It was a novel idea. The protagonist would meet a physical manifestation of the online version of himself in the form of a method actor trying to practice for Death of a Salesman. The actor would slowly achieve more than the protagonist in every category until, in the final pages, the protagonist recognizes what the actor will never experience: intimacy.
After sketching out the plot, I abandoned the plan and instead thought about a new project. I decided that I wanted to live this idea and record it as an experiment. So, Christy and I decided we would do Facebook in person: tagging Poloroid pictures, handing out birthday cupcakes to friends, sharing a movie, conducting a neighborhood #chat about education.
Our goal would be to compare our offline experiences with our online interactions, asking ourselves: How are we shaped by the medium? How do we change in our language? To what extent are we developing a perfectionist alter-ego? (One that doesn't hawk loogies out of a car window or stammer when he's nervous).
The Experiment: Students
I begin the experiment with the concept of "I like," "Let me comment," and offering a thumbs up when I approved of a person's statement. Students recognize the experiment within the first five minutes of class. A few roll their eyes. Most of them joined in, if for nothing else, a little end of the year novelty.
I begin our Philosophical Friday with, "Are people born creative?"
"I think it's our limitations that lead to creativity," a boy responds. Ten students offer a "thumbs up."
A girl shakes her head and adds, "Just to comment on what he said. I disagree. Little kids have few restrictions and they are really creative. But school and parents are the ones who force us to not be creative." Eight students give a thumbs-up and I can sense that she's hurt.
When we move to our blogging free write, one student writes, "Everyone is acting like Facebook in class today. It's so rare to get someone to say 'I like what you said.' We're dying for affirmation, but it's never there. Teachers give compliments, but we never get it from each other."
Another student comments, "I don't like the fact that I can count the thumbs up in our philosophical discussion. We shouldn't quantify ideas like that."
The Experiment: Adults
During my prep period, I stop by 7-11. I'm tired and I need caffeine and the convenient store offers enough Diet Coke to kill a horse.
"Good afternoon," the employee says.
"I like that," I say with a smile and a thumbs up and, like a yawn, it goes viral.
"Good choice on your chip selection," a lady tells me.
"Oh, I love adding Cherry Coke to Diet Coke," a man says.
So it goes, in one of the coldest relational climates, a small dose of optimism reframes the space within minutes. We talk to one another. We affirm each other. In small ways, perhaps, but I leave the place feeling surprisingly refreshed.
I continue the "I like," thumbs up and "Let me comment," concept through our staff meeting. Interestingly enough, nobody figures out the experiment. However, I notice a few other staff members giving themselves the permission to affirm one another.
It has me wondering if maybe the allure of Facebook is that it meets my primal need for affirmation of both my ideas and my identity. I want a metric for how I'm doing; just a little quantifiable evidence that who I am and what I think matters in this world. Narcissistic? Perhaps. But sometimes I wonder if people are dying for some kind of feedback in our offline world and yet our social norms prevent it from happening.
What if we asked permission to comment? What if we gave a thumbs-up or a handshake or even a hug more often? What if we said verbally, "I like what you said?"
At the same time, a day of living Facebook forces me to recognize the limitations of the medium. Everyone is "nice" on Facebook. There's a "like" but not a "dislike" button. It's a place where everyone is nice and everyone likes everything. Shallow, perhaps, but always pleasant. In other words, Facebook is Paula Abdul on steroids.
The reality is that I need interruptions and laughter and body language. I need stutters and stammers and interrupted speech. I need the vapor of language that doesn't hang around in ones and zeroes like ticker-tape for our lives.
John T. Spencer is a teacher in Phoenix, AZ who blogs at Education Rethink. He recently finished two books, Pencil Me In, an allegory for educational technology and Drawn Into Danger, a fictional memoir of a superhero. You can connect with him on Twitter @johntspencer