Facing up to the darker side of Facebook

I’m not so sure I like my friends anymore.

I used to like them -- honest. We’d have lunch, talk on the phone or exchange e-mails, and they all seemed normal enough. But then came Facebook, and I was introduced to a sad fact: Many of my friends have dark sides that they had kept from me. Sure, there were times these dark sides would surface -- after too many drinks, say -- but apologies and denials would follow, and all seemed healthy . . . or at least acceptable.

Today my friends trumpet the more unpleasant aspects of their personalities via Facebook status updates. No longer hidden or disavowed, they’re thrown in my face like infomercials on late-night TV -- unavoidable and endless advertisements for the worst aspects of their personalities.

Take Fred. If you were to have lunch with him, you’d find him warm, down-to-earth and self-effacing. Read his status updates and you realize he’s an insufferable, food-obsessed bore. He’d pause on his way to save a drowning man to sip a cup of volcanic coffee -- and then write about it. (Fred’s not his real name, of course. None of these names is real. It’s bad enough I dislike my friends. I don’t want them to dislike me too.)

Take Andy. You won’t find a smarter CEO anywhere, but in tough economic times, he’s a CEO without a company to run. So he plays Mafia Wars on Facebook. He’s doing well -- level 731, whatever that means. And thanks to Facebook and his status updates, I know he’s playing about 18 hours a day. Andy, you’ve run four companies -- and this is how you spend your downtime? What happened to golf? What happened to getting another job?

And then there’s Arty. He’s smart, he’s funny, he’s competent. On Facebook, however, he’s a teenager, constantly threatening to drive drunk or blow stuff up with fireworks. He also suffers from self- induced stomach ailments. He posts pictures of a huge and dangerous meal, predicts the worst and then documents the fallout in a follow-up post. The acronym TMI was invented for Arty’s gastric-distress updates.


Liz is positive the H1N1 vaccine will kill us all and that we should avoid it. Chris likes to post at least 20 times a day on every site he can find, so I get to read his thoughts twice, once on Facebook and once on Twitter. Ed can’t go to bed at night without letting us all know what he’s accomplished that day -- which is usually the same thing he accomplished the day before and will accomplish the next day.

In real life, I don’t see these sides of people. Face to face, my friends edit themselves, showing me their best. They’re nice, smart people, and there’s a give-and-take to normal conversations. They don’t talk incessantly about their work. They don’t point fingers with Glenn Beck bluster or sound like crazy callers on talk radio. But face to Facebook, my friends are like a blind date gone horribly wrong, one in which you sit there listening while the person on the other side of the table blathers on, pretty much forgetting you exist and not always making the best impression.

And yet I’m hooked on Facebook. I sign on several times a day. Facebook is like hearing your neighbors bicker through a thin apartment wall or watching characters on reality TV self-destruct. The voyeuristic appeal is addicting. I don’t want to know the dumb side of my friends, just like I don’t really care about Jon and Kate Gosselin’s marital problems. But I can’t get any of it out of my life.

Sometimes, my friends aren’t stupid, they’re just boring, keeping all of us abreast of the minutiae of their day. “I’m tired,” they’ll write. That’s it. That’s the whole update. (Hmm, maybe more sleep and less Mafia Wars, I think, but I keep my hands off the keyboard.) And they egg each other on. “I have a headache,” someone will write. “Why don’t you take some Motrin?” suggests a commenter. (Sounds like a good idea to me; maybe I should second it.) Interior thoughts become exterior on a regular basis. “Today I’m glad to be alive,” someone will post, even though they rarely talk like that. Then others chime in: “Me, too.” Often, all is well in the land of Facebook. Mundane but well.

I’ve yet to post a status update myself, or comment on anyone else’s. Is there any reason to think I’d come off as any smarter? Any less self-absorbed? Any less boring? It’s not so much that I censor myself when I talk to my friends, but I generally make a conscious effort not to alienate them.

Still, I’m left with a dilemma. Who is my real friend? Is it the Liz I have lunch with . . . or the anti-vaccine lunatic on Facebook? Is it the guy who understands business better than anyone I know . . . or the case of arrested development who repelled the Yakuza in Mafia Wars? Is it the Fred I can grab a sandwich with . . . or the Fred who weeps if he’s at a party and the wine isn’t up to his standards?

I know too much about them. Lunch with them is like meeting Eliot Spitzer and trying to keep the hooker out of my mind.

And what do they think of me? The guy who lurks online, afraid to reveal the simplest fact about himself while judging others and making fun of their comments? I probably don’t seem like much of a prize either.

Stephen Randall is the deputy editor of Playboy.