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The F Word

Once upon a time, a long, long time ago, in a land far, far away, I was a student at a prestigious boarding school. We all knew just how prestigious our school was. We were insufferable snobs. We knew you couldn't buy your way in, unlike at some other schools. Ours was a savage, Lord of the Flies-esque meritocracy. When I set foot on campus on that long-ago green September day, “I am part of the intelligentsia,” I crowed smugly to myself. “I am one of the beautiful people.” I felt I had arrived.

And then they gave me my facebook, and I knew I had not arrived.

Every year began with the hello of the facebook, and every year ended with the goodbye of the yearbook. Sandwiched inbetween were nine months of personal and social development, but those books were relentless social registers. Reminders of who was of the peerage and who was not and never would be. Who's fat? Who's hot? Who's got acne and bad posture? Who's sleeping with whom, who broke up with whom, and who is a two-timing ho? How many of the cool kids do we know, how many of them actually talk to us, and how many would actually say hello first? Whose eating disorder stopped their heart and sent them to the hospital last spring? Who just isn't smart enough? Who's a friendless dork?

The facebook invariably aroused ugly, petty questions within every breast immediately upon arrival. That's why everyone loved it. Everyone jostled around their copies as if they were boxes of Girl Scout Cookies, drawing circles around photos, writing in the margins, and talking smack about people into the wee hours of the morning. All of September was given over to dissecting the facebook. By October we had all moved on to more pressing issues, like who had just lost their virginity, who was throwing up in the girls' bathrooms, and who was snorting coke in order to do better on tests.

Beautiful high school students go on to beautiful colleges, and a few years later I was visiting a friend at Harvard. A deeply ambivalent visit, because although I adored my friend and thought this was an excellent place for her, I seethed with jealousy. Why did she get to attend a school full of brilliant minds and ivy crawling up bricks while I had to make do with a wildly inferior product? I was in this ambivalent and envious frame of mind one evening, appreciative of knowing people who lived in exalted circles, resentful of being excluded from them myself, when I stopped off at her dorm room and some name came up and she said, “oh, let's look them up on the Facebook.”

To my surprise she did not pull out a floppy book. She went to her computer and presented me with an online, interactive Facebook in which students could change things and all those scribbles and circles and nasty arrows we had originally drawn with pens were now digital forums for anyone to see. “Why in God's name would you ever want one of these?” I asked, wishing I were part of such an elitist snobaganza. “Let me see that a little closer.”

I went back to my not-very-impressive college and wished we had an online Facebook that I could disdain and refuse to be a part of. How Harvard it was, to take the tradition of aristocracy and push it that one step that no one else had thought of. Also how Harvard it was to appear to be welcoming and inclusive, and indeed to have humanitarian impulses at the root of an endeavour....

The next year the Facebook made itself even more exclusive and elitist by opening its doors...a little! Now it wasn't just, “sorry, you don't go to our school,” it was, “sorry, you are just not smart enough to hang out with us.” Everyone who wasn't A-list enough to go to a select few impressive schools felt the sting of not-belonging even more acutely. I put the Facebook out of my mind.

Years came and went. People asked me to Myster them and to Friendspace them and I always said no. What was wrong with a good old-fashioned paper letter with a stamp? And for a long time, that was the response I sent every time people asked me to join them on their social network du jour. I wrote long juicy letters, cordially inviting them to email me. I wanted to be actual friends with people who wanted to be actual friends with me, and share actual things with me, not just allow me to learn off a public billboard that they bought a latte yesterday. Not one person ever responded to my letters, and every time they didn't, I set my teeth more and more against social networks as a whole. Antisocial networks, they were.

What was the meaning of friendship if it was something you shared with three hundred people or more? Who even knew three hundred people? And how could people be “friends” with people they'd never met face to face?

One of my many “so there was this guy” stories happened in college. This guy was very bright and funny and reasonably A-list. I read his newspaper column and had a whopping crush on him. Somehow we got to messaging each other over the primitive campus internet messaging system. Messaging turned into long virtual conversations, smart, flirtatious, and funny. We developed a whole relationship around our scintillating virtual chemistry. But in real life? Forget it! He thought he was way too cool to be seen with me, and I was way too painfully aware of his coolness and awkward around boys to attempt to talk with him. In person, our interactions consisted of him ignoring me and me blushing and trying to get the sidewalk to swallow me up whole. This taught me the painful lesson of never letting electronic communications of any kind surpass Real Life interactions. People are different in real life. Know the real live person.

Part of why I refused to Facebook for many years was because I saw too many people not heeding this essential lesson. They had whole electronic friendships with people whom they either didn't actually know or with whom they had totally different relationships in person, and that's no good. All kinds of people invited me to join so they could be friends with me, and I always turned them down, because I did want to be friends with them. I wanted them to have coffee with me and tell me their “so there's this guy” stories and let me cry on their shoulder, and I thought they wouldn't do that if they could have the easy way out of just adding me as a notch on their bedpost. And that raised the other fear: do you really want to be friends with me, or do you just want to feel good about yourself by having a big number of friends? The less volatile cousin of “don't pay your rent with my heart” is “don't boost your ego with my good will.”

After a while everyone in the whole world had a Facebook account, and I acquired a defining characteristic: “Jordana who does not Facebook.” It was a rarer and more intriguing social mutation than red hair or epilepsy. Really? She really doesn't Facebook? And then the universal question: WHY NOT?

I always said it was because I didn't want anyone to know what I did or with whom I did it. And that was true, and it's still true, but it's simplistic. For a long time I did have to stay silent about my social life, and it was a relief when that changed, but more than that, I didn't Facebook because I valued real friendship. I didn't Facebook because I believe in the artistic power of choice: if you tell one person one thing, it's important, but if you tell a thousand people a thousand things, who cares? I didn't Facebook because it took me years to get over high school, and I'm still not over the shame of not having gone to an Ivy League college, and I want my adult relationships to be about communion and communication, not about cliques and scalp-collecting. I didn't Facebook because I am fanatic about my emotional privacy and believe friendship is an intimate state that exists between two people, needs nurturing and focussed care, and is nobody else's business. I didn't Facebook because I feel that to be with me in any capacity, people have to trust me with their hearts and feel that I am not going to betray their secrets. I say friendship is private, Facebook says friendship is public. Who is right?

We both are. What is private? What is public? Is it a balance that shifts from moment to moment within each relationship? And can we protect the privacy of our private lives more effectively by presenting a (selectively) showy public life?

In June I needed a new pair of shoes and had made up my mind that they were going to be Soy Porteñas, no matter what. Unless you live in Baires or you Facebook, such shoes are almost impossible to come by. I fought the Facebook ultimatum with the ferocity of a wild boar whose offspring has been stolen by gnomes, but in October I broke down and joined. But nobody could make me tell anyone I had done so! I wouldn't say one single thing about myself on it. I wouldn't “friend” anybody. And I wouldn't let anybody “friend” me. I opted out of everything and unchecked everything and hunkered down low with a hat over my metaphorical eyes. This actually worked, and the only way my life changed was that now I had Facebook emails clogging up my inbox every day, one more thing to delete unread.

I was just about to delete my Facebook account and go back to my previous Luddite ways when...I got sick. And here I was, lying in bed, bored beyond belief. A friend had been complaining that Facebook was sucking out her life's blood (I paraphrase). Yup, bad stuff, that Facebook! I'd seen too many people wasting too many hours on it and feeling crappy afterward! But using the word in conversation had put it in the front of my mind. Maybe I could just take a peek at people's pictures without them knowing that I had been there....

And the rest is history. I refuse to put anything on my Facebook page because I want the people who know me to know me. I refuse to comment. I refuse to put little thumbs on things. I refuse to share. If you don't already know me, Facebook is not about to be your way in.

I decided it was ok to have a wide filtration scope. My personal approach to living in a world with people in it has always been: congenial with many, known by few. Provided my own personal structure is securely in place, Facebook will be ok. As long as I continue to define friendship as what happens in real life and not on a web-site, I decided there's nothing wrong with having the electronic equivalent of the sort of acquaintanceship that might share a few words at a party but certainly wouldn't go to the party together.

But what does this have to do with dance, you ask, Gentle Reader? Everything! Facebook is a milonga, a concentrating social lens, and even in débuting there, I am already aware of the power struggles inherent within. Public and private, exclusion and belonging, aristocracy and communism—it's just like tango. I already understand why teenagers kill themselves over it. They're much too young to socialize, because they're still so malleable, they're learning who they are. As are we all, but people grow up socially more slowly than physically, and I can see how it could be extremely dangerous, especially to people with a sense of self built upon others' definitions.

This Facebook world is as fraught with nuance and codigos as any other milonga. To some people, it's like, “hey! I'm here! I made it! How's the cheap wine?” To other people I think, “yep, I can see you over there. You are going to have to cabeceo me.” And other people that I hadn't even thought of pop out of the blue, cabeceoing me with friend requests. There's an unspoken but painfully obvious social pecking order, and, just as at any other milonga, there's an exciting sense of freedom that balances that. One A-list and very attractive milonguero once told me, “dance with who you want to dance with.” He could dance with a beginner and still enjoy the process if there was Something There, and likewise there were teachers and famous milongueras out there with whom he never danced because there was Nothing There. Hearing this from him permanently freed me from any obligation to keep up with the Joneses. Before he said that, I felt like in order to dance with good dancers I could not let myself be seen dancing with bad dancers, even if they were friends. After he said that, I realized I could let high school die, and that real power lay in not giving a damn. Be friends with people whose company pleases you, whether it's on the pista or on the interweb. Where we're going, we don't need hierarchies. (The irony of this is that after I had lived this way for a while, dancing with whomever I pleased and turning down whomever I pleased, my friends were all good dancers.)

And just as at a milonga, I try not to let my public social interactions accurately match up with my private ones. Why am I talking to him and not to him? I'll never tell. And I think the only way to go forward with a life that has Facebook in it will be to keep in mind Mary Poppins's motto: “I never explain anything.” Because a social network is about presenting yourself as a transparent person. I'm fine with looking transparent as long as no one suspects the opacity that lies beneath it. Eventually people are bound to wonder, “why are you friends with him but not with her?” Or the piercing, "how is it that you have fifty friends in common and yet you say you aren't friends?"  And such like. Remain silent, and sharing remains possible. Tell everything, and any social sphere becomes untenable.

Whom you friend (and what you share) is like with whom you dance. A guy I run up to at a milonga, all smiles and chattiness, is probably not a guy with whom there is a “so there's this guy” story. Every time I go to a milonga I do my best to mix up my dances and thus maintain my social privacy. Thirty-one flavours of social interaction, to hide emotional needles in public haystacks. And over the course of many milongas, I try to mix up how much I dance, so that that doesn't tell anyone anything about my internal state either. In fact for a sport based around revelation and sharing, tango has taught me a thousand ways to hide and to be secret in the interest of self-preservation.

The primary one being that there's no defence like a good offence. Perhaps joining the world of Facebook is one more smoke-screen I put up, to distract people from what's really going on in my life....

“La vida es una milonga, y hay que saberla bailar.”

La Vida Es Una Milonga. Pedro Laurenz