"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.
Then came my summary execution.
Not often, but once in a while, someone I'd sent a friend request would email back, "How do we know each other?" or "How do I know you?" I had a standard reply: "I write about military aviation and I'm the author of a new book on the V-22 Osprey. I like to use Facebook to connect with people who have similar interests and spread the word about my book. I hope you'll check it out on my Facebook Wall." Normally after I sent that, an email arrived within minutes saying the recipient had friended me. One night in August, though, a fellow I'd sent a friend request to because his Facebook profile picture was a couple of fighter jets replied with a demanding "Just who are you?" I sent him my standard reply.
"I'll probably check out your book," he emailed back, but he added that he didn't like being "spammed" by being asked to someone's "friend." I thought about asking him what was so terrible about an offer of friendship, but he sounded touchy, so I didn't reply. A few minutes later, though, I got an email in my Facebook inbox saying he'd confirmed me as a friend. Good, I thought. Now you're being reasonable.
That was Saturday. Three days and 27 new Facebook Friends later, I tried to log onto Facebook and got a jolt. In a bright pink box, the following message popped up: "Your Facebook account has been disabled. If you have any questions or concerns, you can visit our FAQ page here." The word "here" was a link, so I clicked on it. That led me to a page where I could submit "Additional Relevant Information or Questions," so I sent this: "I'd like to know why my Facebook account was disabled." Enter Franz Kafka.
About forty-eight hours later, I got this email from Facebook:
Your account was disabled because your behavior on the site was identified as harassing or threatening to other people on Facebook. Prohibited behavior includes, but is not limited to:
• Sending friend requests to people you don't know
• Regularly contacting strangers through unsolicited Inbox messages
• Soliciting others for dating or business purposes
After reviewing your situation, we have determined that your behavior violated Facebook's Statement of Rights and Responsibilities. You will no longer be able to use Facebook. This decision is final and cannot be appealed. Please note that for technical and security reasons, we will not provide you with any further details about this decision.
My first reaction was outrage. No appeal? I seethed. What about a trial? Before I got Liam's email, I was looking forward to finding out what I'd supposedly done wrong and getting a chance to tell my side of the story. Now that I stood convicted of sending friend requests to people I didn't know - the only charge in Facebook's bill of attainder that fit - I at least wanted someone to tell me why that was "harassing and threatening." I also wanted to know who'd complained about me, if someone had. This is America, after all, where the right to answer charges and confront your accuser is a hallowed principle of law. But Facebook, of course, is bigger than America, and Liam had told me in no uncertain terms that I'd already been tried and the death sentence carried out. And that was all they were going to tell me.
"Just like the Nazis," a lawyer friend sympathized.
"Exactly,' I said. But even Hitler's sham courts gave defendants a chance to reply to the charges. Facebook justice more resembles the Taliban's.
After outrage, my second reaction was chagrin. Not because I'd been banned from Facebook, but because the scrapbook about my book I'd so lovingly created was gone, and apparently forever. All those hours down the drain. All those flattering comments about my literary offspring lost before I'd thought to copy them into Microsoft Word so I could pore over them nostalgically in my old age. No way to reconnect my severed ties with most of the more than 1,700 people I'd been linked in with through my space on Facebook. I worried that some might think I'd "de-friended" them, so I emailed a few whose private addresses I had to let them know what had happened.
"That is so strange," one replied. "Yes, I have received friend requests from people I don't know but I thought that's what the 'ignore' option was for. Wow...thanks for letting me know! Does not seem like good FB policy to me."
Me, either. And now I'm back to outrage. Since Facebook banned me, I've gone back and studied the "Statement of Rights and Responsibilities" and "Facebook Principles" I skipped over when I created my page. I can't find anything in them that even mentions, much less prohibits, sending friend requests to people you don't know, or adding friends "too fast," for that matter. In fact, the very first of the ten Facebook Principles declares that, "People should have the freedom to share whatever information they want, in any medium and any format, and have the right to connect online with anyone - any person, organization or service - as long as they both consent to the connection." (My italics.) And Facebook's fifth principle says that "People should have the freedom to build trust and reputation through their identity and connections, and should not have their presence on the Facebook Service removed for reasons other than those described in Facebook's Statement of Rights and Responsibilities."
Googling around, I see I'm not the only one who wonders if Facebook's rulers have read their own Ten Commandments - er, Facebook Principles, whose preamble sounds like a constitutional convention wrote it. "We are building Facebook to make the world more open and transparent," it begins. Really? Isn't Facebook actually just a business out to make money? In any event, if making the world more open and transparent is actually what Facebook is about, it would be nice if someone told Liam.
Dictatorships almost always cloak themselves in the trappings of democracy, of course, and as I see on the Internet, some people worry that Facebook's gotten so big and powerful it's getting dangerous. Information is power, especially when combined with gazillions of dollars, and Facebook's owners do seem to have ambitions well beyond just providing a web service. Still, after seeing some of the kids who run Facebook on TV, I'm not ready to start stockpiling food and ammo. But then I've already proven that, when it comes to Facebook, I just don't get it.
A couple of people have told me I could rejoin the party by using a different email address to create a new account, but clearly they haven't read the Statement of Rights and Responsibilities. Trying to sneak back into the empire after you've been deported is an explicit violation of Facebook's rules. Anyway, I've learned my lesson. Facebook is over.
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