Saturday, May 14, 2011

A Day of Living Facebook

by John Spencer

The Premise

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.

For me, Facebook is a pleasant dystopia, offering intimacy at arms length.  It's a personal playground where I can be Social He Man, master of a universe where I can scan through "this is what I'm having for dinner" and comment on what I deem to be important.  It's a customized community that centers on me.   Living Facebook is forcing me to recognize just how passive-agressive I can get online.

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.

I'm not sure where my 40 Days of Living Facebook experiment will lead me.  However, after one day, it's forced me to examine not only the social media I use, but my own humanity.

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


  1. This is great, John. Thanks. I was thinking about why it is that I am so drawn to these online communities just today. And you flipped my whole way of thinking about it on its head.

    I also love that, as usual, my ah-ha moment came from the mouth of a student. When they said that they wanted affirmation from one another I had a realization about my own classes. I think this is why my advanced classes seem to be more successful in my eyes. They have more effectively fostered a family atmosphere where they affirm one another and therefore are willing to take more risks. So, I need to figure out how to foster that in my other classes as well and not assume it's just because they are younger.

    Thanks for getting the thoughts churning, even if it is a bit of a tangent.

    Good luck with the rest of the experiment.

  2. This is such an interesting experiment. I sometimes think about why I like my real communities more than I do interacting online. Your post is more food for thought.

  3. Thumbs up ;-)
    And keep us posted about your findings on this experiment, it's fascinating to read!

  4. I just sneezed into a snot soaked paper towel that is sitting next to me on the couch next to me like a dead hamster. I am listening to Tom Waits high on TheraFlu typing gibberish/genius into your blog post.

    There is no perfect me, online or off line. I look and feel like crap. I just wanted to say I like what you are doing and who you are from what I have seen online. Someday I will meet you in real life, we will go on a hike and talk Jesus, music, and philosophy. Till then I will scribble where you scribble online and tell you what everyone always tells me. Don't take it all so seriously.

    Loved this line, "maybe the allure of Facebook is that it meets my primal need for affirmation of both my ideas and my identity."

    How is that for affirmation?

  5. Great project John. It is exciting to me to read about what intention, attention, critical thinking, doing, and reflection do for learning and wisdom.

    I am wondering, about this statement: "The reality is that I need interruptions and laughter and body language. I need stutters and stammers and interrupted speech."

    Perhaps, if I may comment, are you finding that you need both -- the world of sensual reality and the world of distant and safe, social validation. Could the beauty of Facebook be in the feelings that are created in the interchange between these two spheres, in the rhythms and challenges of the dance between them?

  6. For those who are interested, I'm blogging about this process at:

    Just thought I'd let people know.

  7. I'm interested to see how this goes. I'm a firm believer that Facebook does have positive benefits and it will be interesting to see how it plays out in "real life" especially as I have friends that are not on Facebook and continually disparage it. I think this may offer a rebuttal to how it can be a good thing and not just a time waster/contributes to a lack of humanity.


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