Along with the Daily Mail, on late-70s Saturday mornings, there used to come a local news sheet. It was a Gestetner job; typed and duplicated in our local town and circulated in the local villages. It included notices from local groups and clubs along with small ads: things for sale, tradesmen’s telephone numbers, special offers; the usual stuff of community commerce. One Saturday, the ads included a man ‘looking for love’; the following week, a message from a possible suitor appeared. Over the ensuing Saturdays, there was an exchange of messages, until one of them looked for honesty from the other, and there the correspondence ended. In a small, rural community, it was impossible to keep up the pretence of being something you were not.
Being whatever you wanted to be in those years was confined to the realms of Cloud Nine, there were plenty who would bring you down to Earth. But the fetters have been broken; it is possible to be whoever or whatever one wants to be – virtually at least.
Facebook advised on Monday that a friend’s profile was only 54% complete; various details were still to be added: things like make of car had not yet been included. But what if the friend put in ‘Ferrari’? Who would bother to challenge it? If anyone questions anything said, it is a simple matter to delete them as a friend, and who is there, anyway, who would be sufficiently pedantic to start posting messages saying the person does not have a Ferrari? Wouldn’t the reaction be that if the person wishes to say they have a Ferrari, sure it’s only fun?
There is the alternative world of online role playing, where people have their own avatars that live in an entirely parallel universe, one that exists only in electronic form. But there is also the real world, the world of flesh and blood and stuff, where online sites allow the possibility of reinvention: you can be what you want to be, not in avatar form, but in the stories you tell of yourself to those who read your profile. You may never have driven a Lamborghini, or drunk cocktails on the Copacabana, or chartered a yacht in the Aegean, or surfed on Bondi, but who is there to contradict you?
And maybe it’s not important, there were always bar room bores who exaggerated every story, and told a few that had not a shred of truth, but no-one was inclined to take them seriously; you took your cues from the reaction of people around and smiled and went back to your pint.
Maybe it’s the lack of cues from other people that’s now the problem; the couple in the news sheet could never have really deceived each other because there would have been friends and neighbours to tell them the truth. The online ‘social networking’ sites don’t provide cues from others; they are frequently one to one experiences. People can make claims and there is no-one to raise an eyebrow or smirk when the story is told. The reaction when someone posts the odd terminological inexactitude on their Facebook wall, or wherever, is to ignore it, or, if it happens too often, to block them or delete them; it’s not to behave as one would in a normal social setting and make it clear to companions that the story should be disbelieved.
Given that Facebook is free, it would be too much to expect that it would be policed; that the appearance of certain words might prompt the appearance of a pop-up box saying ‘Subject to verification’ or similar; but maybe a health warning should be more prominent, ‘People on Facebook have all the characteristics of people in the real world, including the bad ones’.
Thirty years ago, the couple in the news sheet would not have kept us entertained for weeks as they did; it would all have been online. Goodness knows what they might have said.