A Death on Facebook
October 13, 2010 8:22 PM   Subscribe

Kate Bolick tells a story of Facebook voyeurism.
posted by reenum (16 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
What she's talking about was not voyeurism, but something closer to living vicariously through someone else. She was invited to look at the FB page, wasn't looking for scandal or something sordid, as far as I can tell.
posted by raysmj at 8:54 PM on October 13, 2010

I think I understand.  As I pass through and out of this world a ghost, my only remaining connection the voyeurism of lives lived via Facebook photo updates.  For some of us, its the only way we still exist, as passive observers of other people, our purpose apparently to just be silent witnesses.  Sometimes I do just as the writer, start typing a comment only to delete it because it seems so forced, unnatural, out of place.  These people don't know I'm watching, so to avoid the awkwardness I have to stay silent.

Just as I sit in a bar, alone, the wash of voices of vivacious people around me turning into something like not-language, reminding me how distant and not-there I am... I see the events and happenings of acquaintances and co-workers play out in small snippets on Facebook, reminding me of how everyone else lives.  I see them, but they don't see me, and I guess that's how it's meant to be.

I'd like to connect to a person, but how can you?  Facebook is a voyeur's tool, seeing into the lives of people who otherwise don't want you there.  Someone once said Facebook is life support for weak friendships; I think it's also a placebo for those of us with no friendships.
posted by hincandenza at 9:16 PM on October 13, 2010 [18 favorites]

I'd like to connect to a person, but how can you? Facebook is a voyeur's tool, seeing into the lives of people who otherwise don't want you there. Someone once said Facebook is life support for weak friendships; I think it's also a placebo for those of us with no friendships.

I routinely go through phases where I chop away all my friends on Facebook to the ones that I keep talking to. When I started doing this, two years ago, it was because I was at a college without many friends, and the impulse to live my life in my dorm room staring outward was too much. So I limited it to people I actually talked to, and convinced myself that this was an acceptable extension of the conversations I was already having.

But recently I've been having another sort of impulsive Facebook reaction. Instead of removing people I don't talk to, I begin talking to them. First I start commenting on things, then posting on their walls. Every single time I've gotten a positive reaction. Some of those comments have led to us doing things offline. Some of them haven't, but I feel more comfortable randomly inserting myself in those lives.

I started doing this because it's what I've been doing in real life anyway. I know that feeling you describe of being in the bar, listening, detached. That describes the way I've been in most social situations my entire life. I came out of middle school pretty convinced that nobody would ever want me as a friend, or in a conversation, so I did the polite thing and abstained. But the moment I started talking to people I realized most of them don't view me in the same light as those 11-year-olds I knew in middle school.

Fact of the matter is, people would rather have friends than not have them. Sure, everybody hits a point at which they feel you're intruding on their life, but the bar's usually pretty high. When I start talking to people I'm pretty incapable of stopping, and that hasn't stopped people from liking me.

The irony, I think, is that I learned how to hold good conversations by posting a lot on web sites. When you're listening to somebody, you ask them the sorts of questions that get them telling stories about themselves; people like talking, and they like when your questions are ones that form out of genuine interest, so unless you're completely bored with a person you've probably got things to ask that they want you to ask. And when you talk, you don't keep yourself vaguely and cheerfully bland. You say interesting things, and you say things of substance, and in doing so you make other people more comfortable to say things they might otherwise feel impolite in saying.

It was wonderful realizing that not only do people want to hear from you, they want to hear more from you than you might even feel comfortable saying. It's not impolite for you to do so. It's exactly how you indicate to somebody that you want to be their friend in the first place. Grade school norms be damned! You hit an age where you want interesting, unexpected friendships, and from anybody that's willing to offer one.
posted by Rory Marinich at 9:43 PM on October 13, 2010 [35 favorites]

"Voyeurism" implies looking in on someone or some writing or photos/video of a person who would rather all of that, his or her whole life even, be considered private. It does not equal, by definition, passive viewing, or looking at people in a detached, social science-ey sort of way. I don't know why the author chooses to use that word, except to make the piece sound sexier. Maybe she's guilt ridden?

Look, I've seen a couple of people delete comments from other friends (including me) on FB, innocuous things, so they don't always want to hear from others. But people invite other people to FB because they want to be seen in some way, even if they don't necessarily want to interact with their FB friends. Maybe they're just carefully tending self-promotional gardens in deleting comments, or sending signals to others. Who the hell knows? It's just like the off-line "real" world in that way, or at least the intensively image-conscious American one.
posted by raysmj at 10:12 PM on October 13, 2010 [2 favorites]

Disturbing, intriguing and full of thoughts that normally lurk under the surface of our collective minds. Fascinating stuff.
posted by malusmoriendumest at 2:44 AM on October 14, 2010

There was once (maybe still is?) a community on Livejournal called fake_lj_deaths. One day, someone posted me up on there. I had posted to a science community asking about the toxicity of a particular drug - nothing more dramatic than that, but it made posters suspicious, and they were right to be.

What happened was this: a user somewhere in the US saw it and contacted the police. The police came to my house, they searched my bag, the policeman 'arrested' me which was the precursor to being taken to hospital. On the way, they had to deal with a man who had fallen over drunk at a bus stop; even in my confused and distressed state, wondering how I'd got to be there and wondering whether this was what 'rock bottom' means, it struck me as amusing that I had to sit in the police van and patiently wait while the policeman shook the miscreant's urine off his shoe. They took me to hospital and assessed me; I was given toast with lolly sticks to butter it with as nobody gets so much as a butter knife in the mad hospital. I went home. There was still nobody in. The cat was still sleeping on my bed. It was as though nothing had happened.

What happened while this was happening: someone who had no interaction with me anywhere else on the site posted 'this one's threatening to take an overdose!' to fake_lj_deaths. As I was taken to hospital, people who had no idea of my username, let alone me, were speculating on whether it was 'a cry for attention'. I discovered it later when I had an e-mail from someone saying 'I saw this and was wondering what had happened?' - while I was working out how to spread butter with a small piece of wood this stranger posted 'Looks like we've got a real one here folks.' It takes some skill to make excess drama out of someone being (technically) arrested, driven to a secure unit in a van smelling of tramp wee and returning home to wonder what the fuck is to be done now, but somehow they managed it.

I've made a lot of great friends through being online, and often through being somewhat too candid about my life and the things happening in it, but it was that that made me realise how easy it is to forget that the internet is made up of real people.

(And I reject most of the Facebook invitations from people I knew at school. Hi, person who picked my diary lock and read it out to the class when we were 12! Let me know what you think we might possibly have in common.)
posted by mippy at 3:31 AM on October 14, 2010 [7 favorites]

It's weird though how intimate and yet also not it is - a good place to discuss annoyance at a bad sandwich or a hard day at work, yet not for family matters or medical problems. My oldest nephew argues with his girlfriend through Facebook all the time - I'd never remotely think of it as an appropriate place for That Kind of Thing.
posted by mippy at 3:34 AM on October 14, 2010

(And I reject most of the Facebook invitations from people I knew at school. Hi, person who picked my diary lock and read it out to the class when we were 12! Let me know what you think we might possibly have in common.)

I do precisely the same thing. I'm actually considering un-friending some "former friends" who were actually quite nice to me, but then started doing that slow-fade of not really spending time with me any more; they don't interact with me in real life (and I've TRIED reaching out to them in real life), but they keep me as friends on Facebook.

For THOSE people, I've realized that Facebook is "a way to hold someone at a distance when I'm too chicken to tell them that that's what I want to do." I'd much prefer they be honest about having moved on rather than letting fucking Facebook do it for them.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:27 AM on October 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

Basically, if I know them and/or want to speak to them again, then I friend them. I rarely go on it but I'm not interested that X 'is avin anotha baby gona call im Jayden-Lee'. Never really fitted in with people I wen tot school with - different ambitions, different choices - and having to do it as an adult seems a bit depressing. Which probably makes me sound like a snob, but, plus ca change.
posted by mippy at 4:47 AM on October 14, 2010

I deactivated my facebook account a couple of months ago (right after that places nonsense was announced). Just the other day I got an email from a guy I knew in high school who, when he no longer saw me on facebook, was concerned that Something Might Be Wrong.
posted by device55 at 7:42 AM on October 14, 2010

The 'Dude and I had a set of "couple friends" (you know - we all hung out as a group of couples, but didn't really hang out singly) who moved out of town, and I watched their marriage break up over Facebook. It was odd - I could have picked up the phone and called, but it was clear that they didn't really mean to share this much of themselves - that it was partially accidental.
posted by muddgirl at 7:45 AM on October 14, 2010

Facebook is a strange thing indeed - it allows you to know much more about people than you otherwise could, and sometimes I'm put in a weird position of should-I-pretend-not-to-know-this? I fully understand why people use the terms "Facebook stalking" or "voyeurism" - a lot of the stuff put up on the Facebook pages of my more distant friends are not meant for me, though I can see them. And it is kind of weird when someone you hardly know mentions a concert you went to, tagged in pictures 10 pages back. Pretending to not be a Facebook-creeper is the newest polite social fiction.
posted by fermezporte at 7:49 AM on October 14, 2010

Facebook is for loose connections, really, but it's best when combined with occasionally seeing people. My 25th high school reunion is this month and I'm considering going, just for curiosity's sake, and the few school folks who have friended me on FB will be the ones I can carry on an actual conversation with because I have some idea of what's going on in their lives.
posted by immlass at 7:52 AM on October 14, 2010

The blurring of the intimate/public boundary is the very best thing about Facebook!
In my experience, it has turned more acquaintances into "real friends" than the other way around, because it greatly simplifies the getting-to-know-you period.
Now, when I meet someone new, rather than having to face rejection by asking them out for coffee (too familiar too soon) or hope to bump into them somewhere else in the future, I can breezily add them on Facebook. It provides a way in, a relationship gradient that's hard to replicate in "real life".
posted by Freyja at 9:07 AM on October 14, 2010 [4 favorites]

I do what the author does. I have looked up exes to find out that they are all married with children (one makes me bittersweet. I'm happy he's found someone nice and is happy but our relationship ended horribly and it makes me sad that perhaps I could have had a happier life). I've looked at 2 friends who no longer speak to me due to a misunderstanding that just went off the deep end and also see our mutual friend has blocked me from viewing them. Then there is the usual people I'm friends with but don't get their status updates anymore.

I find FB highly emotional when used in those terms. I can see how she got caught up in it and I can see why she didn't know how to react. It certainly doesn't help for closure when things go poorly in real life.
posted by stormpooper at 1:25 PM on October 14, 2010

What I think is interesting is that the author, by writing this piece, she has invited us to share in mourning someone's death that we don't know either. Facebook can be faceless and so can readers.

Not at all a bad thing, but the world can be very disconnected at times.
posted by everyday_naturalist at 11:58 PM on October 14, 2010

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