What’s the Moral of the Fable of Facebook?

Post Date: December 16th, 2010

“Breathe, eat, drink, sleep, defecate, and check Facebook: these make up a significant portion of a very short list of daily activities that you have in common with a quarter of a billion other humans.”

— D.E. Wittkower, “Why Mark Zuckerberg, Not Julian Assange, is Person of the Year”

I’m always trying to find morals in things. I have this writerly need to understand the world in a sentence. I indulge the illusion that somehow, someday, I’ll absolutely, completely understand this person, this place, this situation…It’s addicting. Are all writers control-freak analysts like me?

No disrespect, Aesop, but morals bring the property values down on a piece of literature. Not only should we never tack them like bumper stickers to the tail end of our stories, but we should never write them all over the living room walls, like the previous owner of our house did. Let’s just say BELIEVE IN YOURSELF spoke loud and proud for several months before the realty figured the place would sell better with a new coat of paint. My neighbors told us later that there’s a buried message in our living room.

We must also beware of characters in our stories spewing theme capsules–like Ron Weasley vomiting slugs in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. No one wants to see slugs on the lawn while touring the grounds.

Inserting a moral isn’t wrong; it’s just bad form to leave it there. In fact, moralizing is a necessary step in the writing process. First you discover a truth of human nature or “how things are”; then you own it in a topic sentence, stating this grand idea oh-so-boldly; then you delete the ego and make the idea speak subtly, luminously through scene, character, and image. I don’t always follow that particular sequence, but I get better and better at spotting theme cropping up in a draft–cue final metaphor!–ugly weed you need to pull before the realtor shows with client.

So like my stories, life gets the same once-over (AKA, neurotic contemplation) in search of message. Since life is full of Facebook these days, I continually ask what this form of social networking means. I first wrote to understand it in two stories: “Facing It,” where a man struggling with Asperger’s discovers more than he wants to know about his wife via Facebook, and in “Postal,” which begins with a ten year-old girl pestering her mother for an account. Her mean-girl pal already has a profile, yet one more notch in the bully’s belt. Facebook plays the role of evil technology in both stories, a tool for characters to pursue their worst desires.

One theme I’ve derived personally from my travels through Facebook is that it’s a platform to be childlike or childish. (I thank Seth Godin for the inspiration to see things through this lens.)

Childlike means playing with new ideas, being open to new people, and engaging in dialogue. Childlike is embracing adventure and opportunity and reaching out…attending new events, liking new things, joining new groups. Facebook is a great platform–trampoline–for these activities.

Childlike also means playing school, where we take turns teaching each other. Recently two of my friends engaged in a fascinating political exchange regarding the deficit–people who may never meet except through my status update. I see writers in my local network post on various topics, and suddenly I’m hip to latest news in the publishing industry or have a good summary of a bestseller. I’m more culturally literate than I was seconds before.

If childlike is open, joyful, and curious, how great is it to use Facebook to encourage a fellow writer and to invite one another to book signings?

Like blogging, Facebook extends the conversation when the print you read alone leaves you hungry for dialogue. I read of Laura Maylene Walter’s writing journey at Poets and Writers and now I follow her blog. Every experience worth sharing can now be shared with so many.

If you can do all of the above with the adult wisdom of not revealing too much personal data and not taking an obnoxious, righteous soapbox stance (cue my mistake), then childlike is great.

But it’s hard for us not to cross the line into childish (i.e., Status update: Flossing my teeth…My husband just told me to lose weight…My wife told me to sleep on the couch). It’s hard to craft a political post or an angst-ridden statement without sounding too indignant, too angry, too martyred. Tantrums. Pouts. And once you have done this, consider you have successfully walked into the mall with a megaphone (thanks, Greg, for this perfect analogy). So many of us have forgotten this bio hazard. Maybe because we’re not left standing with the megaphone and everyone staring, we think we got away with it. We didn’t.

Childish is making it all about you, all the time. Try pitching your book incessantly, grasping at fandom without giving anything back. Facebook must be a gift to others in some form, or people won’t read the post. No one wants the sales guy knocking on their front door; why would they want it on the computer or phone? Jane Friedman dissects the problem beautifully here at “When or Why Social Media Fails to Sell Books.”

Childish is staying on Facebook when you should be writing.

Childish is ignoring live, real-time relationship for virtual. Be wary, O introverts, of siren songs, screens luring you away from complex, raw, uncontrolled face time. It’s in the rough shuffle of daily life where we get our best inspiration.

Facebook starts something. It gets wheels turning and forces us to write 420 characters or less. Child’s play, child’s speak. Then comes the question: are we ready to deepen those thoughts, best shaped offline? Slowly, reflectively, sans distraction? That’s adult behavior.

The adult inside me just posted this update: I’m nowhere near done understanding the message of Mark Zuckerberg’s new medium. Stay tuned.

4 Comments

  1. Lyn,
    I enjoyed this post. And, I am a huge proponent of Facebook is for friends & family. I don’t post what I don’t want misconstrued. As a general rule, I usually only post their a few times a month anyway. As to the moralizing of an electronic communication device – lack of face time = lack of personal responsibility. I know that wasn’t in the cards, but it definitely does create some interesting writing material.
    Patti

  2. Thanks, Patti. Yes, FB is massive fodder for stories. We’re living in quite an era–where we live on the cusp of 3G this and 4G that. All of these devices seem to call us away from face time while telling us we’re somehow more connected and it’s all more personal. Yes and no…like all things, FB is best in moderation. I wonder if the lack of personal responsibility some people enjoy online will fade with the phenomenon of us being our own avatars, like Wittkower says. If we all can be traced back to our online profiles, maybe we’re not so free as we thought.

  3. Thanks for this critical commentary on facebook–the moral of the story is still up for grabs. Or maybe the moral of the story is the same that is for everything in life–if we make everything about us then we have diminished who we are to others.

    I have a love/hate thing with facebook myself. I like scrolling through and catching up on things about people that I wouldn’t otherwise have known when I have a minute at my kids’ soccer practice or something. I also use it for my book and find that it helps get the word out about events (I hope I’m not the back character to your cautionary tale about book promoting on steroids!). But, the whole reason I got on facebook in the first place is because a young(er) friend of mine told me that I had to do it if I wanted to minister to youth today at all. I think she is probably right about that. And the moral of that story is that there is always some new thing that creates a bridge or a block (or a little of both) as generations transition in and out of conversation with one another. It’s not about me and what I like, it’s about what’s happening in a larger world that might just want for new kinds of connection.

    I see facebook as a new language, a new way of being in relationship that is a sign and symbol of how the world has changed. And the moral of the story may be somethings never change and the only constant in life is change. Paint over it if you want, but that truth is never far from any of us.

  4. Well said, Marcia. The truth as you say is always there and we must ask ourselves honestly how we wish to be in relationship with one another. If we lack enough “face time” (wow, a clunky, ugly phrase for time together!) and indulge in too much FB time, then…

    You are a great example of how to use FB properly. The blogosphere advising authors warns against those who blast their fans and friends with sales pitches rather than sharing information. The new form of networking means we share more information freely–that’s part of the job of advertising ourselves online.












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