Enter your email address:

Delivered by FeedBurner

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

What's the Moral of the Fable of Facebook?

"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.