Guest Column: With 'friends' like these

For boomers like me, Facebook proves a cruel mirror.

1508-guest.jpg (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
With more than 80 million subscribers, Facebook was supposed to be my portal to a wider, more connected world. So why after plugging around the social networking site do I feel neither social nor networked? I work in a town that belongs in a National Geographic feature on suburban sprawl. Because even the simplest errand means hopping in the car and dealing with about 80 million fellow drivers, I tend to spend a lot of time at my desk. I used to work in Manhattan, and if one object symbolizes the transition it is the toaster-sized lunch box I tote to work every day. In the city, lunchtime was a lark - perhaps a stroll to the kosher Indian places on Lexington Avenue, or a bite from the falafel stand near Herald Square. Now I fill my lunchbox with all the food I'll need for the day. I feel like a survivalist. Facebook was supposed to be my gateway to the wider world. Open a Facebook page, I was told, and soon I'd be "friended" by a network of people eager to share ideas, inspiration, heady chat and useful referrals to yet more "friends." So I did, and I can now count (pitiful by teen standards) 40 friends. And here's what they're talking about as I write this: * One is desperately seeking a playmate for Wordscraper. * One is wishing "she hadn't had that second glass of wine." * One is heading to Florida to visit his in-laws. * And one is, I kid you not, "honing his Rock-Paper-Scissors skills." Not exactly the Algonquin Round Table. TEENAGERS, LIKE my own, seem to thrive on this constant connectivity and crave the little updates on their friends' current whereabouts and mindsets, no matter how inconsequential. I think I could learn to like it too, if I weren't nagged by the notion that I could be doing something better with my time. Like packing my lunch. And I have yet to crack the public-private nature of Facebook, which makes me reluctant to share anything on the site other than my name and - well, not much else. My oldest son loves Facebook, he tells me, because he can personalize his profile page and tell his "friends" (316 at last count) about his favorite teams or TV shows. He made the mistake of "friending" me, and I search his profile for hints of his secret other life. I'm just being a dad, but I do worry that a prospective employer will one day find my son's Facebook page, and she won't give him the job just because he has an unnatural attraction to the New York Mets. My son also reminds me that Facebook is a great way to get and stay in touch with people. There are "three different ways you can have a conversation with people and you don't have to open up separate applications," he writes. "There is sending kind of like an e-mail, like this message; there is writing on a person's wall, which is slightly more public; and there is instant messaging." Nice, and since he's in Israel this summer, Facebook has been a great way for us to communicate. I am sold on Facebook's photo feature, which lets you upload photos to your page and, even better, "tag" each pic with the names of its subjects. Stuck in my little office, I've been able to track my son in his journeys throughout the Holy Land. It's telling, however, that I am having my most satisfying Facebook experience with a teenager. I look at most of my "friends," and suspect they are like me: workplace shut-ins trying desperately to connect via a young person's technology about which they are basically clueless. We're like the first high-school teacher who showed up in class wearing "dungarees." We're Karl Rove rapping at the Correspondents Dinner. And Facebook is also an oddly revealing view of the kinds of "friends" I make - and the incredibly narrow funnel my world has become. Look through my friends and helpful features like "people you may know" (friends of friends, in other words), and it's basically a list of people who share my race, religion, interests. A good percentage are, like me, either Jewish professionals or activists. I like to think of myself as an urbane person of varied interests. So where are the novelists with the cult followings? The geneticists with the MacArthur grants? The guy, any guy, with Springsteen tickets? Oh wait, I just got a friend request from - surprise, surprise, a rabbi. I'm going to keep at Facebook, because I think it still has the potential to save me from myself and the traffic. Just last week it facilitated a meet-up with two different high-school friends with whom I hadn't spoken in almost 30 years. That alone opens me up to their network of friends, and the possibility of a wider world. I'll try not to hold it against them that they're both Jewish. The writer is editor-in-chief of the New Jersey Jewish News.