I happened upon an interesting published observation the other day, about the social media landscape in general and Facebook in particular.
Just as an aside, I really do believe the jury is out on whether Facebook is a good thing. I, for one, am decidedly uncomfortable with how much intelligence gathering Facebook does on each and every one of its users. It garners a lot of information particularly about what we like and don’t like and uses it to bombard us with ads and marketing pitches. Nothing wrong with that you might say. What I object to is the sneaky way they go about it. But in any case, that is a topic for another day.
Most of the time I am intrigued and at times horrified by what is posted on Facebook. It is fairly pathetic that a number of Facebook users seem to think that there is no such thing as privacy. Every time they burp or fart, it’s worth sharing with the world. Call me old-fashioned but some things are just better left unsaid.
Getting back to the interesting observation, (well, I think it is) if the experience of others is anything to go by, then Facebook is somewhat adverse to the harsher realities of life, like divorce.
For example, a well-known author, blogger and public speaker, called Michael Ellsberg, posted what was described as something truly subversive on his Facebook page. Ellsberg has 25 thousand Facebook followers so pretty much anything he was going to say could be described as a big deal to those that follow him. Ellsberg announced that he and his equally famous wife, a woman with the remarkable name of Jena La Flamme, were splitting up. Her claim to fame is being a weight loss expert and the author of a book called Pleasurable Weight Loss. Apparently such a thing exists.
The observation was that Ellsberg had peeled off the social face that many Facebook users maintain when it comes to their relationships. A social face illustrated by a smorgasbord of photographs that make marriage look like a constant holiday or make people look like they are auditioning for a dating website. Just to reiterate. I am saying this is a published observation and something, I thought, worth reporting on. The thrust of what is being said is that marital discord is an untouchable topic on Facebook. In fact, if you were to go looking, you will struggle to find any documentation of strife, anxiety, discord or discontent, of the marital kind, among the one billion Facebook users. I guess it all boils down to what is socially acceptable and what is not. There is far more social acceptability to whining about your job or even seeking advice about missteps in people’s careers or complaining about the sleep deprivation that goes with rearing children than there is in talking about the rupture of a marriage.
In breaking the news about his bust up, Ellsberg said it was a significant departure from the ‘smiling photos and professions of love’ he had previously published about his relationship with La Flamme. Believe it or not the couple spent months carefully crafting their Facebook announcement, which they say has been met with a largely positive response. What I find extraordinary is their need to announce it on Facebook in the first place. Anyone would think that theirs wasn’t a marriage but a marital brand, which after its dissolution needed the message to be spun much like a corporate media release.
But if you are going to place that much importance in a Facebook announcement it can also go pear shaped just as easily. Take the case of Penney Berryman who looked at her Facebook newsfeed to discover that her husband, at the time, had changed his status from married to single. It was an announcement of their separation that came as a complete shock to Penney Berryman. “I was still married to someone who made a public statement about our relationship that I wasn’t ready for,” Berryman said. She responded by revising her own marital status, leaving it blank and opting not to have the change show up on her public newsfeed. In the transition to divorce, Berryman also altered other aspects of her public digital life, starting by deleting timeline photos of her wedding and other marital milestones. “It was tough to figure out how I represent this part of my life that doesn’t exist anymore but used to be such a big part,” she said.
So what? I hear you saying and you are right. Who cares? Well we don’t and we do. We care ( I think we do) that life has changed to such a degree that Facebook has become so important to people because it clearly has.
As you might expect, a lot of ‘experts’ have pontificated on this sociological shift, like Sherry Turkle, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology psychologist. She wrote a book called: Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology And Less From Each Other. “If you complain about your pet, your job, even your children, there is a sense in which these are external to you – the complaint is about what life has dealt you,” Turkle said “When you complain about your marriage, the boundary between marriage and self is much less firm.” By that I think she means fragile.
According to Turkle, we see our partners as a reflection of ourselves. Any hint of weakness, insecurity, or conflict isn’t good for our personal brand, which is essentially what social media has reduced us to. Turkle says it might also be understandable that people have been reluctant to post their marital woes on Facebook and attack their spouse in a public forum, because, of course, it can’t be achieved without creating further problems.
Which gets us back to the Ellsberg divorce announcement. He genuinely thinks that Facebook could be helpful to couples breaking up (as only Facebook can) if the parties posted in a way that didn’t blame or finger point. It would be along the lines of a question: Does anyone have any advice about how I can deal with anger in a way that isn’t destructive to our marriage?
Turkle, the psychologist, doesn’t agree with Ellsberg. She thinks Facebook is not the forum for those types of announcements. Facebook she says is a place for good news and certainly not the place where you talk about your most vulnerable self.
Well, here’s my definition of good news. How about NO news at all about the really personal stuff, especially when it comes to Facebook? It works for me. It might even work for you. And in any case isn’t that what they really say about good news?