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The Scrivener: Friends With Faces

Brian Barratt was surprised by what he found when he re-opened his old Facebook page.

I have bravely reopened my old page on Facebook. What a surprise to find that my page is now 'Sponsored' by 'Zoosk', 'Fabulous Fresh Food', 'Arthritic Pain Relief', and 'Senior Dating at B2', among others.

Then again, membership is free and Facebook has to raise income from advertising. To help its advertisers, I understand that it is busily collecting information by means of its concealed links to a vast number of websites. From the software I use to block intrusions I know that it has attempted nearly 230,000 times in the past couple of years to read information from my computer.

My page is one of about 50 million active pages and, the statistics tell us, there are a billion active users per month. Of course, this figure might include many instances of the same person using the site several times a month or several times a day. By way of contrast, Twitter is said to have 500 million users overall, of whom 200 million are active.

As these statistics are not standardised, they can be used only to indicate general figures. And general figures in the millions and billions are not to be sniffed at. We're obviously dealing with a significant aspect of present-day life.

It's rather nice to have established links, however tenuous, by becoming 'Friends' with a people in the next two generations of our family tree. We're not chatting, as such, but each can read about what the others are doing, if we so wish. Or, rather, about what they and I decide to write about what we are doing it isn't wise to write too personally when snoopers, scammers and phishers are always trying to invade. It's worth noting that whenever you press 'Like' on someone's entry, information is collected by Facebook for use by advertising networks.

A few fellow-writers and authors are among my 'Friends'. One of them writes books, runs two Twitter pages, a blog page, is editor of at least two websites, and conducts radio interviews. Yes, he does also spend plenty of time out of doors in the fresh air, in case you wondered. I have re-established contact with two parsons whose parish commitments precluded continuing email correspondence a few years ago they were just too busy: a Church of Scotland minister and an Episcopalian priest. I was hoping for find an old school pal who became a Church of England bishop. He had a flair for publicity but doesn't seem to have extended it to Facebook. That saddens me, because I'd like to know what causes he is fighting for and what controversies he is currently stirring up.
However, ecclesiastical interaction was not one of my aims in venturing back into Facebook territory. I wanted to see if I could read about what members of two generations of the extended family are doing. (Members of the third generation are still a bit too young to be at the computer keyboard.)

In the olden days we used to write letters with ink on paper and send them by sticky-stamp mail. But that was often confined to our immediate family, parents and siblings. I was very fortunate in having a lively exchange of letters with a cousin. She was over 30 years older than me and became my mentor. There were other cousins in my own age group whom I never even met. And if I had had a great-uncle 55 years older than me, I doubt that we would have swapped letters. The youngest family relative among my 'Friends' on Facebook is 55 years younger than me. I don't suppose we will be swapping letters as such but perhaps we will read each other's entries occasionally.

Correspondence in bygone times was often akin to having a proper conversation. Letter writing as an art has almost died out though it is still possible on email for those who have the time, interest and ability. Facebook has not replaced it. It is an entirely different form of communication. As in Twitter, short statements or messages pop up and can be replied to by equally short responses. The inevitable question arises, 'Is this useful?' A friend tells me that statistics show that 61% of users drop out of Facebook for reasons including a decline in interest and 'it's a waste of time'.

I rather like the Chat facility whereby I can have a conversation with someone who is logged into Facebook at the same time as me. There isn't room for many words, but it comes close to a real chat because it is 'live'. I became aware of that facility when a message arrived from a friend who was at the time in a small town about 2,000km north of where I live and several hundred kilometres from the nearest town with a population of more than a couple of hundred. He was helping a tribal elder to make boomerangs, and was also complaining that ants had somehow got into his computer (or iPad) and were making communication difficult. In Australia we sometimes refer to 'the tyranny of distance'. This short conversation helped to show how the 'tyranny', if not ants, can be overcome by sophisticated modern technology.

With that complex technology, I can read about simple things such as birthdays, engagements, weddings, parties, favourite films, concerts, favourite music, holidays, politics, needy causes, sport, pets, and all kinds of snippets of news posted by 'Friends'. Some of this is 'useful' in that I might not otherwise know about it. Some is 'a waste of time' because we all of us live quite different lives with unrelated interests.
Meanwhile, I post short items about topics which interest me, e.g., Huntsman spiders, 17th century medicine, the Twitter page of Pope Tawadros II, British TV comedy. A couple of people in my age group have responded and we've had some humorous exchanges. And that is useful.

All this is an experiment, an exploration, work in progress. I might even produce some statistics if the work ever progresses to a conclusion.

Copyright Brian Barratt 2013

This is a useful summary of statistics which may or may not be accurate:


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