None of the homes had fences in the suburban Baltimore neighborhood where I grew up. The kids ran freely from yard to the next.

The C’s were a family around the corner, 3 boys, the middle Adam was a year younger than me. I spent a lot of time at playing at their house. They seemed to have a bit more money, nicer cars, bigger toys than other families; Mr C was a lawyer? ad executive? (a Mad Men type guy I imagine). The C’s were the only family I knew with a full time maid– Emily was a black woman with a big laugh; she looked like she walked off of a bottle of Aunt Jemima’s syrup. At the same time Mr C took us fishing, and had concrete poured for a backyard basketball court that all the neighborhood could use.

One summer night when I was maybe 8? 9? 10? The C’s threw one of those big fancy outdoor parties. Tables, lights, music, clinking glasses. My parents, along with other neighbors, where invited.

Us kids were not invited. I think we were told to stay inside, to not gawk at the party. But the C kids were allowed to be at the adult party.

My curiosity peaked. I did not want to be at something where I was not invited, but at the same time, it was unlike anything I had seen. I wanted to peek. So I sauntered down to the end of our yard (where if I went farther I would be in the C’s yard) pretending I was doing something like looking at our plants.

I stood there, trying to watch, and not watch the loud party.

And then a voice busted out. A kids voice. It was Adam. He was seated next to my Mom.

Mrs. Levine, Alan’s watching!


My childhood memory will yield more holes than material as a metaphor. It comes up when I think of the biggest party on the Internet, a place where there are technically no fences, a party I would like to be at and not. At the same time. Curiosity and revulsion.

Of course, this party is one you know– it’s called “Facebook.”

My aversion to Facebook is a common topic here. Catfishing is not at all at the root. I have this bad feeling about it, like a foul smell when you open the refrigerator. Maybe it’s the obscene amount of profit they make. By selling your data to advertisers. By selling your data to advertisers. By selling your data to advertisers.

They smile and at the same time perform psychological experiments on you. The laud themselves as part of the open web. And if the creepy way they recommended friend among patients of the same psychiatrist does not give you chills, I don’t know what will shake you.

But if I keep an account, I must be hypocritical, right? I stuck a fork in it once, but have had a few projects, some client web sites where I need access. And they way it is now, you cannot even look at “public” pages without logging in.

So I have a minimal profile. I’ve not told them my favorite movies, music, etc, nor mentioned where I worked. I do not click any reaction buttons. I don’t tell them advertisers I am not interested in (that’s data, folks). I do not stay logged in. I want to be the least valuable source of data.

I look in maybe once a week. Because you cannot understand a place without peeking at the party. That’s what I tell myself. I am an observer.

It’s quite a party. I see many friends, colleagues bantering back and forth. It’s the kind of stuff I would normally jump into online. A place to be funny, give comments. I see people who no longer blog writing there. I see posts from people I know get hundreds of likes. From people I know. Do I see it all? No.

But there’s a vibe there that is just– too happy. Too upbeat. Too much affirmation and cheer. All positive, cute reactions. Kind of like a Stepford get together. And our rationale for being at the party is the worse excuse you could every give your Mom for doing something.

Yet I get it. Or likely not. Many places on the internet are ugly. Worse, unsafe. Dangerous. A good friend told me that she spends more time in Facebook because she has found more people she aligns with, less abuse.

I’m pretty much immune to what many women, people of color deal with. I bear a White Male Card, a get out of trolled card. Without it, I’d probably not be writing this. I’d like to think I would stand ground against trolls. I’d like to think….

I don’t have much of anything figured out.

But I smell foulness at the party.

And certainly, Twitter, Google, any other site that gives you some kind of trinket of free stuff in exchange for them aggregating your data, they are no more virtuous.

Here’s the thing about ugliness of online spaces. You know the phrase “don’t read the comments.” Many places the vileness– no violence– of the online space is way over the line of behavior we ought to be behaving like. But do not underestimate that the stuff you are not reading in comments as just the tip of the suppressed rage/violence in people we share the non-online world with. Don’t read the comments, but be aware of them, do not ignore what they indicate about society. Do not pretend what lies beneath them doesn’t exist.

I recently listened to a TED Radio Hour segment on Screen Time featuring Jon Ronson on How Can Our Real Lives Be Ruined By Our Digital Ones? — he talks about the way Twitter “was”:

In the early days of Twitter, it was like a place of radical de-shaming. People would admit shameful secrets about themselves, and other people would say, “Oh my God, I’m exactly the same.” Voiceless people realized that they had a voice, and it was powerful and eloquent. If a newspaper ran some racist or homophobic column, we realized we could do something about it. We could get them. We could hit them with a weapon that we understood but they didn’t — a social media shaming. Advertisers would withdraw their advertising. When powerful people misused their privilege, we were going to get them. This was like the democratization of justice. Hierarchies were being leveled out. We were going to do things better.

He goes on to relate how this faded as the power of shame turned to individuals, citing the fall of Justine Sacco after her tweet sent to her 170 followers before boarding a flight to Africa went insanely viral (look it up if you are among the people who never heard this story).

So why did we do it? I think some people were genuinely upset, but I think for other people, it’s because Twitter is basically a mutual approval machine. We surround ourselves with people who feel the same way we do, and we approve each other, and that’s a really good feeling. And if somebody gets in the way, we screen them out. And do you know what that’s the opposite of? It’s the opposite of democracy. We wanted to show that we cared about people dying of AIDS in Africa. Our desire to be seen to be compassionate is what led us to commit this profoundly un-compassionate act.

Is this a platform issue? Ideology in the code? Human trait? All the above?

Ronson hits a key observation, but maybe those first ideas that we might be romanticizing are not… ideal.

The great thing about social media was how it gave a voice to voiceless people, but we’re now creating a surveillance society, where the smartest way to survive is to go back to being voiceless.

Or just spend your time at a party that is full of shiny happy people…

Go into that private party taking place on top of the open internet. Hobnob, clink your glasses. From a high window of the house, the host peers out, and sees all of your party activity as what fuels more money, more power to him. Your party is a Matrix.

I’m curious about it, but I’m keeping my feet in my own yard.

I am watching, Adam, indeed. Tell someone.

Top / Featured Image: Found on the site for Denver Pro DJ’s where it says, “I LOVE Working at Private Parties”. It’s so appropriate, and I admit, so not open licensed. Ok, Trust me, I am asking permission. I LOVE Working on a Copyrighted Internet

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Profile Picture for Alan Levine aka CogDog
An early 90s builder of the web and blogging Alan Levine barks at on web storytelling (#ds106 #4life), photography, bending WordPress, and serendipity in the infinite internet river. He thinks it's weird to write about himself in the third person.


  1. I’ve been doing the same thing recently. Curbing all the social media engagement. When I learned Facebook owned Instagram, I shut that down. Eliminated it altogether. Then I had an odd thing happen where Twitter claimed I was impersonating someone else on Twitter. Tried to appeal, but they didn’t listen so they just locked my account permanently. That was the straw that broke the camel’s back for me. Now on a weekly basis, I check in on Facebook and then deactivate my account for another week. It’s actually an OPTION when you choose to deactivate, leave it locked for 7 days. So cheers~! I too am watching to the Watchmen.

  2. I always have my salt shaker handy when you make this argument. It’s not a matter or agree or disagree; it’s a wonder about unseen warrants: collecting data, I guess, is the root bad thing?

    Humans have been collecting data on each other for various outcomes since we were swinging in trees.
    Certainly my whole life advertisers have been trying to refine their offerings to me–is that an issue of right or wrong?
    If wrong, based on what underlying assumption about the nature of humans?
    Was there ever really a Lost Golden Twitter Age? Or is Ronson being a bit naive, does the maturation cycle of a social media parallel that of a human, becoming richer, more complex, more full of natural paradox with age and experience?

    I am no longer a kid standing outside looking in at an adult party I am not invited to. That implies an emotional agony I don’t tolerate in myself. If I wanted to go, I would stroll in. If I didn’t enjoy it, I’d walk out. People at the party would collect all kinds of data on me–age, gender, race, whatever else, and I would collect it on them.

    Don’t get me wrong; I am a big Ed Snowden fan because there are laws and rights that need to be watchdogged. But I don’t let corporate data mining ruin my enjoyment of being inside a walled garden where my mother actually knows how to comment, where my whole family can be together on a daily basis…otherwise we would go without contact for long stretches of time, time which is increasingly precious as we grow older together.

    I’m not sure exactly what you’re smelling, but its origins are buried deep inside that finely tuned moral mechanism you have built for yourself. I’m not convinced you have dug deep enough yet for the pure expression of your distaste, but this post certainly shows it is an important quest for you, and, as we say these days, I honor that.

    1. As always, I appreciate the Sandy pushback. I cannot judge or know your experience in the party place, I only know mine. So I hope not to extend my own judgments to others. I do not deny the positive value many people, family get. But most never think about or know what cost they are saving.

      It’s more than just getting junk mail in the inbox. If you were recommended friends who were also patients of the same psychiatrist you see– doesn’t that raise an eyebrow? That’s not an accident.

      I am not the kid either, and I know more, can think more. I can remember the feeling as merely a reminder, not something that controls me.

      Pass a slice of pie over the fence, ok?

  3. This discussion is putting me in the time machine and rocketing me back to the twenty years I was an active Emissary of Divine Light living in communal homes and drinking some very fine… Kool-Aid to some, wine to others.

    In the seventies, with no noticeable critical thinking abilities in spite of my college degree, I plunged head first into the teachings of two very white males and willingly, unquestioningly lived within a New Age Christian hierarchal patriarchy.

    The founder, Uranda, Lloyd Meeker (if you follow my book review website, that name will be familiar as his son is a gay novelist spun out an astonishing origin story about how we all came from the City in the Sun and are here to restore humankind to…well, it goes on from there, a mythology full of the most fantastical details. I have written about this for the Communal Studies Journal:

    I was very happy within that walled city. I received invaluable spiritual training as well as so many other gifts, including my Master’s degree. And I’m not saying I should have stayed but that I left for a reason that seems to me wrong-headed now: the more I read in evolutionary science, the more I couldn’t believe in the EDL mythology. And it seemed to me that if I didn’t believe in the foundational origin story that I could no longer be an Emissary of Divine Light. So I left.

    Never mind that I also didn’t believe in the Christianity or patriarchy or hierarchy–those objections were all in the mix.

    I just couldn’t reconcile opposites in my head or my heart. It took a lot of living to be able to call myself quietly and to myself and in small letters, an emissary of divine light again.

    My world is made up now of the dear friends I made back in those naive days–a Lost Golden World, for sure. And because we scattered to the four winds when the Emissary world as we knew it imploded, I would never have seen them again if it hadn’t been for Facebook.

    I have written about this in “Prescription Facebook: How Can Facebook Act as an Agent of Mental Health to a Community Fragmented Twenty Years Ago?” Communities Magazine 150 (2011). Web. 4 Mar. 2014.

    Do I approve of the many controversial aspects of Facebook, like the example you cite of having co-patients of the same psychiatrist recommended to me? No, of course not. However, Facebook has recommended long lost Emissary friends to me, and I have been very grateful for the opportunity to reconnect.

    Am I unhappy that good people like my friend Alan get catfished? Absolutely.

    Am I critical of various corporate directions and decisions of Facebook? Of course.

    Can I hold those oppositions in my head and my heart? Until there comes a critical ethical break or an egregious legal infraction, why yes, as a matter of fact I can because there is a large payoff for me in terms of relationships I value.

    Actually, I do have a very nice peach pie here that I made yesterday. Your virtual slice over the backyard fence has the added benefit of being calorie free.

  4. I’m not getting into the Facebook argument. I like it for what it is, staying connected to people most of whom that’s the closest connection I need. I turn off as much sharing as I can but I’m still fascinated by how they use data since that what I used to work on.

    I don’t remember that party. I think he was an accountant. They paid me 50 cents an hour to babysit and had a beagle named Caesar who had world class farts!

  5. One more example, and this one tortures me daily: knowing what I do about animal intelligence and emotional lives, how can I not be a vegetarian? Maybe that is closer to what you feel about FB.

  6. I have many memories of our neighbors! I babysat for them for 50 cents an hour. Harriet and I spent a lot of time watching those three boys. Mr. C was had an insurance company. Once they moved to Roland Park, we never heard from them. I remember your friendship with Adam. I think I remember that big fancy party! Our neighborhood had never seen anything like that! I admit that I do enjoy Facebook! I am late to it as I have only been involved for a little over a year. I enjoy seeing pictures and keeping up with what people are doing. I can do without the horrible political posts, but we won’t go there!! I even enjoy seeing my little brother pop up once in a while!

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