Friday, October 1, 2010

Saddest Status Update Ever

“Jumping off the gw bridge sorry.” 

One of the many horrific aspects of the suicide of the Rutgers freshman Tyler Clementi was the fact that he posted his intentions as a Status Update on Facebook. To me this act epitomized the very worst of the distancing effect that the web has had, not just between one person and another, but a person and his or her true self. 

It's impossible to track the thought process that caused him to pause between the decision and the act long enough to type that up for all his friends in such an impersonal/personal forum. Did he want someone to find and stop him, as they say with many suicide attempts? Or did he simply decide to get the most attention for it, paying back his tormenters in the same public way? (They are now facing criminal charges). 

Tonight I attended  a screening of The Social Network, followed by a Q&A with my longtime friend, sometime employer, and unparalleled writer Aaron Sorkin. 

As the credits rolled, with the theater still dark, little flashes of light started popping up all over the room. People had whipped out their BlackBerrys and iPhones to see what messages they had missed during the one hour-57-minute running time. (Actually, one woman couldn't even wait that long; she took out her phone and started texting during the last five minutes of the movie. I went over to her seat and told her it was distracting. She seemed amazed at MY gumption.) 

Aaron entered at the back of the theater, and I pointed out the sea of phonescreens, and he said "I know. What's become of us?" 
Aaron kept his personal feelings about the Internet out of the movie
 (in which he has a cameo as a VC guy pissed off at Zuckerberg, above). I know this involved a massive act of will power, having heard his tirades on the subject and seen him lose days of work over some anonymous posting. 

To research the movie, Aaron set up a Facebook page just to see what it's like (in interviews, he has said he had heard of the site, but the same way he's heard of a carburator; if he opened the hood of a car, he'd have no idea where it was or what it did.) But it quickly turned into a fan forum where for every question he asked about Facebook, he was thrown back 20 about West Wing. (He took it down, thankfully, so he has time to write movies and TV again.) 

At the screeing, Aaron was more candid about his anti-Web feelings, though he knew he was in the minority. Though he conceded it has been good for rallying people to causes, the web has also caused atrophy to "the muscles we used to have, learning how to be civil to people, getting to know them." 

He also said, variously, "This device that we are told will put us more in touch with each other actually does the opposite....Our Facebook Status Update isn't our true self, it's a reinvention of ourself, a performance....Social networking has the same relationship to actual socializing that reality TV has to reality." 

Tyler Clementi's death was caused by the blurring of these kinds of lines; his roommates clearly had no moral compass about putting a private act on a webcam, and maybe you blame the parents, but you also have to blame the culture's anointing of the outlandish crudity of Jersey Shore types, combined with the relentless uploading of private photos and videos. 

One of my first experiences of Facebook was as a parent. A teenager I know had been invited to a schoolmate's party, then when the guest list ranneth over, she was disinvited. In the old days, the slight would have eventually been a brief blip on the radar, but then someone who DID go to the party posted pictures, and there, in living color, was all the fun she had missed (and who had gotten past the velvet rope). I am sure the kids didn't post them to be cruel, but  it wasn't kind. 

Much to her dismay, I soon joined Facebook myself, during a period of personal loss and confusion -- my mom had just died, and my union went on strike. 

At first I was tentative, mostly just sharing strike videos, photos of my mom, and other links. Over time I found it becoming almost a writing exercise, to amuse, enlighten, or intrigue people. But as my list of "friends" ballooned past actual friendships -- partly to sell this blog -- I started feeling queasy again. 

All of which is slightly confused by the happy fact that I got a new job last week, the first office I've reported to in over a year, and it wouldn't have happened without Facebook. 

I had freelanced for CNN several times in the past five years, and stayed in touch with people I liked from there via Facebook. In the old days, we hadn't made enough of a connection to stay friends, but thanks to Facebook, we actually got to know each other better than if we'd worked alongside each other all day. 

And so when I wrote to one of them to ask if there were any openings at the two new shows CNN was starting up, a few keystrokes later I was auditioning for CNN's pairing of Pulitzer Prize winning conservative newspaper columnist Kathleen Parker, and the former attorney general and governor Eliot Spitzer, whose personal tribulations had been loosely adapted into "The Good Wife." 

Less than two weeks later, I am on board as a Producer. I have hardly had time to sleep, much less post on the blog, and now they're saying I may be writing the show's official blog too. So what did I do? Trying not to brag, considering the shitty economy and so many friends struggling, I put out the news coyly as a Status Update. But now I realize most of my friends who aren't on Facebook still don't know. 

 I've already seen plenty to write about, including the bizarre rondelay of famous faces you run into on the way to the bathroom -- Carville and Gergen, Deepak Chopra, the President of Malaysia (with his phalanx of two dozen security guards), Ralph Reed, Oliver Stone....

And most of all, the two hosts, who are both fiercely opinionated, good writers, and seem to inspire a lot of powerful emotion. Sorkin told me that Eliot is "one of my heroes." This may currently be another one of Aaron's minority opinions, but I'm interested in seeing what happens. Not just on the Internet, or even TV, but in reality. 


JanDev said...

Great insights. I think (most) adults our age on Facebook have the advantage of having learned offline the responsibilities and boundaries of real friendship. Sadly, this may not be the case for the "digital natives" who are learning these lessons in front of the whole online world. FB seems almost redundant for young people in school who are with real friends most of the time. For adults with jobs, children and aging parents, spending time with friends can easily fall by the wayside and, for them, FB takes some of the sting out of feeling alone and cut off from the pack.

"Use in moderation" seems to be a sensible maxim, yet FB is undeniably addictive, at any age. Still, I have FB to thank for introducing me to Amy, who drew me into your FB friend circle and to this excellent blog. So thanks, Mark Zuckerman.

JanDev said...

oops, Mark Z is a -berg not a -man :-)

DSH said...

good stuff David, but tangentially -- I'm glad you told the woman to stop texting during the film. I have asked people to cover their phones, as a way of confronting without being overly confrontational. Most irritating was kid in front of me during Avatar. He seemed flummoxed that a second (albeit smaller) bright screen right in front of other movie-goers might be irritating and rude. And yes, he was updating his status...