NEW YORK • In a Manhattan cafe, I sit near a mother and her young daughter having tea. The daughter looks out the window. The mother takes pictures of her own shoes on a marvellously tiled floor and of her daughter, who ignores her assiduously.
I watch the mother artfully arrange the daughter's teacup for a shot. I watch the daughter set her jaw. I watch the mother take a photo of the daughter and her teacup. The light is just so. I watch the mother consider her caption and hashtags and post it. I watch the mother scroll through her newsfeed. I watch the daughter stare out the window.
Rare is the flesh-and-blood gathering these days that doesn't include hushed commiseration about someone or other's insufferable online behaviour. We still have no acceptable terminology for the phenomenon of the perfectly decent person who is glaringly annoying online.
There are more ways to go awry than not. Some err with regard to career and self-promotion, others are tone deaf, addicted and seeking constant audience. Some are politically one-note and repetitive. Others still, with perhaps the highest stakes, relentlessly parade their children.
I'm no social media teetotaller, but I am wary of my own addictive tendencies. Three transformational things happened to me in the early weeks of 2009: I acquired my first smartphone, joined Facebook and gave birth to a son. Dazed, enthralled, scrubbed of irony, I shared him eagerly. My days were spent nursing him, staring at him and staring at the smartphone: a perfect storm.
According to the company, an average of a billion people used Facebook every day in September.
The feed of its chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, is currently full of photos of his very expectant wife. He made headlines when he used the site to announce her pregnancy, divulging that she had suffered multiple miscarriages.
It was a deeply relatable moment. It was also a canny reminder of how Zuckerberg would prefer we use the site. He was reminding us how it's done. What are your sorrows and triumphs today? Isn't it important that your ex's current lover knows?
Feed your innermost into the secret algorithm and let catharsis flow. Here is a revolution of community and we are its revolutionaries.
When my son was around three years old, I began to ask him for permission.
"Can I put this on Facebook?" "What's Facebook?" "It's a big Internet company where you can put up ideas and videos and pictures like a bulletin board that everyone can see and everybody who knows you can see everything you do." "No," he said immediately. "I don't want to be on that."
Witnesses found it hilarious whenever I took a picture and he'd wag a finger at me: "Don't put that on Facebook!" Occasionally, he'll approve of something, and once in a while, I share without asking because I'm having a bad day and want a couple of easy likes. Balance is tricky, as in all things.
It's healthy to want to share our children with our community; to feel that others love and know and are looking out for them. This notion of community is what's slippery.
I took my son to a reading and people called him by name, said "hi" to him and asked him about his interests. Not a shy child, he clung to me, thoroughly freaked by these strangers who seemed to know him.
"Do I post too much?" I whisper to friends. "You'll tell me, won't you, if I ever cross the line?" The postmodern equivalent of trusting people to let you know your fly's open.
I sort of love seeing Facebook kids grow up as the years roll by. They wouldn't recognise me on the street, but I know they got a dollar from the tooth fairy and I know how they fight with their sisters.
I know their malapropisms and I know their bedtimes and I know the stories they make up and I know their talents and hopes and fears.
I wish them well, but I don't actually know them, so it's a little weird to know so much about them. Facebook has transformed the way many of us experience parenthood - our own and others'.
And now, more than 10 years after the site was born in a dorm room, I'm curious to see how Zuckerberg proceeds. Will we be intimately acquainted with his offspring? Or just the rare official Annie Leibovitz portrait?
I have a handful of flesh-and-blood friends and a couple thousand virtual friends.
My social media strategy is very simple: Try hard, even on bottomless lonely days, not to confuse the two.
Let's remember, this supposed utopia is actually about eyeballs on advertisements. It's about reliance on a corporation for a sense of "connectedness." It's a noisy town square, and we its nattering peasants, though instead of dry goods and groceries, what's for sale is our very selves.
NEW YORK TIMES