Facebook killed the robot. It killed a lot of web-based communities, but Happyrobot was the one where I hung out before Facebook made it sputter out. I was not aware of it happening at the time, I thought I was straddling my blog AND social media. But damn, my particular demographic was perfect for this platform, it could not have come at a better time. I had just had G, and suddenly I was reconnecting with childhood friends and uploading baby videos for extended family and in the middle of winter on mat leave, it was a lifeline.
For those of us who started publishing stuff online circa 2000, it didn't always go down so well. People would ask, Why would you put up personal things where everyone can read them? Like we were craven exhibitionists. And we were barely even posting photos of ourselves (selfies would have been the most laughably vain endeavour) — this was still just words on a page, accounts unconnected to anything but each other — a bunch of loosely affiliated people in a few North American cities who were trying to entertain each other in a community set up by the understated but supremely ahead-of-his-time Rich B.
Less than a decade later, we glommed onto Facebook (we were early adopters, right?) before all the buzz about data mining and privacy leaks — although arguably the writing was on the wall for anyone with a bit of curiosity. If the product is free, you are the product — we knew that on some level even then — but I kind of thought it would mean targeted advertising for clothes and movies, not a breeding ground for the next wave of fascism and science-denialism.
The thing with Facebook is, to brag a bit, I am kind of good at it. And a big part of that has to do with a decade on Happyrobot. I learned how to bridge that weird zone of writing for myself while trying to connect with other people. And my community of friends is very generous. I never dreamed I would get this kind of engagement and validation, even for the most mundane things. If I posted a question about comfy shoes or summer camp programs, dozens of people would opine in a matter of hours. I'd ask to borrow a sled and within 20 minutes a neighbour I'd met twice would be dropping one on my front porch. It was just so slick and vast and instantaneous. And totally addictive.
But sometimes the volume of affirmation would be overwhelming. A couple of years before #metoo, I started a private fb group with a couple of friends that was a place for us to vent about feminist issues, including sexual misconduct because you don't want to vent all your rage on your personal wall. Eventually, the group grew to several hundred women and we learned a lot from each other. One day, inspired by a real event in the news, a member shared a sexual assault story. And then another shared hers. And for at least 48 hours, the wall cascaded with these stories of pain and wonder that nearly each of us has processed a traumatic event in our lives and many had not had the words or people to share it with. To leave that environment of a private group and go back to your own feed where men you knew squawked about due process and so-called smear campaigns against serial predators left me quaking with rage.
But it's hard to extract yourself from that maddening community, even while for each moment of grace, there's a reminder that you are participating in a potentially toxic experiment. A big part of my work at media companies has involved social media, and I continue to rely on Facebook both as part of my job but also for the ease of access to a personal network, especially in this fragmented solitude of COVID lockdown. But it has become such a dark place. And while it is still delightful to see the old friends float through your timeline in their spectral forms, I never could have anticipated how much this place of accelerated connectivity could be manipulated to spread mistruths, and how many of us were vulnerable to these distortions. How a bunch of smart people would design an algorithm and interface that has us pecking at notifications like debauched addicts.
I miss the simpler times, says grandma, when our delusions were treasured stories we told ourselves, our closest friends and the handful of people who navigated to our blog.