Monday, October 7, 2013

Road Hogs


Before going any further, it might be good for you to read my daughter's musings on the subject at hand – why her over-age daddy would want to open a Facebook account. ( – Aug. 6, 2013)

If I wanted to be flippant (not me!), I might say that I got onto Facebook because I was bored one day and had nothing much else to do at the time. When Natania was faced with a similar situation, she went out and had her hair dyed blonde. That didn't seem like a reasonable option for me, so I sat down at BigMac and went to the Facebook home page.

It was something I had been thinking about for a long time. I knew there was this beast out there that was taking over the world and causing people to waste a lot of time in idle chatter. What would be the benefit to me? Did I need to continue my boycott in order to maintain my curmudgeonly image? Things to consider.

There was, I had come to realize, a lot of information and social discourse that I was not privy to. Many of the cultural events in Jerusalem that would be of interest to me were promoted primarily on Facebook. Aviella's concerts, Shakespeare in the Rough. Good stuff like that, things that were coming and going without my knowledge or involvement. Even though there is still a heavily monitored and cumbersome MA-chat e-mail group, most of the give and take here in Anglo Ma'ale Adumim goes on within the confines of the MA Facebook group. You want to exchange opinions about the up-coming municipal elections or ask questions about the bus service here in town? It's either Facebook or stand on the merpeset and holler. I wasn't sure how, but I figured I could also publicize my own efforts, both my articles and, in the future, my web page of photographs – may I live long enough to do it. Then there's a time-tested maxim: If you can't lick 'em, join 'em. There's no point in standing outside the stadium wondering what the score is on the field.

Believe it or not, up to that point I had never even seen a Facebook page and was fairly clueless as to how the thing worked. Yes, you can post things on your page and you have “friends,” but that's sort of nebulous; there's more to it than that. One way to find out. So I opened an account and entered my information.

There's one thing that concerns any Facebook neophyte: how do you hook up with other people? Of course, it's as easy as pie; in fact, it may be too easy. Facebook will help you connect with any of the billion or so people around the world who have accounts. You can start with anyone and everyone on your e-mail list who has a Facebook account and anybody they know or you know or you might know or someone thinks you may want to know. Or someone decides they want to be your friend. There's a delicate bit of etiquette in play here. You can't just be someone's Facebook friend. You have to ask permission, and you have to be accepted. Of course, the reverse is also true. You get a little note: somebody wants to be your friend. What do you do? It may be a long-lost friend from high school, and you're delighted to be in touch. But what if it's a friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend and you have no idea who it is? Or even worse: you have a very good idea who it is and you're not so sure you want them involved in your daily affairs? Is it rude to say no thanks, have a good day? Or to ignore the request? Would that be considered unmannerly? As they say around the Volga: “Vat to doooo?”

At this point in time, I have ninety-two Facebook friends, who can be divided – unlike Gaul – in five unequal parts: the locals (friends and acquaintances from Ma'ale Adumim), Encore! (people who I've met doing through our shows), a few other people I know in Israel, folks back home (from Passaic and Teaneck), and a miscellany (a few friends from the old days and school mates). It did occur to me one day: what do all these people have in common? The answer: not a lot, except for having the dubious privilege of knowing me.

I also began to wonder: I have (as I said) ninety-two Facebook friends. But there are people who have more than 500. I get more stuff on my home page than I can possibly handle, even if I wanted to make Facebook my main preoccupation. How much stuff would you get if you had 500 friends? I shudder to think.

When I refer to “stuff,” I'm alluding to the posts that people see fit to send out to the multitudes: all kinds of information that my Facebook friends seem to feel I need to know about. A lot of it is about them and their families: photos, anecdotes of various kinds. Some of it is well worth sharing, but some of it does not seem of much consequence: how well a person did or did not sleep the previous night, how much one is in need of a cup of coffee, a pet peeve that only one's immediate neighbors might relate to – like a bus not showing up on time, or some other frustration of a garden variety. Then there's the political stuff: a lot of it regarding the current occupant of the White House, by and from people who are even more politically conservative than I am (How is that even possible?). Throw in a collection of recipes and the usual potpourri of things humorous and bizarre floating around the world wide web, and you get an idea of what I'm bombarded with on a daily basis.

It's not any particular post that bothers me. (That's not true: I have an almost irresistible urge to impair the typing fingers of all those who insists on informing me that they beat so-and-so in Candy Crush or some other mind-numbing activity.) The problem, as I see it, is what I affectionately refer to as the “road hogs.”

One of W.C. Fields' best remembered screen roles was in a 1932 film entitled “If I Had a Million,” the premise of which is that, on his death bed, a multi-millionaire directs his secretary to select eight people at random from the telephone book and give them each one million dollars. Hence, eight episodes, the relevant one being “Road Hogs,” with W.C. and his partner, Alison Skipworth. The two of them are set to take their new (vintage 1932) automobile out for a spin. No sooner do they get out of their driveway, when their vehicle is totaled by some fool who ran a stop sign (this being before anybody ever though of car insurance). Shortly thereafter, our couple is given a million smackaroos, and they buy another car plus a fleet of old jalopies. They hire a crew of drivers and set off down the road, looking for road hogs. Whenever they find someone who is a menace on the road, W.C. cries out, as only he could,“road hog,” the signal for his team of demolition experts to go to work. You've seen videos of car crashes? This is way funnier. At the close of the scene, their own car is again wrecked. Nonetheless, it has been a “glorious day.”

Look at it this way. Let's say you have 100 Facebook friends. Some of them you're hoping are still breathing because you never hear from them. Some you hear from – if nothing more than to indicate a “like” – once in a blue moon. Still others post once in a while: once every few weeks. Some more frequently: every couple of days. And so on. If you were so inclined, or had nothing else to do, you might plot the frequency of other people's posts arriving on your home page. What I suspect is that most of us would wind up with the well-known bell-shaped curve, meaning most of your friends would be somewhere comfortably in the middle, people who post with some frequency but don't get carried away with what they're doing. But if you have the Silent Sam's on one end of the chart, what about the other side? That's where you find the compulsive posters, the ones who overwhelm you with their own musings and whatever else they can dig up to entertain and enlighten you.

Now I'm sure that everything that is posted is of interest to some of the recipients. The question is, how many? Suppose you had the ability to rate each post you get for interest to you – more than just “like.” How about the one to ten scale, descending from “thanks a million” to “why are you even thinking of wasting my time?” Perhaps, in certain special circumstances one needs to be assertive in protest against absolute irrelevancy– if not quite as aggressive as W.C. Fields. When I was first writing this, I noticed something on my home page, in which the poster wrote X that he was not going to speak to her until she apologized (for what I don't know). To which I responded, “This seems to be a private conversation that a lot of people don't need to see.” Within one second of hitting the enter key, I got a “like” from another friend of the friend.

But in less provocative situations, how do you tell someone you know, “The first two/three/four/five (political cartoons, recipes, articles, pictures of your pet, cute things your child has said) were fine, but don't you think you're overdoing it a little? I know you don't mean to, but you're simply hogging the road, so I'm no longer in control of my own home page.” And it's not just the original post. Someone else decides he likes it and “shares” it, so you may see it a second or third time. Then there's the post that gets everyone's attention, prompting dozens of `'likes,” and on a good or bad day, comments up the wazoo, both to the original post and the comments on the comments – all taking up more room.

So now, I'm in the middle of the virtual highway, trying to catch up with the one post that interests me – say, Mark Steyn's weekly column that Ron punctiliously send out or Rachel Miskin's imaginative “Cake of the Week,” describing her latest incredible creation. Or posts from people on the special interest groups I belong to: “Hot Jazz Records,” “Film Noir,” or “Pre-Code Hollywood.” Yet when I find something intriguing, should I turn away for a moment, that post is gone because ten other posts have arrived and have crowded mine off the road. I don't want to start up with people I know. Again, “Vat to dooooo?” Fortunately, for all concerned, there are ways of protecting my lane that are less drastic that W.C. Field's solution. I don't have to start smashing other people's keyboards – even if I have the irresistible urge to do so. A discrete, well placed click of the mouse will remove a lot of the traffic on my Facebook highway, so I can “drive” safely and have “a glorious day.” “Road hogs,” beware!

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