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GET OFF YOUR FACEBOOK

09-06-2009

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Social networking websites are usually seen as a pre-occupation of yoof, but Ros Dodd argues that they are the ideal social space for oldies too.

I used to love going out – milling with the crowds in bars and restaurants on a Friday night, chatting for hours with friends I’d already nattered to in the office all day; attending “dos” where I knew no one but was more than happy to indulge in small talk all evening.

There was a time when I liked nothing better than to get involved in heated discussions about world politics and global warming – eager to have my say and confident of my views, however controversial and outrageous.

How times change. Maybe it’s an age, marriage or motherhood thing – or a combination of all three – but nowadays I’d do almost anything than venture forth into the social hotbed of the city. I even get a sinking feeling when I know a close friend or relative is coming for dinner or to stay. Oh no, I think, I’m going to have to talk to them and keep them entertained!

It’s not that I no longer like people – I do, very much (well, some people, anyway). It’s just that I find face to face conversation sometimes tiring, often boring and almost always too prolonged.

Unless rendered garrulous and uninhibited by a few glasses too many, I struggle to enjoy social intercourse in the way I used to do. By the time dessert has been cleared away, I find myself thinking longingly of a long, hot soak in the bath or the TV programme I’ve videoed.

Since becoming an online “social networker”, that longing now extends to Facebook.

Oh, to escape “real life” conversation and complicated debates and be myself, by myself in front of the computer – talking facelessly and lucidly (I’m a much better writer than I am a talker) when I want, to whom I want and for as long as I want.

No glancing at the clock; no anxiety over whether I’m boring people stupid; no embarrassment when I may have said the wrong thing – just pure, unalloyed freedom to be me.

I’ve always been able to be witty in (very) short bursts – it’s keeping it up that’s the problem, especially in real life. No such difficulty with Facebook. You can take as long as you want to formulate a caustic or droll riposte to a friend’s posting, and when they reply – more caustically and drolly – you can simply log off, in enigmatic fashion.

Talking global politics and Third World debt is something I no longer enjoy because I’m not as confident in my knowledge and therefore my views now that I’m not involved in “frontline journalism” any more.

When my clever, erudite brother-in-law was staying recently, I found myself struggling to make my mark on a discussion about the kind of issues I once relished debating. You can avoid all that with social networking sites.

Facebook allows you to engage with other people as much – or as little – as you want.

You can be playing a game of Scrabble with one friend while having real-time chats with several others at the same time. It’s perfect for a once-sociable sociophobe like me because I can still be “out there” even when I’m snugly and determinedly “in here”.

When your life is a pale reflection of how it used to be – mixing with the stars, jetting about the world and so on – the “what’s on your mind?” provision allows you to embellish or simply make up something that sounds half way exciting or cutting edge.

“I had a Christmas card from Antonio Carluccio this morning” I wrote one day in December.

Okay, it was blatant name-dropping, but it was true – and it might have suggested to my Facebook friends that my life still retained an element of glamour.

I love Facebook because I can keep in regular touch with friends and business associates easily and succinctly without having to meet up with them! I can also reacquaint myself with people I long ago lost touch with through traditional means.

These are people I cared about but didn’t feel sufficiently moved to ‘phone up for a chat or meet for a drink. Now, though, thanks to Facebook, not only am I in contact again, I also have an idea how their lives are going. In some cases, just knowing they are still alive is comfort enough.

I tried Twitter for a while, but decided it wasn’t for me. Ironically, perhaps, it wasn’t interactive enough. Fine for the likes of celebrities who simply want to spout about what they’re doing, without giving a stuff about what their followers are up to, but I still like to converse.

And there’s the nub of it. I love conversation as much as I ever did – it’s just that now that I’m older, arguably wiser and more selfish and self-protective, I want it more on my terms and with more control over it.

Critics of social networking sites claim the likes of Facebook risk destroying social interaction as we once knew it. To us oldies, who have done traditional social interaction to death, Facebook gives us the voice we want, when we want – and at the considered pace we want.

I hope I’m not done with face to face conversation – some of my best times are still heart-to-hearts with kindred spirits – but on a daily basis I’d much rather exchange one-liners (witty or otherwise) with people I know, or once knew, on the basis they might continue to think I’m interesting.

Meeting people when you feeling socially challenged makes Denis Thatcher’s pithy observation more pertinent: "Better keep your mouth shut and be thought a fool than open it and remove all doubt.” The beauty of Facebook is that you never have to open your mouth!

Ros Dodd is a former Birmingham Post journalist.

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