferred to play with people my own age.
Human interaction was a high priority for me, since I’d recently moved to a new state and didn’t have a job. I became obsessed with driving up my “friends” number. But because I was too proud or shy to encourage my actual friends to join Facebook, I had to find acquaintances who had already signed up.
I studied my friends’ friend lists, and then the lists of my friends’ friends’ friends. It was like scanning a crowd for a familiar face. When I spotted someone I knew — and didn’t actively hate — I’d click on “Add as Friend,” and wait for my request to be accepted. I also started randomly typing whatever names came to mind into the Facebook search box. When I found myself analyzing the friend lists of my therapist’s children, I knew I’d crossed the line.
My former colleagues at Seven Days jumped on the Facebook bandwagon fairly early — and all at once, it seemed. I could easily imagine the buzz around the office that day. Sitting at my lonely desk, I could easily imagine the office, period. It was nice to know that up in Vermont they were also logging on to their computers, checking the national news, craving lunch, watching the weather, planning the weekend.
Clicking away from my writing to check Facebook was like taking a chatty stroll to the water cooler. Except that it didn’t give me a chance to stretch my legs. Also, it was way too easy. And enticing. Who knew I would be so fascinated by my former letter carrier’s menu choices, my ex-neighbors’ potty-training trials and pictures of my daughter’s friend’s mother’s summer vacation?
Facebook is weirdly compelling, like a reality show that runs 24/7, and in which you not only know the characters — you are one. Plus, it’s interactive. When my old gym buddy stressed about her fifth grader requesting Axe deodorant, I was right there with my older-mother advice. When my dishwasher broke, I received repair advice from sympathizers in several states.
While my network of Vermonters was expanding, I was also meeting people in person in Providence. People I liked and who seemed to like me. People who had been to my home and invited me to theirs. People I could turn to in an emergency. But people who didn’t do Facebook. For several sad months, the heading at the top of my friends list reminded me, “You have no friends in Providence.” I felt bullied. Happily, I got over it. For people like me who have lived in a lot of different places, the real appeal of Facebook isn’t collecting friends you see face-to-face but connecting with those you can’t. And for those of us who have lived a long time, it can also provide a powerful link to the past.
Lately my list has been filling with a new category of friends: people I lost contact with 30 or 40 years ago. Now I log on to Facebook not just as a mother or a colleague, but also as the child I once was. In this ever-expanding virtual reunion, I can clarify my memories, find the features of my old friends in the faces of their children, read further chapters in life stories I’d forgotten, get over old grudges and maybe even reestablish some relationships in real life.
This second-childhood phase has its own challenges. When a high school classmate I only dimly remembered friended me, I readily accepted. Then I read her profile. Unlike all my other Facebook friends, she identified herself as a Republican. And while my other friends were joining groups such as, “1,000,000 women against Sarah Palin,” this woman belonged to “God Bless George W. Bush” and “Fox News Rocks.”
Stunned, I suddenly became more political. My Prop 8 bashings drew appreciative feedback from other old friends, but no reaction from my token Republican, who was busily posting updates on her Christmas preparations. When a Burlington friend linked to a hilarious video of George W. Bush and Tony Blair singing, “We Fuck the World,” I snagged the clip for my profile and waited for my Fox-loving friend’s horrified response.
Still nothing. At all. After a few days I realized that GOP Girl’s annoying tree-trimming photos had stopped appearing on my news feed. Had her computer crashed? Had she crashed? I missed her and I was worried. Then it occurred to me: My campaign to out-cool her had paid off, but not in the way I’d anticipated. She’d dropped me from her friend list. The funniest part? It hurt.
Hanging out with people you knew in adolescence can bring out the adolescent in you. On a group devoted to nostalgia for my hometown in New Jersey, I found a photo of my neighborhood park. I commented that I’d had my first “date” there, in fifth grade. “Was he a gentleman?” a guy who is Facebook friends with both me and my “boyfriend” posted. And then he added the perfect schoolyard zinger. “Did he teach you any FRENCH?” Around the Seven Days office, I delighted in double entendres and dished out off-color comments with the best of them. But reading this juvenile taunt from someone I last saw at high school graduation, I became as, er, tongue-tied as a teenager.
Age isn’t just fluid on Facebook. It’s also relative. After considerable effort, my husband and I finally convinced his parents to let us set them up with an account. It’s an easy way to keep in touch, we told them, parroting the pitch our kids had used on us. Knowing that these octogenarian users would be even more concerned about online privacy than we had been, we assured them that they wouldn’t have to reveal any personal information, or even use their real names. They agreed, and even log on now and then to see what their grandchildren are up to. But the idea of sharing trivial details of their days online just doesn’t appeal.
My aunt has taken it a little further. She and I have been playing Scrabble continuously since the summer. She comments on activity taking place on family members’ pages, but always through the more traditional channels of phone calls and email. Like my in-laws, she’s lurking below the radar — without a profile picture and under an assumed name. My elders’ hesitation around social networking can be frustrating, but helping them navigate Facebook also has an upside: It makes me feel savvy and young.
Ruth Horowitz is a former editor at Seven Days.