Issue 36 Friendship Winter 2009/10

(Face)book of the Dead

Mark Dery

Swinburne took comfort in the knowledge that “no life lives for ever / That dead men rise up never.” Obviously, the man lived in the age before Facebook. 


Just when you thought the past was happily entombed, the curse of social networking is conjuring it up. More often than not, that knock on your inbox door is the risen dead from your high school yearbook, classmates you thought you’d safely buried in the boneyard of forgotten things with a gentle shovel-tap on the face.


On rare occasion, a table-rap from the great beyond—a Facebook “friend request”—reminds you, out of the blue, of someone you were inordinately fond of but had lost touch with. More typically, though, that spectral hand tugging on your lapel is someone you didn’t know at all. Yes, he went to your high school. But your paths never crossed—for good reason, likely. Nonetheless, he feels inclined to “friend” you, perhaps to pad his Coalition of the Unwilling. 


A Facebook moment: someone’s rattling my mailbox. What brings him knocking, I’m curious to know. Pleading early onset Alzheimer’s, I ask if we’ve met before. We’ve never met, he replies. Maybe he’s read one of my books? Naw, he writes, he doesn’t really have a clue who I am or what I do; he just mails “everybody,” at random.


Another one for the specimen jar: a stranger comes calling. “You’ll forgive me,” I write, “but I can’t recall where—if?—we’ve met. How do we know each other?” He’s an alumnus from my college, it turns out, though not in my class. Even so, he remembers a poetry reading I gave, “a very impressive performance as I recall.” Weeks go by. One morning, my Inbox is pelted by messages he’s broadcasting to his friends. “Why am I being cc’d on this?,” I ask. He’s quick with his reply: “Why are you such a grouchy prick? That’s how I remembered you...” 


Am I a grouchy prick? Maybe. Or maybe my definition of “friend” is anachronistic, founded on the superannuated assumption that we reach out to people with whom we feel (or felt) some affinity; that our social networks grow organically, rooted in a mutual desire to connect (or re-connect) and twined around common interests or consonant sensibilities, if not a shared history. It’s out of joint with Facebook’s Phantom Zone, a being-in-nothingness where disembodied strangers pluck at other strangers’ sleeves for no reason whatsoever. Or because they’re curious about people they never knew. Or only knew from afar and now want to know up close, even if they always were grouchy pricks. 


To be sure, our inescapably connected age has its virtues. Recently, on Facebook, I ran into someone I hadn’t seen since his last day at college—an afternoon curling and bleaching in my memory like an old Polaroid, tinged by one of those apocalyptic LA sunsets and the supersaturated, Maxfield Parrish colors switched on by the magic mushrooms we’d eaten. A lifetime later, the rapport was instant, as if we’d never left that lost world, him telling me about his life as an ER doctor, mesmerizing me with tales of his MASH unit.


But most of my Facebook traffic consists of friend requests from the restless dead of 1978—the shag-haired, bong-loaded Banquos of my high school class who are knocking, even now, at my virtual door. 


My Inbox pings. Too perfectly, it’s someone from Hilltop High, from the class a year behind me, someone I never knew, someone who has Added Me as a Friend on Facebook, and Needs Me to Confirm That I Knew Her in Order for Us to be Friends on Facebook. 


I find myself thinking of Raymond Chandler, an almost pathologically private man who would have found abhorrent the transparency of our fishbowl selves, and the awful, grabby neediness of our compulsively social age. Chandler was a conundrum: a confirmed misanthrope and inveterate recluse haunted, late at night, by his self-imposed loneliness, which he warded off with a bottle of gin and a Dictaphone, composing letters to exorcise “that horrid blank feeling of not having anybody to talk or listen to.” A difficult man (“my character is an unbecoming mixture of outer diffidence and inward arrogance”), he found epistolary friendship more congenial than face-to-face interaction. “I don’t quite know why you are so close to my heart, but you are,” he wrote to a female friend. “In some mysterious way you have put me inside of you, so that I have to lie awake at night and worry about you—you a girl I have never seen. Why? The older you get, the less you know...”


Even in his despairing last years, after his wife died, he shrank from human contact. “All my best friends I have never seen,” he wrote to one correspondent. “To know me in the flesh is to pass on to better things.” Maybe Facebook would have helped.


Mark Dery is a cultural critic. He has been a professor in the Department of Journalism at New York University; a Chancellor’s Distinguished Fellow at University of California, Irvine; and a Visiting Scholar at the American Academy in Rome. He is the author of several books, including Escape Velocity: Cyberculture at the End of the Century (Grove Press, 1996) and The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium: American Culture on the Brink (Grove Press, 1999).

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