Why Facebook is like low-fat ice cream

Why Facebook is like low-fat ice cream

Sarah Palin is promoting her book on it. Some 300 million people use it every day to the point where it—like a rash—is an itch. It’s called Facebook Addiction Disorder (FAD) and some 100 million people worldwide have it. Facebook itself—somewhat hypocritically—has a support group for those with FAD.

Have you figured out Facebook? How to use it? How not to waste your time on it? Users say that Facebook is an “efficient" way to keep in touch with friends. Indeed, most of us join Facebook for this reason. An old college friend whom you haven’t seen or heard from in years suddenly sends an email saying that your entire college class is on Facebook and you should join too. So you do. And for a few weeks, it is delirious. Everyone is posting a flurry of messages about their current lives. “Rita Gidwani has a cold," says one status update as these are called. A sympathetic tide of messages follow, offering prescription remedies, virtual hugs, air-borne kisses, and the whole blasted thing is as warm and fuzzy as a toasted igloo. Gradually, you keep adding “friends" who aren’t really friends. More likely, colleagues, acquaintances, people you just met at parties, people you cordially dislike, and perfect strangers who for some reason want to become your friend. You accept them all and suddenly you have 278 friends who are privy to your life; or your status updates anyway. That’s what people do on Facebook, you see. We post status updates. Most fall into the following broad categories.

Shameless plug (I’ve done this): People hawk products, display articles that they’ve written, mention awards and achievements and brag about projects undertaken. This, to me, is actually a good use of Facebook’s networking potential.

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Inane personal information: Including but not restricted to body rhythms, baby poop, aches and pains, jogging and yoga schedules, what you had for breakfast, which movie you saw last night, whether you had sex, whether your flight to Qatar was delayed, and whether you got your shoe shined while waiting. All of this information would fall under the “Who cares?" category, but the sad truth is that plenty, including I, care enough to read and comment on such minutiae.

Forwards: This is huge and is usually done by people who don’t want to reveal too much personal information. They send National Geographic clips about leopards not eating prey while delivering babies, about a Brit imitating a Bollywood actor, about scientific findings and newspaper articles. Forwards can be dealt with using a single paradigm: If there are over one dozen gushing comments along the lines of “Thanks for posting; it changed my world view", the accompanying article is worth a glance. Otherwise, simply move on to “Zubin is constipated", and other grave issues.

Time-related forwards: Patriotic material on 15 August, Vande Mataram, the national anthem, the tiranga (tricolour), and long lists about why India is such a great country. Move on.

Smart ideas: Haiku-like updates, existentialist questions, fun puns, provocative ideas and riddles. This is the fun part of Facebook and some people make a career of posting quirky updates.

Photos: Babies, parties, pets, weddings, you name it, people post it. This is the scary part. You google names and find people “tagged" in random parties. People I know who aren’t on Facebook—like my husband and children—make their way there through friends’ photo albums. I would suggest that in the future, when all you non-Facebook people attend parties, you tell camera-toting friends, “Page 3 okay but not on Facebook please." Or some version thereof.

Therapy: If you are temporarily messed up and want group therapy for free, Facebook is a great option. I once witnessed a dog being beaten. It shook me up. Had I lived in a village perhaps, I would have knocked on my neighbour’s door and said: “You won’t believe what I just saw! It was horrible." Instead, I posted it on Facebook and got reams of empathy from long-lost friends. Facebook is perfect for those events where the simple act of saying it aloud will make you feel better. Along the lines of “She never called back", or “A client hung up on me", or “A beggar mauled me".

Time pass or time waste:This is the reason Facebook is addictive. It holds to its promise of being a social networking site but it also is, for many, a great way to peer vicariously into other people’s lives. Rajesh comments that he is eating bread pakoras in Mashobra, Renu is recovering from a rocking party, Rohan posts photos of his family vacationing in Paris. None of these people are your friends but you are privy to this information because they post it on your friend’s wall.

I am noticing one more trend on Facebook these days. People are dropping out. One reason is because Facebook is, without a doubt, an invasion of your privacy. There is the disconcerting knowledge that perfect strangers can surf and peek into your life. For many, that is enough to withdraw or not join at all. It also has to do with age, I suppose. Today’s 18-year-olds, unlike my generation, seem quite willing to live their lives out in public scrutiny. “Adit has a hangover," says one post accompanied by a YouTube video of a boy I know getting thoroughly and unabashedly sloshed. I would not have dared upload such a scene.

For me, the reason I am questioning my presence on Facebook is not because I am worried about invasion of privacy. It is the realization that while I enjoy surfing the virtual world, a dozen Facebook comments, compliments or validations do not equal the delicate nuances of a single human interaction, however brief. I can be poked and hugged online but they cannot equal the warm touch of a live person. Facebook, in that sense, is like low-fat ice cream. It may be necessary and even pleasurable but it makes you acutely aware of what it lacks. With low-fat ice cream, as with Facebook, you can go on fooling yourself. You can say that online is the only way possible of connecting with distant friends. Or you can go out for a walk with your neighbour and make a real friendship. Or do both in moderation. Facebook Addiction Disorder is exactly what it is: a FAD. And fads can pass.

Shoba Narayan’s status has just been updated from prolific Facebook user to occasional.

Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com