The XX Factor

Facebook Creates Virtual Small Towns

Reading Amanda Fortini’s piece on the way that Facebook is turning previously private parts of life , such as your divorce, into public spectacles, I realized suddenly why the idea of having everyone in your virtual community know about your divorce and its details as soon as you do doesn’t bother me as much as it might other people. I spent my entire adolescence living in a community of 6,000 people, which means that having control over what details of your life everyone knows about seems like the novelty to me. You don’t have to put tales of heartbreak on Facebook, but in small towns, you don’t have that choice.

The luxury of being scandalized at public displays of unhappiness and heartbreak is really an invention of the modern, urbanized world, a world that I fled to as soon as I could, but for reasons other than irritation at everyone being up in your business all the time. Learning about your divorce through the grapevine, everyone and their dog witnessing you on your worst days, divorce lawyers knowing every thing about the opposition’s behavior in order to build a case-all old hat to small town folks. My mother’s divorce lawyer didn’t need Facebook to learn about her ex-husband; he saw him at the shooting range every weekend and had the grapevine to provide information. I have countless tales of spouses learning about infidelities only after everyone else in town saw the adulterers snuggling in some public place, and horror stories of false rumors spread by spurned lovers taking over the town before the truth could get its pants on. That was our hell, and now everyone else gets the joy of experiencing it.

Somehow, small town people manage to endure the slings and arrows of everyone knowing your business. In fact, I’ve always been impressed by how divorce and adultery not only survive but thrive in an environment where there’s exactly no way you can go about either without everyone you come across knowing all the dirty details. I’ve seen people get into loud fights about cheating in public places, making sure that any details that the town didn’t already know were exposed, and then go straight back to carrying on the affair the next day in full view of everyone. The dark part of the human spirit that wants to lash out at the demands of marriage will not be hemmed in by something as minor as public humiliation.

And so I face the expansion of Facebook and the creation of virtual small towns with no fear that it will do anything significant to change anyone’s behavior. If anything, I admire the fact that Facebook creates a neat compromise between the anonymity of the city and the gossip of the small town. It both fills our need to be nosy while giving ultimate control to the person being gossiped about. Since you don’t have to sit down and type out what you’re feeling, the act of gossiping about someone is a lot more consensual in our digital age than it was in my small town youth.