Keeping a low profile

Being too broke to afford even going to the pub, I am busy wasting some time on Facebook. I suddenly notice that someone suggests I become friends with L-, whom I already know well in real life. (To make life difficult for cyber-stalkers, I've even changed people's initials for this article.) As the man who is, in effect, her husband has published articles on the perniciousness of Facebook (it's a CIA front, or something), this makes the eyebrows levitate gently. But couples have survived wider rifts than this.

Like many people new to the social networking site, she wonders whether it really is useful, and if the sense of well-being it engenders is illusory. Well, there is a case to be made both for and against Facebook (or, as my friend the Moose calls it, Faceache), but as far as I'm concerned, FB earns my gratitude for having been a life-saver after the expulsion from the family home. Requests for friendship came in quite quickly, some from people I had actually met - even attractive women I had met only once at parties.

But it does stretch the notion of what a "friend" is. I look at my list on FB and I haven't a bloody clue who loads of them are. Not that I mind. I suspect a few of them have books to publicise. This is the price to pay, I suppose, for being a book reviewer with a name shared by no one else
(oh, to be called John Brown or Karen Taylor, whereby one can hide oneself in the electronic ether and evade detection by the most dedicated of searchers).

Calls for a Boycott

The site itself also throws up some unusual suggestions. As I explained to L-, FB's software does not understand the nuance. It persists in recommending that I become friends with my ex-wife, for example; and for weeks on end it kept telling me that it would be desirable to include Toby Young in that select group of people who would be fascinated to learn that I have had a haircut, or that I am frustrated by the postal service. (There is, of course, nothing wrong with Toby Young, even if he seems to have been punched in the face more than anyone else I know.)

Last Sunday it said I should hook up with Rosie Boycott, which strikes me as such a long shot that, were I to think that Facebook was a person, I'd say it was losing its marbles. Again, not that I have anything against Rosie Boycott personally, but somehow I think that we would have little to say to each other, and that she might not have joined in the lively discussion I once started when I asked why I didn't like ready salted crisps but liked salt'n'shake crisps without the salt on them. That went on for ages, and included comments from BBC producers and award-winning opera librettists.

Which brings me to wonder what kind of person goes on FB and what kind doesn't. I joined because I was lonely and sad, but this by no means applies automatically to my own FB "friends".

I wondered at first whether there were some people who were simply too cool to join up. But how could this apply to X-, who is a judge for one of the most prestigious literary awards in the land, or Y-, who has been on the Booker shortlist, or Z-, who played drums for the Jesus and Mary Chain? Or, indeed, A-, whose profile picture is of a smiling Second World War GI holding up a tin mug and saying: "How About a Nice Cup of Shut the Fuck Up?" (I thought for a while that maybe it was only those with time on their hands who signed up, but the people I've just mentioned are all enormously industrious, with the obvious exception of Z-, of course. I haven't told you what A- does, but if I did, I'd have to kill you. Or you'd want to kill yourself out of sheer envy.)

It is, then, a simple matter of gregariousness, the willingness to socialise, and therefore benign. But it occurs to me that some of the more over-gregarious, depraved or mischievous readers of this column might use this as an excuse to request my friendship, or what passes for it in cyberspace. I would inform them that, from now on, the best way to gain this is the old-fashioned way: taking me to the pub and buying me an enormous number of drinks.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 January 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Afghanistan: Why we cannot win this war