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Facing Up to Facebook

J. Dennis and Phyllis Robinson in the early 1950s

Kicking and screaming. I just joined Facebook. Last week I was one of us. Today I am one of them. I got “friended” 200 times in the first five days. It was exhausting. I have been assimilated, and my life will never be the same. (Continued below)


I come to the Facebook party late. 955 million people were here when I arrived. (That’s more than three times the population of the United States.) These people “like” or comment on Facebook content over three billion times per day and upload over 300 million new photos daily. The company appeared in 2004 and Mark Zuckerberg, the Founder, Chairman and CEO of Facebook is only 28 years old. He is worth $21 billion, give or take a billion. I saw the movie, but I didn’t see the point of social networks.

Exposing my private life on Facebook was not what kept me out of the loop for years. I’ve been writing first-person newspaper columns since I was in junior high school and I have posted thousands of Web pages since I opened my own site in 1997. I’m online all day every day, so my life is an open book.

As a practicing hermit who shuns social situations, however, I had no interest in social networks. I am what they call a “content provider.” At least 1,000 people visit my Web site each day. They come and go quietly. I don’t know who they are unless they write or call. At one point, almost 10,000 readers received my monthly email newsletter. We never met. I didn’t even know their names. Life was good.

JD Robinson on a good day around 1951 in Southbridge, Mass

Then the numbers began to dwindle. More and more people were communicating “outside” of email via social networks like My Space, Twitter, Linked-In, and Facebook. Friends asked me to join, but I just laughed.

“Waste of time,” I told them. “Too busy to care.”

I figured social networks were a flash in the pan. I had better things to do than ogle pictures of babies and puppies. I didn’t care what my editor had for lunch or what my girlfriend from kindergarten saw on Netflix last night.

Resistance, however, was futile. My wife went over to the dark side years ago. She has 10 brothers, which means I have 10 brothers-in-law. They have countless children, some of whom are having children of their own. They keep track of each other on Facebook. My mother and my aunt, both in their eighties, like to video-chat on Facebook using the camera built into their laptops.

But it wasn’t the family that turned me. Nor was it the impact social networks may have had on the “Arab Spring” uprising in TunisiaEgyptYemen and Libya.

And it wasn’t out of sympathy for poor Mr. Zuckerberg, who is taking heat since the company went public and its stock options began to tank. At this writing, a share of Facebook stock is worth $11 less than when it came on the market two months ago.



Facing up to Facebook (Continued)

My decision to sign on was strictly business. I’m on a mission. The people who are changing this city, the movers and the shakers, are moving onto social networks. So are local businesses, local attractions, local media. They are forming online information networks and spreading the word about Portsmouth. That word should include information about the city’s most valuable commodity – our shared past. You’ve heard me say it before in every medium there is – Portsmouth’s economic future depends on keeping the PIscataqua clean and our heritage lively. Now I’m taking the message that “history matters” onto Facebook.

Writer J. Dennis Robinson at Mardi Gras in New Orleans with Pete Fountain in 1973 photo by Johnny DOnnels (C) J. Dennis Robinson/

It was  a scary plunge. People warned me that Facebook, like a lobster trap, is easy to enter and tricky to exit. A lot of members appear conflicted. They join this social network, but want to stay anonymous. They hide behind fake names and pictures of their pets. They publish little or no personal data, peering from behind cyber bushes or hiding in virtual rooms with a few trusted friends. Others blurt out more than anyone would want to know, posting hourly updates or plastering their “Wall” with quotations culled from a bottomless heap of recycled quotations.

There are, as I suspected, lots of babies, burbles, puppies and platitudes on Facebook. The software (not at all easy to master) allows users enormous control over what they want to see or avoid.

But there is also a fire hose-flow of fascinating stuff. Your “News Feed” is only as vital as the friends you select. Some of my friends have become super aggregators who comb the Internet for meaningful info. Some are phenomenal photographers, brilliant artists, great writers, keen-eyed travelers, skilled critics, passionate activists, or just drop-dead funny.

This week, for example, one local Facebooker took his Eagle Scout badges from a memory box and mailed them back to the Boys Scouts of America organization in protest of their antigay policies. It was a heartfelt moment. He treasured those badges and loved his scouting experience, he wrote, but his conscience required him to make a statement. Facebook friends showered him with praise in a quiet heroic moment that was both public and private.

Some 543 million Facebook users accessed their account through mobile devices last month, according to the official Web site. They are linked by smart phones and iPads in offices, in cars and in planes, in bedrooms and in bathrooms. Huge families spread across the planet can remain in almost constant contact. My cousin Wayne is right now trekking through Ireland and sends a photo every few kilometers. Parents may be closer to their children after the kids leave home these days, then when they were under the same roof.

“I email my son,” one user told me. “I leave lots of messages on his phone machine and it can take hours or days to get a reply. But if I send him a message on Facebook, he responds in a few seconds.”

The first days are a feeding frenzy of “friending.” My nephew Paul warned me that anything beyond 300 friends is too many for the human brain to handle. Some people have thousands. A graphic designer I know suggested that checking for messages once in the morning and once in the evening is a healthy balance. Others have lost interest and faded back to email and phone calls.

Fear mongers who warned me that I would be pulled into a vortex of wasted time were wrong. It takes me 12 seconds to log on, check for comments, and log off. Twelve seconds I can spare. I already had a life when I joined Facebook, and so far, it only feels richer and more connected. I can remain a hermit and still tap in.

Like the real world, Facebook can be a dangerous place. It is packed with pranksters, perverts, and grifters, which is why many users keep a tight rein on their privacy settings. Within four days of joining I was “friended” then “unfriended” by someone I haven’t seen in a decade. It hurt. Then I clicked on a bad link and my identity was “hijacked” by persons unknown. My account, with a little photo of me, then spewed embarrassing junk mail to everyone on my list. It took hours to clean up the mess and apologize.

“You’re just a rookie,” I was told. “It happens to the best of us.”

So far so good. I don’t play Facebook games or post my favorite songs and YouTube clips. I don’t do sports or talk about my family’s medical status. I’m simply posting updates every day or two on whatever history topic strikes my fancy. I’m “on message” and yet suddenly in touch with a vast community of people, most of whom I know, and trust, and respect in the real world.

And there’s a bonus for historians. Facebook is changing every users “profile” to a “timeline” format. Users are encouraged to enter important moments in their lives on a long line that runs from the top of the Web page (today) to the bottom (your birth). In-between are those key events that define us – schools, relationships, jobs, trips, accomplishments. The timeline is part resume, part journal, and more. Instead of didactic details, we are asked to include stories. I wrote about my old rock band, my first trip to Mardi Gras, the day an elephant walked into my office, and my wedding reception on the lawn of the John Paul Jones House.

Our wedding at JPJ House in 2002/ Peter E. Randall took the photo

My stuff is public to all 955 million members. I’m not interesting enough to have secrets. What Facebook is asking us to do, without saying as much, is to write our own obituaries. It’s a good idea. When I taught English composition, I asked my students to do the same. On Facebook, we are recording our lives as they happen. Eventually our timeline runs out, and those digital memories may become precious artifacts to those who survive us.

I don’t find that frightening. I’m half jealous of kids today. They will someday be able to rewind their entire lives online. How cool is that? When things get messy, unlike in life, Facebook offers a delete button.

Facebook is just a tool, like Google or a can opener or a car. You don’t have to participate. You don’t have to join. You can stay in the witness protection program and watch the rest of us perform. It’s a free country. It’s a free Web site too. Live free or die, baby.  I never thought I’d say it, but here goes – friend me.


Copyright © 2012 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson’s history column appears in the Portsmouth Herald every other Monday and exclusively online at his independent Web site His latest books are America’s Privateer: Lynx and the War of 1812 and Under the Isles of Shoals: Archaeology and Discovery at Smuttynose Island.


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