Not with a bang but a food fight

According to Facebook, I have 52 friends.

This is extremely modest by Facebook standards. I’m clearly no Robert Scoble, who has amassed more than 4,500 chums since Facebook opened its doors to the hoi polloi last September.

Scoble’s enormous posse illustrates the way the meaning of the word ‘friend’ is shifting at internet light-speed. It won’t be long before we’ll need a new word to denote the people we go to the pub with, who console us with soothing words when we’re sobbing in the toilet, or who let us stay in their spare room when our relationships go awry.

I’ve never met some of my Facebook friends, and I’m pretty sure that some of them wouldn’t recognise me if they did encounter me sobbing in a toilet. But I do know who they all are, because they’re listed under their real names, with real photos of themselves beside them. There’s just one exception – a chap with a fake name who’s chosen to illustrate himself with a picture of a monkey, and whose own list of ‘friends’, in the sort of postmodern twist that’s commonplace on the internet, includes himself under his real name.

My monkey-friend isn’t just an exception on my friends list; he’s an exception on Facebook as a whole. Back in 2001, a chatboard I used to frequent carried the disclaimer: ‘No one here is who they say they are. All celebrity postings are impersonated…badly.’ On Facebook, you can be pretty sure that everyone is who they say they are, and that all celebrity postings are actually typed by the actual celebrity’s own starry digits.

This may be why Facebook is proving popular with people who wouldn’t ordinarily hang out on the internet. Rather than being a dangerous no man’s land where girls who are boys like boys to be girls (and worse), everyone is exactly who they claim to be. It’s a perfect, shiny, reassuring mirror of real life.

I think it’s rubbish.

I’m already deeply nostalgic for the days when you had no idea who you were talking to online, when no one really did know – or particularly care – if you were a dog or a monkey or Christine Hamilton or that bloke out of Belle & Sebastian. When everyone had names like Wooden Spoon and Joss Ackland’s Spunky Backpack and Backstage with Slowdive, and you could spend weeks flirting with a lego minifigure with half a raspberry on its head before finding out it was actually your mum.

Yes, a lot of that still goes on. But looking at Facebook, I can’t help but think I’m seeing the future. And the future seems to consist of lots of neatly ordered photographs of people kissing their babies, looking content, and politely throwing pretend hamburgers at each other in a carefully sanitised play area.

It’s hardly the dark, messed-up cyber-future I’d come to expect from reading Neuromancer and Snow Crash. If the state is indeed ‘pooing its pants about the digital revolution‘, as Rafael Behr put it in last Sunday’s Observer, its bowel movements may be in vain. We seem to be tidying up the internet, shelving our elusive alter egos, and obediently consolidating our online activity around our actual real-life identity – all without any encouragement at all from our apparently terrified government.

There are some people for whom this moment hasn’t come too soon. I don’t think I’m one of them.

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