Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Facebook of Another

I feel a little sly naming this "The Facebook of Another" because it is Facebook and similar services (like the new "social sharing" site, Google Plus) that I kept catching myself musing on as I read the earlier portions of that weird and disturbing novel, Kobo Abe's The Face of Another. I'm far from done with it yet, but it's given me brain itches I just need to scratch now.

Telling the story of a scientist whose face is irreparably disfigured in a laboratory accident and the damage done to his life not only by this incident but also by his decision to create an artificial face (based on the features of another, hence the title), The Face of Another has a lot to say about isolation and the many kinds of same the modern man can experience, even when in a crowd.

As he ponders whether or not to take the step of making a mask for himself, he tries to convince himself that a person's face doesn't really matter that much, but fails at this. The face and its expressions, he realizes, are, if not THE channel by which we establish and maintain our connections with other people, it is still one it's best not to try to do without. Though the novel and these musings within it were written in 1964, well before the internet, even then our unnamed narrator cherishes the hope that the written word could be enough, but ultimately decides that a man without a face becomes, to the rest of the world, the human equivalent of an abandoned, untended house that even those who have enjoyed calling upon will cease to visit before long.

I deleted my Facebook account well over a year ago, over the protests of many. I had realized that the contact that mattered to me was to be had in abundance elsewhere and that most of what I had via Facebook was more annoyance than interaction. People leave each other's lives for a reason, making way for new (and often more fulfilling and intimate) relationships (and I do tend towards the belief that any one human being can only sustain so many quality relationships, and that number of same is a relatively low one). To look at Facebook was to have to filter out a lot of banality from people that, while I (mostly) bore no active ill will, I didn't really feel the need to hear from, either; I had "added" them out of politeness and to avoid awkwardness should I happen to encounter them in person during visits home and the like -- just to get to the good stuff, the stuff from the people whose ideas, opinions and experiences matter to me now, most of which I could get, in neat little bon-bons of thought, on Twitter. Combine that with Facebook's ever-changing privacy policies, its endless "social gaming" filler and the ugly influence it was beginning to have on my workplace and ditching it was really a no-brainer. So I did.

Deleting a Facebook account is pretty difficult. The company wants to keep hold of all of its clients (as any company does) and keep people adding value to its holdings via new posts and pictures and, yes, payments for game baubles and the like, and so it deliberately hides those delete options. Once one finds them, one next stumbles into a nest of faux histrionics; don't leave, so-and-so will miss you. Oddly enough, those pleas made it easier to leave; not only was I offended and annoyed by the presumption on the part of this corporation that it was my best and only access to my friends and by leaving them I was cutting them off forever, but also, well, its algorithms for choosing who to flash before me as "going to miss me" weren't all that good. The guy who gave me a hurtfully unflattering nickname in sixth grade and chased me around for six more years hooting it at me wasn't really going to miss me. My co-worker in the next cubicle could get hold of me whenever she wanted. And my sister definitely knows how to reach me, and does so often indeed (I'm her primary entertainment when she's stuck in traffic). WRONG. And anyway, the people who really wanted to maintain contact with me knew where to find me -- on Twitter.

There were, though, a few gentle souls who weren't all that computer savvy and who were kind of nice to hear from once in a while. They didn't log on much but did provide quality on the rare occasions that they did. Facebook was already a stretch for these folks, and Twitter baffled those of them who even bothered to take a look at it. I don't fault them for this, and it's a sign of how connections genuinely atrophy that these are not people who are going to migrate to another service just to hear what I think about what comic books I'm reading. Every once in a while I regret that I'm missing those graceful echoes, but the thought of all the brash shouts and clutter that drowns those out keeps me away.

Meanwhile, the party is always on at Twitter. I'm never away from my true friends; I carry them in my pocket wherever I go, and when they're thinking of me, I know.

Enter Google Plus.

For those of you who have been out of touch with developments on the internetz, G+ is a new social/sharing service from the big giant search engine corporation that is slowly encroaching on everything else in our online lives. As the famous xkcd cartoon illustrated (I'm not going to bother linking to it, because either you've probably already seen it or you don't give a damn), its initial appeal to many, its primary virtue, is that it is not Facebook. As my friend Bonnie likes to quip when explaining it, it's Facebook for grown-ups -- at least for now.

G+ is doing a lot right; someone at Google has been paying attention to Facebook's mistakes and has maybe even learned a thing or two about Diaspora's flop. It of course has a giant head start in that so many internet people have Google accounts (since Google bought Blogger a few years ago, I automagically had an account, since I've been using Blogger since 2002); integrating this new service into the other Google products already in use (I use Gmail, Blogger, Google Reader, and, sort of by default, Google Buzz, though I keep forgetting about Buzz. I was an enthusiastic user of the now-defunct Google Wave as well. Ah, me) with eerie ease. In these early days, just mentioning a friend who wasn't using G+ yet but has a Google account sort of brings him or her into the "circle" as a fait accompli. But alas, as Laroquod has pointed out to me, problems ensued, as G+ went maybe a bit too far with the integration and sort of forced another of its holdings, the image hosting site Picasa, to deform itself into being one's G+ photo album, despite the fact that many of its users were employing it very differently.

That aside, it's getting a lot of stuff right. Unlike Facebook, which treats everyone you've accepted or "added" as a "friend" as part of one vast pool of feed, G+ encourages users straight off to organize contacts into "Circles" -- this organization implying levels of trust and intimacy and more or less forcing the user to think more carefully about with whom one shares what. And so far (though this is bound to change since Google owns a piece of Zynga), not a stupid social gaming update or invite in sight.

So, provisionally, I'm on there. It's fun. So far most of my true friends are on there and none of my elementary school bullies have heard of it. It really does sort of feel like "Facebook for Grown-Ups." But that can, and probably will, change.

Google Plus is my artificial face for now, but I've learned I don't mind too much living without one. So all I can say is, we'll see. After all, since I've seen the searingly awesome cinematic adaptation of Abe's novel (by the great Teshigahara), I know how that story goes. And I know that an artificial face can do as much harm as good.

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