Technology

Fiftysomething, Facebooking, and Fabulous!

Last week I had zero friends on Facebook. Now I have 775.

Illustration by Nina Frenkel. Click image to expand.

Writing an article about how I had no friends on Facebook may seem like a shameless ploy to collect hundreds of them. But even though it sounds disingenuous, I assumed maybe a dozen people of Facebook age would read my article from last week, “Facebook for Fiftysomethings,” and “friend” me.

But I now have, oh, 775 friends. I have so many friends that Facebook decided I need to do something better with my time than chatting with them and has shut down my ability to communicate. “You have exceeded the limit for sending messages!” Facebook has informed me, halting my efforts to write a note back to everyone who included one to me with their friend request. (I’ll get to you if Facebook relents.)

Normally, my social-networking skills are on par with Ted Kaczynski’s, but Facebook took care of this for me by algorithm. The best way to make connections on Facebook is to be in a network (most often a college or a geographical region). I discovered when I friended someone in an existing network, that network automatically appeared on my profile page. I now know people in almost 400 networks, from the Washington, D.C., network, where I have 61 new friends, to Columbia University (which I did not attend) with 19, to Freescale Semiconductor and the U.S Army, with one each. The overwhelming number of correspondents were American college students, but I also heard from kids in high school and people with heads of gray hair. I have friends now in Canada, Egypt, England, Germany, and Israel.

Plowing through the 775 requests made fresh the banal observation that young people are good-looking. (This was underlined when my husband would come into my office and, standing over my shoulder, say, “Click on her!”) Their freshness made me want to protect them. I felt like Holden Caulfield when he imagined children playing in a field of rye: “What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff—I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them.” I wanted to catch these students and say, “Don’t let a drunk friend drive you home! Be careful who you marry! Take the obscenities off your Facebook profile!”

Facebook also brought out the eHarmony in me. This was matchmaker heaven. Maybe I should throw a party for everyone in my Washington, D.C., network, I thought. Or I could study the profiles and forward compatible-seeming people to each other.

I discovered what a Facebook “poke” is, since I got dozens (the use of this word makes me wonder whether Facebook developers have or haven’t read Lonesome Dove). It’s a form of Facebook communication for the commitment-phobe who doesn’t want to rush into friendship. You are flashed a photo of the person poking and asked if you want to poke back. Despite having read Lonesome Dove, I always did.

I looked at as many profiles as I could. I loved the variety of self-presentation—the displays are as carefully constructed as a Tiffany window. Some were sly (one student declared that now that he was done with midterms, he was moving his corporate headquarters to Dubai) or proudly sentimental (anyone with a line from The Little Prince under favorite quotes). An amazing number mentioned the Beatles under favorite music, and the advertisers for Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert should be drooling over their popularity with this demographic. I understood how easy it must be to think you know someone by reading a Facebook profile. Some even wrote to me about being slightly uneasy about how dependent they were on Facebook for making connections—and for weeding out people.

As I kept clicking, links started forming. Now “mutual friends” were showing up. I was friended by an old friend, John Schwartz, a science writer for the New York Times, who is a superannuated Facebook pioneer. Then I was contacted by another fiftysomething, a corporate lawyer, who, I saw on her profile, was also a friend of John’s. I got such a ping of pleasure when a connection was made that it occurred to me the Bush administration could stop violating the laws on national security letters and instead just send friend requests to terrorism suspects—how could they resist?

When my editor David Plotz (who, not being on Facebook, has no Facebook friends, although I am now a Facebook friend of one of his real-life friends) suggested I write a follow-up, I said I thought it sounded too boastful to say how many friends I now had. He reminded me that these weren’t my friends, these were people “who are actually nothing to you.” This made my heart lurch. David, these are my friends! But I wondered what made me feel a connection to people I’d never met, whom I knew only through a click of the mouse. This was clarified in the Facebook message from a new friend, Brenda Bradley, a Cambridge University zoologist doing research on primate evolution. She explained a theory about what drove the evolution of human intelligence: It was the need to monitor and maintain complex social networks—the most successful primates were the ones who understood the dynamic social relationships around them. Developing these skills was the precursor to, for example, being able to hunt cooperatively, not vice versa. “So Facebook may indeed be an evolutionary milestone more important than the first stone tool or the control of fire!” she wrote.

I heard from about a dozen Facebook fiftysomethings (possibly that is every Facebook fiftysomething). Oh, we few, we lonely few. Some I inspired to join and became their only friend. Some had existing accounts, and I still became their only friend. One told me that despite several requests, his twentysomething children kept refusing to accept him as a friend.

I also discovered another Facebook generation gap: It can be as lonely to be a 25-year-old on Facebook as a 50-year-old. I heard from several of them who said that because there was no Facebook until after they graduated from college, it had been hard for them to persuade their friends to sign up.

My new friend Chris Broussard, an IT administrator in Louisiana, also provided me with the most intensely flattering experience of my life. He created a Facebook group in my honor  [registration required]. It didn’t seem right to join—I always yell at people at televised award ceremonies, “Don’t clap for yourself” (and to paraphrase Groucho, I couldn’t belong to any group that would have me as a group).

Several of my new friends wondered if I, having discovered Facebook, was going to keep up with it. I don’t know. It’s been tremendous fun, but it may be too late for me to incorporate it into my life, and my account will ultimately languish like my grandmother’s VCR. But I will be interested to see if Facebook and sites of its ilk end up being a granfalloon, or a revolution.