I could feel my eyelid beginning to twitch uncontrollably.
An eyelid has a tendency to do that when you read the 35th Facebook update from someone you once knew who is now Hobnobbing With The Big-Timers or has just Won a Pre-Pritzker Prize (“Do they even offer those?” you yell, startling the office fish) or Recently Smiled at Jeremy Irons and Is Pretty Sure He Smiled Back.
You banish the twitch.
“Oh how delightful!” you type. “I aspire someday to be a footnote in your obituary.”
Spend any amount of time on social networks (and we do, these days) and it’s like being barraged by holiday letters 24-7 from everyone you have ever met.
“My son is a neurosurgeon!” they say.
“That’s nothing! My son is eight neurosurgeons, due to a very involved but high-achieving disorder!”
You click the “Like” button, hit the +1. There's nothing else for it — literally. Facebook and Google+, Google’s social network, both have wisely sensed that if you ever offered the opportunity not to like something, the thin veneer of civility binding our civilization together might well implode.
But this is the fruit of growing up in a generation where you can stay in touch indefinitely with everyone you’ve ever met. And it’s addictive.
It never occurred to the people setting up the battle between Google+ and Facebook that there might not be a battle at all. Perhaps we will take any fix we can, any possible chance to share, observe and measure ourselves.
Once, people had to send out a holiday newsletter to inform you that their children were perfect and they had the Best Jobs and that Marlon Brando’s spirit had clasped them warmly by the hand and called them brother.
Now it’s in the Gchat status, or on Google+ or Facebook or Twitter. Self-promotion has become such an essential part of modern life that it’s impossible to avoid these revelations.
Salieri had it easy. He only had to live with Mozart.
I have Chopin, Lizst and Beethoven in my Gchat contacts list. “I have just won an eighth Pulitzer,” they inform me.
“Ah,” I say.
I have perfected the art of saying “Ah” in that peculiarly nonchalant tone that just manages not to betray the fact that every fiber of my body is screaming out in indignation.
"Whenever a friend succeeds,” Gore Vidal once quipped, “a little something in me dies.”
Beware, my lord, of jealousy. It is the green-eyed monster that doth mock the meat it feeds on.
And it’s the ultimate modern vice.
“Envy conveys useful information,” say specialists in envy. “It tells us what we want to be.”
But after a certain point, it doesn’t. It just tells us how many points we would like to have. As you move along the course of your life, suddenly everything translates into points.
Eight points for a house. Ten points for kids. Ten points for professional success. Twenty for any of the above if they originally belonged to Norman Mailer.
And that’s where social media come in.
It pains us, but we like to know how we stand — as precisely as possible. It’s not a pleasure, in the sense that crack cocaine is not a pleasure. It’s an addiction. It’s a diabolical necessity.
We once kept up with the Joneses. They came home with a new Hi-Fi or tickets to the Chicago World’s Fair, and we drew the curtains and connived to top them.
Now the Joneses are everywhere. And they are updating us on their lives all the time.
We grimace. Then we smile. We nod. We have to know.
Envy is a uniquely unproductive emotion. But these days, it drives an entire online economy — the social media machine.
Need proof? Last week, Google+ swept past the 25 million user mark, bringing it within hailing range of Twitter. And Facebook still has 750 million users.
The question of “Can Google+ beat Facebook” is irrelevant.
We’re just doubling down.
Conversation is the subtle art of pretending to listen to someone else while you think about yourself. Now we can have three conversations at once — all about ourselves — all the while ignoring whatever is in fact happening around us. The social media economy is different than the real economy. You don’t need two computers. But every new network is another chance to be observed and judged! It’s like another ticket to scratch our primal itch to see and be seen.
The difficulty with living in the information age is that we all know too precisely the sizes of our respective ponds. Once when you were a big fish in a small pond you could avoid hearing from the sharks in the neighboring bodies.
There may have been a time when having more followers was regarded as an inconvenience. How would you get through the frozen passes, come winter? What if you had to cross a rope bridge?
But these days, they’re an indicator of value. We hoard them.
Losing a relative may be regarded as a misfortune. Losing a Twitter follower looks like carelessness. That feeling when your goldfish dies from inattention because you had to keep reloading Tumblr cannot compare to the leaden, sickening sensation when someone unfollows your blog.
We’re like a great country of Schrodinger’s cat. If you aren’t being observed and measured, constantly, from all sides, how can you tell you’re alive?
It’s enough to make you feel like an insignificant speck — and you know exactly how insignificant, because you are constantly getting updates from larger, more significant specks you once met at a barbecue.
And now it’s in stereo. Facebook and Google+ — why choose? The green-eyed monster has just gained another eye.