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Offpiste: a fortnightly series in which academics step outside their area of expertise

I poke dead people: the paradox of Facebook

Deborah Rogers ponders the power of the social-networking site - even when its users have departed the 'real' world - and finds there is no rest for narcissism

Anne Marie Kessler is resetting her relationship status to "single", Betsy Rose is eating a burrito but thinking about dumplings, Rob Adams is scheduling a colon-oscopy, and me, I'm finally going to the party. Although still very much a wallflower, I became privy several weeks ago to such information by drinking the Kool-Aid and joining Facebook, the iconic, free social-networking website. Here you can learn all kinds of random facts about others - and about yourself. For example, I took the Which Leading Lady Are You Quiz, only to find out that I am Bette Davis. Who knew? (Actually, it surprised no one.) And you can post not only up-to-the-moment thoughts, but also videos and photos of everything from the burgers at Nicky's Cruisin' Diner to the party last Saturday night. (You know, the one I wasn't invited to.)

If you haven't arrived yet, let me set the table. Even as it facilitates our ability to connect, the collective social-networking culture changes our way of thinking about everything from friendship to death. And not in a good way. As a technological medium that fetishises individualism, Facebook invites disaster.

Perhaps this is why Facebook may have finally jumped the shark. The surest indication of Facebook's impending doom is the enthusiasm of my demographic - Baby Boomer professionals - which is usually the kiss of death. We are joining Facebook in droves, and arriving just in time for the last dance.

As Facebook's fastest-growing cohort, we are reconnecting with each other in a way that resembles nothing so much as archaeology, using social websites to excavate and classify friends. The Top Friend Generator on MySpace (which allows you to rank your best, second-best and 40th-best friends) distinguishes the maid of honour from the bridesmaids and alerts everyone when you are no longer numero uno. Think adolescent social hierarchies.

To boost your number of friends (and we all know our number), consider boarding a friend-whore train. (This function generates thousands of incoming friend requests.) And if you're going this far, why not pimp your profile? Emphasise the version of yourself you want to flaunt with "Pieces of Flair" (virtual buttons advertising your interests) like "Flair Therapy" and "Hair Flair" or with tattoos like "Queen Bitch". The quirkier, the better.

As ego-gratifying as becoming a "friend whore" may be, keep in mind that your number of ersatz Facebook friends may be in inverse proportion to your number of "real" friends. I have friends I don't know at all and friends I hate. A Facebook "friend" is not necessarily your friend. And above all, your mother is not your friend.

When my son left for university earlier this year, I naively thought we could keep in touch through Facebook. He was horrified when I tried to "friend" him. (Yes. Complain all you want, but "friend" has become a verb.) What was I thinking?

My daughter was more receptive. In fact, I was the one who eventually had to "unfriend" her. Too much information! (And yes, "unfriend" and its variation, "defriend", have also become verbs, defined by the Urban Dictionary as passive-aggressive bitch-slapping.) What was I thinking?

It must be time to join Facebook's Moms-who-sometimes-need-to-go-out-with- girlfriends-and-drink Secret Society. Such affiliations are another way of being pulled through the looking glass. Besides joining high school or college networks on Facebook, you can join interest groups such as I Flip my Pillow Over to Get to the Cold Side and - I kid you not - Je pratique la sodomie de preference sans lubrifiant (which is best left untranslated).

While all this is not without its charms, from my ancient perspective, it seems that computerising a process like social interaction is no guarantee of improvement. In fact, as scholars from Howard Segal and Edward Tenner to Paul Virilio have argued, innovations foster unforeseen consequences that may be worse than the problems they were meant to solve or mitigate. Technological advances inevitably "bite back". Reflecting the elastic nature of the internet, the paradox of Facebook (and similar sites such as MySpace and Bebo) is that, like every other technology, digital communication is attended by an accident. The crisis here may be the dizzying change in our social interactions, which are becoming increasingly fragmented, isolating and disembodied.

Sure, Facebook enhances communication. But social-networking websites provide solitary ways to be engaged. As my son puts it, on Facebook we're posting to the gaze. Since someone may (or may not) be watching, we have the sense that we are in company, even if nobody's home. Facebook is a double-edged sword that isolates at the same time as it (over)exposes. And the potential for embarrassment is impressive.

Facebook redefines what it means to connect to each other and provides a huge audience for self-absorption. Nothing is insignificant. Everyone wants to know everything about us, all the time. In the minutiae that mark the triteness of an inherently boring everyday life, we may recognise our own situation. Facebook's fixation on individualism makes ordinary people feel important enough to warrant such attention - or inconsequential enough to need to document every aspect of their existence. The trope for this exhibitionism may be outing ourselves - and everyone we know.

Alone in front of a computer, we become so desperate for intimacy that we encourage a type of banal dialogue and detail-bombing we would never abide in person.

Or perhaps we have become a world of voyeurs, seeking any kind of diversion, anxious to learn the latest about the laundry that has been washed, the sandwich that has been made, the music heard, the chip dipped, the nail clipped.

The symbiotic relationship between Facebook's electronic method of communication and its content has unintended consequences that are changing not only interpersonal dynamics, but also our values, norms and rituals. Turns out Marshall McLuhan's famous equation about the medium being the message may have been right after all. The characteristics of the digital medium itself may fracture society. Consider, for example, the perception of death on the social-networking websites that are silently influencing the way we communicate with each other, dead or alive.

On Facebook, I poke dead people. Many of the departed remain on the website only to appear (via automated applications) every so often, out of the blue. Perpetually connected, the deceased issue annual reminders of their birthdays. Alas, to date, attempts to "poke" (or virtually goose) them have been unsuccessful.

As this aberration may suggest, social websites maintain their optimistic outlook, even when the party's over. You may be dead, but not to worry. Discouraging us from confronting the finality of death, Facebook allows us to continue our relationships with the deceased, an attractive proposition in a society struggling with end-of-life issues.

Heath, Jade and Natasha, as well as ordinary individuals, inhabit memorial pages, where self-designated "fans" post (mostly) nice remarks about the departed or communicate with them directly. Insisting on their virtual existence, quippy notes are addressed to the deceased - in the present tense: "Hope ur okay up there." "Are you having fun playing footsie?" "Yo! Whaddup, Dude?" "WHOO SEXY!!!"

These casual or ungrammatical present-tense constructions deny the fact. Heartfelt sentiments ("I will always love you") and advice ("Do whatcha want." "Enjoy the view from heaven!") compete with inside jokes ("Hope ur staying dizzle!"). Other - mostly inappropriate - comments from strangers ("I didn't know u. LOL") argue for a creepy audience that is trolling these popular sites.

Communicating in this way with dead people may not be due to a belief in the afterlife, but rather to unprecedented narcissism. The all-about-me Facebook cohort needs to keep talking. Never mind that there can be no answer.

This superficial insistence on virtual immortality is not tethered to any considered religious context. The death-lite approach of electronic media, which takes the sting out of our idea of passing, may have influenced the recent copycat suicides of several teenagers from the same town in South Wales. One policeman told a reporter from The Times that the teens were motivated by their desire for cool memorial websites.

Other suicides connected to social websites have been inspired by cyber-cruelty. For example, a 13-year-old girl, Megan Meier, committed suicide after her "boyfriend" (impersonated by a friend's mother on MySpace) threatened to end their "relationship".

These incidents reflect the pathological potential of online social networking. They also suggest that the medium fails to allay our sense of despair and loneliness. For example, several months ago, Paul Zolezzi, an aspiring actor and model, hanged himself on the monkey bars in a Brooklyn playground. He had posted his suicide note on Facebook, where he said that he was "born in San Francisco, became a shooting star over everywhere, and ended his life in Brooklyn ... And couldn't have asked for more." On Facebook, even suicide notes sound flippant. In fact, apparently assuming Zolezzi was joking, a friend commented on his Facebook page: "Are you dying? Or just staying in Brooklyn?"

Lacking reflection and nuance, Facebook's abbreviated style does not allow us to address the Grim Reaper with due seriousness or respect. As it pulls the shroud off mortality, the Facebook spin on grief and loss panders to our phobias, helps us repress our fears, and prevents us from dealing with death - or anything else - in a deep, genuine and authentic way. Although it may make any sustained psychological or spiritual discussion difficult, even Facebook cannot make death go away. It may, however, rob death of its dignity and discourage us from facing mortality in a way that allows the certainty of death to ennoble and enrich life.

Facebook's quick, condensed, easy, breezy posts inhibit the complicated and lengthy process of grieving in particular, and of thinking, communicating and writing in general. The relentlessly upbeat, snappy signature style of Facebook culture is the digital equivalent of soundbites.

As a medium that affects us in the way that McLuhan saw the medium of wheels as extending legs, or, more to the point, the medium of language as extending thoughts by communicating them to other people, Facebook initiates unintended consequences or messages. Introducing innovations that disembody interpersonal dynamics, it is changing the public attitude not only towards death and mourning, but also towards friendship and interaction. The stark immediacy of the form affects our very processes of thought and imposes different ways of seeing, of understanding and of being in the world. Facebook is a medium whose very characteristics distort relationships by creating an environment and a conversation that is as elusive, transient and disembodied as death itself.

If, by now, the party seems more like a wake, you can always commit "Facebook suicide", ending your virtual life by deleting your account. Facebook has, however, made it difficult to remove yourself completely since Facebook, Inc. may still access your information. This has prompted the question from no less an authority than Facebooksuicide.org: "If you delete your Facebook profile, will you still exist?"

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