“My Name is Ned and I’m an Addict”: Facebook and the Personal Essay

Monday, May 2, 2011

This essay, adapted for TriQuarterly Online, was originally presented at "Status Update: The Personal Essay in the Age of Facebook," a panel discussion at the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) Conference on February 3rd, 2011. It was hosted and moderated by Jen McClanaghan, resident scholar at The Southern Review. A podcast of the entire panel is available here.

I realized as I listened to the other three speakers that I may be – although I didn't really think I was going to be – taking a relatively benign view of Facebook…we'll see.

I want to talk about three things: first, what I think Facebook does well; secondly, what the dangers of Facebook might be; and finally, what the other panelists have already talked about – more eloquently probably than I will be able to – namely the difference between Facebook and the essay, and how essayists might be able to make good use Facebook.

First of all, then, what does Facebook do well? Ironically, I found out about Facebook at a writers' retreat – not at Bread Loaf (like Jocelyn Bartkevicius) but at the Lillian E. Smith artists’ retreat in north Georgia, where I had no access to the Internet. Another writer there, named James Austin, a fine young novelist, was talking about Facebook and I asked him, “Why would anyone want to be on Facebook?” He said, “Well, it helps you to be in touch with your old friends; it's more efficient than email.” Often, he argued, there are times when you find yourself sending out basically the same email to a number of different people but you want it to be different, so you don't just do a CC, but instead personalize it slightly – a kind of mail merge in essence, and Facebook makes it easy to do that. And, he added, you can include photos very easily, of your family and so forth. And I said, “Oh, so it's sort of like those Christmas letters that my mother used to send.” “Kind of like that,” he said, “but it’s always up there and always available.” And, you know, the rest is history. Of course now I have several hundred “friends.” And I’m on Facebook every day.

James was right. Facebook does help you keep in touch with old friends and family. It’s a way of reestablishing contact with people and sometimes even a community that was once lost, almost like a high school class newsletter. That can function just at the level of nostalgia—sharing those YouTube videos of Sam Cooke performances, or early Van Morrison appearances, or old bits from The Twilight Zone. This is what we Boomers do.

But more important, there are certain moments when that community is touched by loss, perhaps illness or death, when Facebook can rise to the occasion in an odd and wonderful way.

That has happened a couple times recently, actually, with friends of mine from high school: one who died after heart surgery, and another who is suffering from pancreatic cancer. Now those of us in these circles are talking a lot, reassuring each other, keeping in touch with family members, and getting updates. Facebook is good for this, I have to say.

The possibilities of Facebook in this area were brought home again to me last week, when one of my wife's high school classmates committed suicide, and people began writing on his wall after his death. They addressed him personally, as if he were still alive, and they addressed his family as well. I was struck by that—this use of the term wall resonated in a new way for me then, and I began to think about the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial wall, and those impromptu memorials for 9/11 victims that were established along the fence outside the hole where the World Trade Center was, where people left messages for their loved ones. This man’s bereaved family was then able to send out one post, one message to the people who had posted on his Facebook wall, communicating their thanks.

In addition to reestablishing old connections, Facebook can help us build new ones. As it happens, James Austin, the person who introduced me to Facebook at the north Georgia writers’ retreat, lives most of the year in Egypt, where he teaches at the American University in Cairo. Of course, people have been talking about the role that social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, have played in the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions.  It’s hard to measure their impact precisely, but certainly social media have helped organize people and bring about change. At the suggestion of certain Facebook friends, I began watching the live feeds from Cairo supplied by Al Jazeera in English, and I’ve recommended to others that they do the same.

Facebook can also be an important site for political debate. I'm Facebook “friends” with my fundamentalist, right-wing brother-in-law, and over time I’ve become friends with some of his friends. I enjoy butting heads with them. It's a way to be in touch with a group of people I might not otherwise be in touch with. As an English professor, I live in what you could call a narrow little crypto-Marxist community where everyone shares a certain set of allusions and agrees that we are all in the know. [laughter] Phillip Lopate in Against Joie de Vivre talked about sometimes pushing a prejudice as far as you can, to find out the limits of what you believe. I think he is right about this, and we need to learn to be more honest about our beliefs. This is part of what I like about butting heads with my right-wing brother-in-law and his friends. I think that kind of debate helps me test my beliefs and be more honest with myself. I find myself stopping and wondering if I'm posturing a little bit or I've gone too far. But don't worry – I’m not going to second guess myself too much or go all the way to the dark side [laughs].

So, those are some of the things I think Facebook can do.

There are dangers, however. Facebook's strengths, like all of our strengths, can also sometimes be its weaknesses.

Last summer I was teaching at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival, and one of my students was a psychiatrist. During an individual conference, I said something about Facebook. She responded, “Oh, Facebook, don’t tell me about Facebook, it has destroyed so many marriages!” Many of her clients get on Facebook and reignite an old flame, she said, and then their marriage is gone. I didn’t say this to her, but I thought, “Well, I think you’re blaming the messenger.” But, of course, she was right in a certain sense and speaking from much experience – people do try to get in touch with people on the sly and when they do, hijinks ensue.

A second danger of Facebook is that it can be a time-suck, a very addictive one. My name is Ned and I’m an addict. On weekdays I get up early, before my wife and my two daughters, in order to make the coffee and make sure that my oldest daughter is at the bus at 6:30, and while the coffee is brewing I check my e-mail, sometimes the New York Times online, and always Facebook. Then I leave it on during the day while I’m working. As I said, I’ve been on Facebook only for about the last eighteen months, and thus far I’ve been able to work while it’s on. I’ve got two books coming out this year, and they’re both in the final stages—copy editing and getting permissions to reprint and proofreading and indexing. I can do that kind of work  and leave Facebook on. But I already know that if the next book is to happen, I’ll have to either find one of those programs that allow you to shut off your Internet for a set number of hours—which seems awfully artificial but also attractive—or head to north Georgia again to jump-start the writing without access to the Internet. Because Facebook is addictive.

Related to the time-suck problem is the problem of the fragmenting of consciousness. It’s the reduction of sentiment and thought to either four-hundred-and-twenty-character status updates or hundred-and-forty-character tweets. Facebook develops its own frenzied pace, and that’s not healthy.

As Jen McClanaghan’s proposal for this panel suggested, another danger of Facebook is its tendency toward voyeurism. Debra Monroe, who was going to be on this panel but for whom I'm filling in, was kind enough to share her notes with me. One of the things she talked about was the commoditization of private life. That can happen with Facebook, sparked by the same impulse that draws us toward reality TV. It provides us with a way of keeping an eye on other people. You can go to the Facebook page of someone you don’t actually know and look at their family photos,—say their daughter’s prom picture. It’s creepy. But I think it's only creepy if you're a creep [laughter]. Many of us might want to see what our own prom date looks like now after all these years, but it is the people who really do that a lot who are suspect, I suppose. You don't have to stalk people.

Yet as the title for this panel suggests, we are in the age of Facebook and there is no going back. The toothpaste is out of the tube. We need to learn to live with it. So the last question to address here is, can personal essays and Facebook peacefully coexist—and perhaps even fruitfully coexist?

First of all, how are essays different from Facebook? Alfred Kazin wrote, “In an essay it's not the thought that counts, but the experience we get of the writer's thought; not the self, but the self thinking.” William Gass said something similar: “The hero of the essay is its author in the act of thinking things out, feeling and finding a way. It is the mind and the marvels and miseries of its makings, in the work of imagination, the search for form.” And finally, in a similar vein, Edward Hoagland argued, “Through its tone and tumbling progression, the essay conveys the quality of an author's mind.”

A personal essay offers us the tumble of the mind and is, at least potentially, a work of art. It may be brief by comparison to a memoir or a novel, and in its brevity more akin to a lyric poem, but it is longer, more sustained, more revised, more substantial, and more artistic than anything on Facebook. If an essay gives us the story of a mind thinking, Facebook gives us isolated thoughts. It gives us updates; it gives us fragments.

It can also be said, however, that Facebook gives us conversation, or at least exchanges. But the exchanges on Facebook are ephemeral, fragmented, interrupted conversations; that stream of Facebook updates keeps moving down the page and disappearing out the bottom. There’s something sad about that. It’s not a real conversation, because you pick it up only when you’re in the room. It is more akin to those unsatisfying half-conversations we have at high school reunions or wedding receptions than it is to a full and filling fireside chat.

But a trope for the essay from the beginning has been that it is a conversation, or at least that it is conversational. Montaigne wrote, for instance, “I am not building here a statue to erect at the town crossroads, or in a church, or a public square. This is for a nook in the library, and to amuse a neighbor, a relative, a friend, who may take pleasure in associating and conversing with me again in this image.” One of the important phrases in that passage is “in this image.” An essay is not really a conversation; it's the image of a conversation, it's a simulation of a conversation. Certainly it uses familiar language; it can sound spoken rather than written – and often does. It can simulate, as Walter Pater first pointed out, a Platonic dialogue. But finally, it is – or at least it usually is – just one side of a conversation. It's a monologue. “We commonly do not remember,” wrote Thoreau, “that it is, after all, always the first person who is speaking.”

Facebook is something else entirely. It is a lot of people speaking. Sometimes it’s a chat, sometimes a cacophony. But its conversations are overheard, busy, fragmented, and again ephemeral. It’s akin to the crawl at the bottom of a news channel. By contrast, an essay, however occasioned and journalistic, is finally a revised and polished piece of art.

So how might essays make use of Facebook I want to offer two possibilities. First, like any new mode of communication, Facebook can provide fodder for essayists.

It can enter the world of personal essays, become a subject for personal essays. Its language can be appropriated by essayists. If, for instance, as my psychiatrist friend at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival suggested, Facebook breaks up relationships, at least those breakups might become the subjects of essays.

Think of Katha Pollitt's essay of a few years ago, “Webstalker,” which appeared in her collection Learning to Drive and Other Life Stories. It opens with a great sentence: “After my boyfriend left me, I went a little crazy for a while.” Then it goes on to chronicle, in beautiful and excruciating honesty, the way Pollitt compulsively Googled her ex-boyfriend for weeks and months on end. For years in the column “Subject to Debate” that she writes for the Nation, she called him the Last Marxist. Her essay culminates in a wonderful, creepy scene, when the Last Marxist and his new girlfriend are putting his apartment up for sale. This gives Pollitt the opportunity, via his real estate agent’s website, to take a virtual tour of his apartment. She takes an inventory of it, makes a nostalgic trip through her old haunt, the place of her old relationship, and even notices a few prints on the wall that the two of them had purchased together and he has kept. It was almost as if she were there on the wall herself and the new girlfriend didn’t know it.

A former student of mine, a fine young writer named Mike Crowley, has also taken a stab at this kind of essay. He wrote a piece, as yet unpublished (for any of you editors out there, I can put you in touch with Mike), about breaking up with his girlfriend on Facebook. The piece moves from a status of “In a relationship” to “In a relationship with” to “It’s complicated” to “Single.” At the end of the essay, they’re still Facebook “friends,” but you wonder if they’re still friends. If you have seen The Social Network, you know that Hollywood has already got hold of this idea—it is used it in the final scene of that movie.

There's a second way that essayists might make use of Facebook, and that is to create community and make connections with other essayists. Among writers I know, the person I think is doing this best is Dinty Moore. Dinty is a master of the short, provocative, helpful status update. Often he does this with a quote about writing. Just as my seventh-grade English teacher Mr. Tatlock used to put a “quote of the day” up on the blackboard each morning and use it to start a discussion and remind us of the power of well-chosen words, Dinty copies a quote from Mark Twain or Richard Bausch or Joan Didion and puts it on his wall each morning. Often these lead to good discussions about writing and the writing life, but they also keep people tuned to Dinty’s work, so that when he posts links to the latest issue of Brevity, his magazine, or to a new post on the Brevity blog, many of Dinty’s Facebook friends click and take a look. There are a lot of us who participate in those discussions with Dinty.

I close in the hope that we essayists, like Dinty, might be able to use Facebook not only as material but as a place to create a community of essayists. In that vein, I hope that by the time I get back to my hotel tonight I’ll have some new friend requests from a few of you.

Works Cited
Bartkevicius, Jocelyn . “Donna Brazile Loves Mud-Slinging, or Why We Need the Essay Now.” TriQuarterly Online (Winter/Spring 2011).
Gass, William.  “Emerson and the Essay.”  Habitations of the Word.  New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985.  19-20.
Hoagland, Edward.  “What I Think, What I Am.”  The Tugman's Passage.  New York: Random House, 1982.  27.
Kazin, Alfred.  “Introduction: The Essay as a Modern Form.”  The Open Form: Essays for Our Time.  New York: Harcourt, 1961.  xi.
Lopate, Phillip. Introduction to “Against Joi De Vivre,” in The Art of the Personal Essay:  An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present.  New York: Doubleday, 1994. 713.
Montaigne, Michel de, “Of Giving the Lie,” in The Complete Essays of Montaigne, translated by Donald M. Frame. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1958. 503.
Pater, Walter. “Dialectic.” Plato and Platonism: A Series of Lectures. London & New York: Macmillan, 1893. 156-76
Pollitt, Katha. “Webstalker,” in Learning to Drive. And Other Life Stories. New York: Random House, 2007. 21-34.
Thoreau, Henry David. Walden and Resistance to Civil Government. Ed. William Rossi. 2nd ed. 1854. Reprint, New York: W. W. Norton, 1992. 5.