Social networking makes teenagers of us all. Lots of my ridiculously successful friends — some of whom appear regularly on television, give TED talks and are the kind of people who get harassed in restaurants by their fans (while my fans remain remarkably good-mannered and never, ever come over to introduce themselves or say a word) — will still not permit themselves to have a Facebook account because the thought of people unfriending them is terrifying.
One of these women — you would recognize her in a heartbeat — briefly had a Facebook account. But then she started getting pop-up ads, maybe through email, that sneered, “Three people have unfriended you. Find out more.”
First of all, when did “unfriend” become a verb? Was it around the time “parenting” or “scrapbooking,” which was after “partying” but before “vocalizing,” which is now the word my students use instead of employing the word “say” as ordinary speakers of English might, umm, say.
Anyway, this friend of mine was plagued (good noun-to-verb usage) by the thought that three people didn’t like her. She was awake at night at the thought of being dismissed from a vague network of people who she might never know. This, perhaps, could be the new definition of insane, don’t you think? The idea that you’re afraid people that you don’t know might not like you? I mean, if you had somebody you’d never met come up to you on the street, grab you by the collar shout “Did you unfriend me?” wouldn’t your instinct be to call a cop?
Yet having the experience of people who dare to unfriend you is a nothing compared to the recent gang-shaming experience provided by Linked-In. They sent out messages “congratulating” folks for being at the top of their searches. A relative was the first to forward me one with self-effacing pride. He emailed me a note where the subject line read: “Guess I’m not too shabby after all.” And in the body of the email was a notice that his name was in the top 5 percent of last year’s Linked-In searches.
I’ll admit I was impressed. I wrote him back an effusive letter telling him that it was clear from this recognition that his hard work as a freelancer had finally paid off. I actually wrote the words, “That’s some pretty exclusive club, the top 5 percent.” He answered with blushing thanks and was clearly what the English would have called, “chuffed.”
Imagine my surprise, then, when two days later I got a notice saying that my name had come up in the top 10 percent of Linked-In searches. I’ve never won a prize for self-effacement but even I was skeptical. I turned to Facebook to air my questions. “Anybody else get into the top 10 percent?” I asked.
Turns out that all of them, even those from Pluto and North Dakota, were at the top of LinkedIn searches. It was sort of like finding out that a cute boy had written, “You’re the most adorable creature ever” on everybody’s yearbook page when all the time you’d been secretly cherishing the idea that you, and you alone (or at least you among only the top 10 percent) were chosen only to discover that what you thought was a unique signature was pretty much a rubber stamp.
And this is what I mean about making you feel like you’re back in high school.
Social networking sites — from Facebook to Pinterest to StumbleUpon — are very much like high school: As conducive as they are to the creation of community, they are simultaneously the cause of anxiety, bizarre competitions and weirdly contorted definitions of success.
How is getting an ad saying you’ve been “unfriended” different from the experience of having a person you’ve never met before come up to you between algebra and gym and whisper in your ear “I hear a certain person doesn’t like you anymore” before scuttling, crab-like, back to their locker?
So what can we do about this? How can we stop feeling adolescent as soon as we face the screen?
Maybe we should screen the screen: The word once meant “to divide, protect, separate.” Maybe we should remember that and not use it as a mirror.
Gina Barreca is an English professor at the University of Connecticut, a feminist scholar who has written eight books, and a columnist for the Hartford Courant. She can be reached through her website at www.ginabarreca.com.