"If you're on Facebook, it's over." That was my 20-something son's take when I told him his 50-something father had created his own Facebook page. At the time, I thought I was just joining a sort of Internet club. I didn't realize I was entering an empire whose claimed population of 500 million users would make it the world's third-largest nation, if it were a country, and, as I later found out, already qualifies it as the second-largest dictatorship on Earth.
I'd turned up my nose at the idea of going on Facebook when my daughter, also a Millenial, first suggested it last year. Back then, I thought Facebook was merely a "social networking" web site a lot of kids used. But then she said this: "Facebook is fun! It would also be a good way to let people know about your book."
She had me at "book." My first, the story of a star-crossed military aircraft called the V-22 Osprey, was to be published in April. Over the three years I'd spent researching and writing The Dream Machine: The Untold History of the Notorious V-22 Osprey, my book had become my new baby. Like any proud parent, I wanted to tell the world about it. I also wanted to sell books, of course. I knew my first-rank publisher would get me media appearances and reviews in newspapers and magazines. But how to let the vast majority of people who no longer tune in to the mainstream media know what a great read I'd brought into the world? Creating a web site seemed expensive and most likely ineffective. So when my daughter suggested Facebook, I gave her idea a thumbs up.
Over the succeeding months, a whole new realm opened up to me. Facebook turned out to be a great place to post information about my book, and once it came out, I had plenty to post. Links to my appearances on The Daily Show With Jon Stewart and C-SPAN. Notices of flattering reviews in The Washington Post, other newspapers, and magazines like Marine Corps Gazette. My Facebook page gradually became a lovely little scrapbook for my new baby. Facebook also turned out to be a great way to connect with all kinds of people it would be good to stay in touch with, from old classmates to Marines I'd met while working on my book. When I discovered this, my reporter's instinct kicked in.
Success as a reporter often depends more on who you know than what you know. Networking is a core skill. Networking is also Facebook's advertised purpose, so that's how I started using it.
The Facebook Friends of my Marine Corps Facebook Friends included a lot of people I thought might be interested in my book, or just good to know -- active duty Army, Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard members, military retirees, defense contractor employees, civilian pilots, aeronautical engineers. Soon I was on Facebook more than an hour a day sending friend requests to them. It felt strange at first to ask total strangers to be my "friend," but after three decades in Washington, I was used to a loose definition of that word. Anyway, my qualms evaporated entirely after I started "friending" journalists I knew, then began receiving unsolicited friend requests from Facebook Friends of theirs I'd never met. These included famous TV and radio personalities and newspaper and magazine editors and publishers. I was astounded to see that many of them had thousands of Facebook Friends. That's when I became a Facebook fanatic.
Soon, I, too, had more than a thousand Facebook Friends, and every day I was adding more. By mid-summer, my list had topped 1,500, and I was spending a couple of hours or more each day updating what was on my page, sending out new friend requests, and replying to unsolicited friend requests sent to me. Not a few of the latter came from young women with names like "Bogdana" or "Ruxandra" whose photos showed them in seductive poses. When I clicked on one's name to see if she was just a sexy helicopter pilot or something, all her Facebook page told me was that she was interested in "Men and Relationships." Not the kind of Facebook Friend I was looking for, but it was simple enough to click the "Ignore" button when friend requests arrived that were uninteresting, or might be viruses.
Soon I was getting so many Facebook emails I had to create a folder for them in Microsoft Outlook to keep them from cluttering up my regular Inbox, and sorting through the dozens of new ones each day was sometimes a chore. Still, going on Facebook was like going to a big party where you could make new contacts. I was loving it so much, I started urging people I met in the flesh to friend me on Facebook, or create a Facebook page of their own if they didn't have one. I was one of Facebook's biggest fans.
Then the trouble began.
One day as I was sending out friend requests, a chilling message in big, black letters on a pink background popped up on my computer screen: "Warning! You are engaging in behavior that may be considered annoying or abusive by other users. Facebook's systems determined that you were going too fast when adding friends. You must significantly slow down. Further misuse of site features may result in a temporary block or your account being permanently disabled. For further information, please visit our FAQ page."
I was flabbergasted. Going too fast adding friends? Wasn't making friends what Facebook was for? I was also puzzled. Annoying? Only Facebook's computers could see how fast I was adding friends, obviously, so surely I wasn't truly annoying anyone. Abusive? Absurd. What's abusive about asking someone to be your friend? I'd always thought it was nice. Okay, I decided, fine. I'll stop sending friend requests today. I started to log off. But there's a place on your page where Facebook itself suggests people you might want to friend, so out of curiosity, I went there and clicked "Confirm" on one of Facebook's suggestions. The warning popped up again! Ridiculous, I thought. You suggest I friend somebody, then tell me I'm friending people too fast when I accept your suggestion? So I logged off Facebook for the day.
Other Facebookers assured me the warning was computer-generated. One way Facebook's software tries to prevent spammers and botnets from exploiting the system, they explained, is by tracking how rapidly users add friends. My feverish friending had obviously triggered the warning. Just slow down and you'll be alright, I was told. So I did. But the next day, the warning popped up again. This time, I noticed that below the pink box with the big black threat there was a captcha, and underneath that, two buttons labeled "Submit" and "Cancel." I filled in the captcha, hit "Submit," and Facebook's nasty warning was immediately replaced by a congenial "Your friend request has been sent." Obviously I'd passed the test. Facebook's computer could see I was a real mensch.