On 24 August 2010, I took a momentous step into an uncharted world. At the age of 54, I joined Facebook. What greeted me was a superabundance of horrors – banal gossip, boasting, trivia and moronic links to skateboarding pandas. So why am I still on it when, according to the website Inside Facebook last week, more than 100,000 people in this country logged off for good over the past month alone?
The simple answer is – addiction. Facebook is the crystal meth of the cyberworld. While a few thousand are kicking the habit, I am still tethered to my computer, tinkering with my news feed and reading about other people's home improvements or puppy. My 17-year-old-daughter, Ruby, has enabled her sister, Cissy, to change her password on her Facebook iPhone app, so that Cis can block her from the site when she should be studying for her exams. FB dependency is cross-generational.
My initial hopes for it were very different: I thought I was striking out for freedom. Given that I have quite a lot of intelligent, thoughtful friends, I hoped that we might exchange views and insights on the news of the day, perhaps swap the occasional poem or highlight an upcoming cultural event. As a novelist, I thought other novelists might like to exchange ideas about work in progress. Perhaps it would be self-improving in some way. I would join a network of like minds in forging new frontiers of creativity and inquiry. Some exciting people seemed to be seeking me out. Michael Nyman wanted to be my friend. So did Kate Bush.
Instead, one of the first notifications I received was via Irvine Welsh, posted to a friend of his, and somehow transmitted to me, congratulating him on using a condom on a recent date. It wasn't what I'd hoped for in terms of consciousness raising. But at least I knew Irvine. I realised that the Bush and Nyman invites were automatically generated to post to anyone who had somehow expressed in interest in their work in the past. They didn't have a clue who I was. I felt diminished.
Hurt, I began to fulminate against the site in my posts, ranting that it was moronic and a waste of space. I was greeted with an icy silence. Clearly, naysayers were not welcome in the Facebook community. I nearly turned my back on it there and then. But my wife, Rachael, a long-time fan, said that if I stuck with it, I would soon "get into it". Ten months later, I'm into it, all right. Trouble is, I just can't quite get out of it.
I very quickly undermined my initially high-minded attitude after I was sent a silly clip from YouTube apparently showing a hidden obscene message in a popular ad. In an idle moment, I decided to watch the clip. It was stupid. At the same time, I accidentally posted it to all my Facebook friends by mistake. They would have very reasonably concluded that I thought that the clip was hilarious, and presumed I was a moron.
To put in a friend request that wasn't accepted left me feeling bereft and rejected. My email inbox, meanwhile, was becoming overwhelmed with communiqués informing me that someone I had never heard of had made friends with someone else I had never heard of, or that someone had tagged my photo, or liked my comment. None of this virtual verbiage quite pushed me far enough to leave the site. Neither did all the envy-generating posts – snapshots from wonderful holiday destinations and exciting new houses that I could never dream of affording.
I realised I had somehow become dependent on it for a part of my identity. And there was a matter of social duty. I had 118 friends on Facebook after all. I couldn't just walk out on them. Also I would never want to lose touch with the dazzling achievements of their beautiful children, which seemed to comprise at least half the posts I received, usually from their mothers. My Facebook page largely comprises female participants. And research consistently shows that women use social networks more than men, and use it for different purposes – to chat to each other, to post photographs of their families and friends and so on, rather than for business.
Facebook can also damage real-life relationships. There are several well-documented cases of young people, usually girls, who have committed suicide after being taunted online. One of them informed hundreds of her "friends" that she was going to take her own life. None of them lifted a finger to stop her. It appears Facebook friends are not friends at all. They are just faces.
Although much has been said about the poor quality of virtual relationships, less has been said about social networking sites' impact on real relationships. In our salad days, when love was young, Rachael and I would spend an exciting evening playing Scrabble in the front room. Then she signed up to Facebook and discovered she could play five or six games at once online. Now I sit alone, while she devises seven-letter words to deploy against complete strangers.
And Facebook can become an arena for the airing of marital discord. A few months ago, I was – allegedly – complicit in the misfortune of my wife's home-made marmalade burning on the hob. Convinced of my guilt, she posted on her news feed the bulletin "My Husband is a Tit". Now I'm not denying that I am, frequently, something of a tit. But I don't much appreciate having the fact broadcast all over cyberspace. In our house, Facebook has become just another thing to argue about.
There are more serious implications – for privacy for instance. Facebook's introduction of facial recognition technology earlier in this month for posted photographs, many saw as creepy. As PC World put it: "Facial recognition technology will ultimately culminate in the ability to search for people using just a picture. And that will be the end of privacy as we know it – imagine, a world in which someone can simply take a photo of you on the street, in a crowd, or with a telephoto lens, and discover everything about you on the internet."
There are some good things about Facebook. Friends you haven't heard of for years pop up on screen, which can be a mixed blessing. Where I live, a number of community groups are sustained by Facebook postings. Our fight to save the local library has been immeasurably strengthened by our Facebook group, and a neighbourhood Facebook site does much to take the place of a local newspaper.
Sometimes I do get interesting and informative posts, usually from professional writers posting their own material. But I have taken to grazing my "people you may know" site and begging people to become my friends in a desperate attempt to build up my friend numbers, to reassure myself that I am popular. My sensitivity to rejection has long given way to my determination to find virtual popularity. So thank you Nick Hornby, Joan Bakewell, Michael Rosen, Alain de Botton and many others: it's nice to feel I am part of your lives, even though I may be anonymous Facebook friend No 723 to you.
However, the time is coming when I will put an end to all this. Facebook is no place for a middle-aged man. I have subscribed to a programme called Freedom, which automatically disconnects you from the internet for large chunks of the day and therefore prevents me accessing FB. But I need a more permanent way out – a methadone to wean me off my heroin. And I think I've found one. I've just come across a service called Twitter.