In the early 90s, when I was half my age, a video game company calaled MicroProse came up with a strategy game, Civilization. Its objective was simple: Build an empire to stand the test of time.
The game began in 4000 BC, and you had to move up the ages, all the while expanding your territories. By careful strategic moves of providing carrots (trade) and sticks (war) and believing myself to be a Genghis Khan-cum-Henry Kissinger, I reached Stalinist Russia, from where I started getting bored with the game (read: found more memorable things to do in the real world) and shoved it into my mental attic along with the Lego sets, Donkey Kong console and Ludo-cum-Snakes & Ladders boardgame.
Jump cut some 20 years and I now play Facebook.
“Play Facebook?” I hear you say.
It’s not FB’s addictive quality that tells you who’s doing what and/or where which got me thinking. Nor was I taken in by FB’s ‘socially alienating properties’. For me, FB was playing Civilization on a personal scale with real people out there. Its tagline could easily be: Build a personality to stand the test of time and space.
Facebook doesn’t so much put you in touch with others as it puts others in touch with you. In that sense, FB-ing is the ultimate spectatee sport, a platform for exhibitionists without the social disapproval attached to, say, pole-dancing.
Last week, someone updated his status (the language itself brimming with ‘Civilizational’ properties reminiscent of when I moved from being a hunter-gatherer in the Iron Age to being a consul during the Roman Empire) to state that he was “thinking of leaving Facebook”. For a minute, I genuinely felt blessed with the gift of telepathy. I knew what this FB friend was thinking.
Which makes me come to the biggest illusion
of them all: the Facebook friend. It starts with real friends and people you know — or, if the person lives in places outside your regular reach, people you want to know.
But quickly and exponentially (after you’re done sending and accepting
FB friend invites to and from old school and college chums), you move on to ‘friends’ who aren’t friends at all.
They are your choice
of spectators. Your
urge to be ‘watched’ through your comments, uploads, tagged photos and smart-assed status updates is really the very human desire to have your otherwise measly existence be confirmed and blessed. It could be to show an ex-girlfriend who dumped you that you are now doing more than just picking on those scabs on your heels. It could be to tell the gathered tribes around the FB fire that
you are ‘friends’ with Aravind Adiga. It could be to tell people from your ‘Civilization’ that you’re now eating at an Ethiopian restaurant in central London, or (way cooler) eating at an English restaurant in central Addis Ababa.
Facebook is where you are your own famous guy, even as etiquette demands that you make others feel a bit famous too. So photographs you clicked and uploaded that will never make it to the Fotomuseum Winterthur, or writings that won’t ever get published in The New Yorker will be ‘liked’ here. Feted folks, of course, also are on FB and are duly hailed and shined. But an overwhelming number of folks here are uncelebrated, something that can be only explained by the presence of the philistine mob out there in the real world.
There is a massive downside for the FB junkie looking for his recognition fix. Waiting for someone — at times anyone — to ‘like’ your comment or
update can be sheer torture. The horror of no one caring for what you say, even after you’ve put it before all your ‘friends’ can be crippling.
Because what it does is confirm, with no straws to clutch on to, that you’re a crashing bore and not the Oscar Wilde you thought you were after someone ‘liked’ your ‘Great weather today’ update last week.
(Indrajit Hazra is a Delhi-based novelist and journalist.)