Once upon a time — lo these two years ago — I was a conscientious objector when it came to Facebook. It seemed, at the least, like a guaranteed time suck. Considering all the hours I was already wasting clicking through cute photos of St. Bernards, I didn't need another procrastination device.
I eventually capitulated. I signed up, made a profile page and watched in astonishment as seemingly everyone I'd ever known, met briefly or who was vaguely acquainted with someone I'd known or met briefly asked me to be a "friend." As much fun as I had at first looking up old boyfriends and trying to find photos of their wives and kids without actually "friending" them, none of it felt like a particularly good use of time — or even a particularly good time.
So why haven't I quit? I ask myself this question frequently, and never more so than last weekend, when I saw "The Social Network," the movie depicting a version of the rise of Facebook and its excruciatingly young founder, Mark Zuckerberg. Though there's debate as to how much creative license the filmmakers have taken in their depiction of Zuckerberg and his apparent betrayal of certain friends (friends version 1.0, the flesh-and-blood kind), few would argue that Zuckerberg comes across like a jerk. However "interpretive" the portrait, I left the theater feeling as though I had to get home to unjoin Facebook immediately.
But I didn't. For one thing, it would have been a little like letting the terrorists win (stop stalking exes because some punk kid genius is Aspergers-y? I think not!). For another, I sort of can't. I don't mean that literally (contrary to rumor, it is possible to erase your Facebook history if you try hard enough). I mean that once you've joined a club that has 500 million members — that's one out of every 13 people in the world — dropping out can be construed as falling off the face of the earth. In fact, if there's an electronic equivalent of locking yourself in the house with the lights off and the shades down, forgoing Facebook might be it.
Granted, that's mostly only true if you're within a certain age range and living in certain places (but only for now; in 20 years, old folks' homes will no doubt have traded bingo for Farmville). It's also true that, despite Facebook's near ubiquity, it's not the only game in town when it comes to social networking platforms (there's LinkedIn and Foursquare and Twitter and probably countless others that I don't know about due to my advanced age and intransigent ways). Still, with hundreds of thousands of people signing up every day, according to various reports, Facebook increasingly feels less like an extracurricular activity than a required course.
Paradoxically, we hear a lot these days about the ways in which Internet oversharing — on Facebook or elsewhere — can cause serious damage. Failure to properly manage your online presence can threaten real jobs. Even worse is the recent suicide at Rutgers University, a case in which disregard for privacy apparently had devastating consequences. But Facebook presents a kind of "damned if you do damned if you don't" conundrum. The more powerful it becomes as a tool for its users, the more powerful it becomes as a weapon against its nonusers.
The idea that late adopters of technology are on some level harming themselves or their families is nothing new. In the 1980s, not having an answering machine or call waiting was a signal that you just didn't care about that important job offer or your child reaching you in an emergency. In the 1990s, the "it" machine was the cellphone. Then e-mail was the great barometer; if you had it, you'd be counted among the living; if not, you were essentially closed for business.
And now we have Facebook. If you're not a member of the club, you're missing out on thousands of "friends," employers, lovers or online Scrabble partners. Joining up isn't just about being up to date; it's about being a responsible, modern, civilized person. For all its frivolities and dangers (and even the possibility that it will be overtaken by the Next New Thing), Facebook is almost a necessity. You're either on board or you're left behind.
So let's try this again. Why don't I quit Facebook? I just can't afford to. There's a reason it's free to join. The dues are paid by those who don't.