Volume 78 - Number 51 / May 27 - June 2 , 2009
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933


Facebook as a message in a bottle, but cyber-style

By Sonya Sobieski

How many Facebook friends do we need? One could ask the same about subway musicians, chatty neighbors, cursing indigents, graffiti artists, police on horseback, model-gorgeous waiters, churlish deliverymen, sidewalk Italian ice sellers. We don’t need any of them, not for survival, but clearly we value them, because here we are. In a crazy time of life, I found Facebook a serendipitous boon, in ways I think any New Yorker can understand.

A theater writer with a culturally snobbish streak, I was skeptical of joining this latest chain-letter-like craze. My motivation, to gain access to baby pictures, was decidedly frumpy. Before childbirth, I wouldn’t have cared a whit for cherubic cuteness. Now a first-time parent at 36, I cooed openly, wept easily and craved interaction with those who didn’t drool. The Stuyvesant Town parks don’t open until 9 a.m., and pushing a stroller around the East Village — teeming with bar crowds every night but desolate after dawn — isn’t the best way to meet people. After my husband went back to work, 12 hours might pass in which my only adult conversation might be with a passerby whose dog wanted petting. Thank goodness for the Tompkins Square Park dog run, but really, I needed more reliable companionship.

Even when attained, dialogue could be distressingly Hallmark-like. At the 14th Street Y’s drop-in mothers’ group, the other participants nodded in agreement when one said that having a baby had changed her, had made her understand “what was really important.” Having a baby had made me understand much less. From my fifth-floor window, I watched the people below in amazement: How had they all made it to adulthood? Playground interactions with other parents were often brief, as we ran after our respective offspring — or disheartening.

“Yes, the doctor said the pacifier had to go, so we broke him of it, in a week,” said the mother of a pre-speech infant, as my daughter wailed articulately for her own pacifier. I was ashamed to admit I fed her non-organic chicken. In the playground, sugar, sleep, cartoons — any topic was a minefield of dissension.

Immediately upon creating a Facebook account, my inbox was bombarded by “Friend requests.” Friends! Except, of course, most weren’t. Facebook can seem like a school reunion in which those who barely gave the time of day years ago are suddenly overjoyed to see you. Still, you’d think I would have accepted every one. Instead, the starving man got fussy about his food. Semantics played a part in my scrutiny — after all, once an English major, always an English major. I wondered how I could “confirm as a friend” someone who was an acquaintance, at most. We should at least have gone out for coffee or spoken more than two consecutive sentences.

Pride was another factor. I didn’t want to be a meaningless trophy on an already-cluttered wall. One requester’s profile revealed 286 friends — a serial friend collector. I sighed and clicked “ignore.” Some months later I saw an Off Off Broadway play the man wrote which blew me away. Now I did feel a genuine connection. I sent a Friend request, and he confirmed.

How like a Manhattanite, to re-evaluate a relationship based on the realization, “But wait, this guy has talent!” (I suppose it is a more noble criterion than money or beauty.) However, the dramatist was not particularly deft when composing his “status updates,” unlike, say, the witty young actor who one day posted: “Alfredo is addicted to Emergen-C and needs an intervention.” Or the former co-worker who treated me to: “Diana loves all her children, but holds a special place in her heart for the one who eats broccoli with anchovies and garlic.” At last — motherhood referenced with candor and humor. My defenses weakened. I could not predict which potential cyber-pals would entertain me most in their news flashes, or which would respond most helpfully to mine. I began to understand the benefits of what sociologists call “weak ties.”

One day my own status update cited exhaustion after my 2-year-old spent an entire 30-minute swim class screaming and clinging to me. I was sure the other parents were silently judging across the Asser Levy Center waters, wondering what I was doing wrong — as I wondered myself. Within hours, an e-mail alerted me that a college classmate living across the country, whom I hadn’t seen in years, had commented on my update.

“Ah the screaming clinging child in the pool,” she wrote. “I have one of those. Not a pool. The screaming clinging thing.” I laughed out loud, a therapeutic cackle.

Many in this psychiatric capital have felt the relief of expressing one’s worries and inadequacies, and having them accepted. On Facebook, one can put one’s imperfections out there — not just into a shrink’s soundproofed room, but into the world — and the world is O.K. with it. If someone disapproves of my parenting style, I don’t know it. I have yet to read a mean-spirited comment to anyone’s status. From the outset, the site encourages positivity (hence the option “ignore,” not “reject”). If others don’t want me in their network, or don’t like what I’ve written, they simply do nothing. I’m barely aware of being ignored on Facebook — unlike on the playground where a hasty retreat is hard to hide.

I wish that having more friends online translated into more in-person activities, but I’ll take what camaraderie I can get. A few times a day, Facebook gives me a quick fix of connection both to my pre-kid existence and to like-minded new parents. Speaking in 40 on-screen characters, we cut right to the chase: today’s accomplishments, plans, embarrassments. The odds of one’s status update being read — and responded to — are considerably better than the usual bottled message thrown out to sea. In this fast-paced modern era, maybe it’s better we skip the greetings, assume that we are all indeed friends, and simply start communicating.

I haven’t morphed into Pollyanna. I didn’t “confirm as a friend” the woman who in my Ohio girlhood hosted the worst sleepover ever. (She fought with her parents while I raked leaves…and they had a really big yard). Of course New Yorkers have standards. We have boundaries. We don’t want near-strangers camping in our living rooms — if we did, we’d join a commune. But we enjoy living near a lot of people. We are curious about the species as a whole. We like knowing peculiar details about specific examples of the species, and we like wondering about the details we don’t know. Facebook is the virtual equivalent of local color, and the palette is huge.

The reality of New York City (or of a margarita) will always be superior to a virtual nonreality. But Facebook, full of clever tidbits, story fragments and surprising bonhomie, is an O.K. substitute when an actual cocktail party cannot be found. New Yorkers know there is life outside our intimate circle, and even if we talk trash, we cherish it.

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