Tuesday, February 16, 2010


A friend is not a lego. Acquiring a friend is not like popping a peg into a hole. However, building a list of clients, customers, is very much like that. Computer geeks working for cyber-businesses assume that all lists are like that.

When our grandson was six years old, he spent the summer with us. When he settled down for the evening he would count his riches: “Today I made ten new friends, counting dogs.”

When I was trying to build a Unitarian Universalist community in Montana, I slowly accumulated a huge collection of 3 X 5 cards of people who had visited the services or who used to be members or who seemed like possible prospects. Also, I had parallel collections of sympathetic ministers of other denominations, informed reporters, printers who could do newsletters cheaply, and the like. What I was doing was “aggregating” and “curating.” That is, I was creating a mailing list and a contact list. The addresses all out of date now. Many of the people have died, but I haven’t thrown the cards out because I like to be reminded of the people.

In one of my recent BBC mysteries, the plot hinged on an old lady killed because she had memorized a list of “benefactors” who turned out to be drug dealers. Discovering this was a function of “curating.”

Business people have always guarded their Rolodexes. They are wise. In our sculpture days, we protected our secret sources, like who made P-300, the latex formula we used for antlers which made the little tourist deer and elk relatively unbreakable. Or where we bought the controlled carcinogenic substance that kept black tuffy mold material from distorting.

When a person is seriously fund-raising, as First Unitarian Church of Portland did in the days when they took money seriously, the committee sat down with the pledge cards (another version of the Rolodex cards except that they had the pledge records on them) and sorted them several different ways. First you skimmed off the high pledges and looked around at the committee to see who could most tactfully and successfully ask those people to renew or raise their pledges. Then you divvied up the cards so each person took a set of cards, representing contacts for them to make. The really hard core money raisers did a good deal of discrete investigation. A banker was an important member of the committee.

But the BEST churches had a second committee who took the same cards and re-sorted them according to their needs and styles. What could be done for this group with the resources they seem to have? Surveys were necessary, but since they never really tell you a lot more than the assumptions of the survey-maker, human interaction was crucial. Strangely, people who would visit to find out these things were harder to find than those raising money.

So now we come to the “friends” lists on Internet platforms, which amount to this kind of Rolodex building and targeting, right? But there is more involved than just raising money. In today’s political climate, Big Brother wants to know where you are, what you’re doing, who’s there with you, and why your hands aren’t up on top of the table where we can see them when the surveillance satellite flies over. And these lists are suddenly not voluntary. Even unlisted phone numbers are there, your house number even if you’re a famous movie star, the names and ages of your children, and -- if you’re willing to put out a bit of money -- more than even small town neighbors or your banker probably know about you, as indiscreet politicians are discovering when someone gets hold of a madam's Rolodex.

What we were doing when we worked on the fund-raising committee for the church is called “curating,” which is the evaluation of each entry on the list. But a computer is not a good curator. An algorithim is nothing less than a machine-made stereotype. When it sorts me one way (small town older woman), I’m sent apron patterns and pie recipes. When it sorts me another way (former minister, book buyer), I become the target for Christian publishing. (I’m not Christian. Machines don’t GET that.) When they realize that I have no money, I fall off their lists. (Whew!)

Not that human individuals don’t do the same thing, assuming all sorts of movie-inspired possibilities, maybe based on a photo from thirty years ago. And we know entirely too much about people who are using categories not to get money but to get or sell sex, especially indirectly like clothing and makeup.

So now we’re all urged to create our “platform,” which is little more than a can label for list makers and shelf stackers. Lists of literary agents show which categories of writing they will handle. There is no category for “good writing.” Rather it is YA, horror, romance, history, etc. and only “literary fiction” is supposed to signal “fine writing.” Everything is based on past products: one must not leave one’s platform.

The assumption of Facebook and Google Buzz is that you’re building a Rolodex list of interchangeable parts, like legos. A snap-together life where one doesn’t step out of one’s sociological demographic or one’s hierarchical level. I’ve spent my life fighting these assumptions, trying to break and escape templates. Even the counter-culture degenerated so that even it demanded conformity: certain way of dressing, certain hairdo, certain music.

Maybe having so many immigrants in the country contributes to this idea that there is a certain “way” to be American or even to be religious. The first generation is just trying to cope, but the second generation learns in junior high never to be too different. In my high school years (53-57) we were constantly urged to be “creative.” But one had to wear a certain kind of blouse with a circle pin on the correct side. When I was inspired by photos of English public school students to wear my father’s tartan tie instead of a circle pin, friendly people asked me whether I were being hazed by some club I wanted to join.

There’s a far less benign side to having one’s name and address suddenly put on a list developed by a stereotype. Ask the people whose criminal background is now published, like the sex offenders who get burned out by NIMBY arsonists. Ask the people who get stalked. Even I had hoped to escape some of the people in my past and I’ve had a relatively benign past. For marketing purposes it’s probably useless because there’s no platform.

So do NOT friend me, unless you really ARE my friend, my human, real, pulsing thinking friend. In that case, you’re on a very short list that I can easily remember, even including dogs.


Brad Fisher said...

Mary, you make a great case against cyber friending. Does 'fan' work? Not in the sense of fawning and stalking, but in the sense of, hey, I like your work. For that, I thank the internet that makes it possible.

prairie mary said...

Brad, I've asked a teen boy who lives on Facebook to write a refutation. If he does, I'll post it here.

Prairie Mary

Lance Michael Foster said...

I just like meeting people, BS'ing with them about stuff. The more the merrier.

Now I love my family. I talk with them about a bunch of stuff, and each member I have different stuff I talk about with. Of course there is crossover, but for certain things, certain people are more enjoyable talking with, because we "get" each other. If I want to talk about Indian ways or societal collapse and such, I talk to my Dad. If I want to reminisce about going out in the woods or animals I talk to one brother. If I want to talk about world travel, I talk to my other brother. My Mom I talk with about food or enduring hard times. And so on, with my wife (politics and shared humor), my two sisters (anthropology and school for the one, and alternative health and jokes with the other one).

I have moved so much, I don't have too many friends here. I keep the friends I can through Facebook and such. We don't talk that much, but if I want to talk about Hawaii, my buddy Kai I knew there is the guy to message on Facebook. But these are flesh and blood friendships that are maintained (on life support) through social networking that otherwise would be moribund.

Lance Michael Foster said...

I have met some people only through the Internet, like you Mary. These Network friends are sustained if there is sympatico in interests, we "click," and often if there is no one in real life with whom I can discuss such things. For me, Mary, it was writing that I could talk about with you, as there is no one in my current mode that I can talk about writing in depth with. Montana, Blackfeet and art stuff was a plus. And then our sensibilities were often very similar. So this works pretty good.

In sociology (I teach it sometimes at a local community college), a "network" is defined as "a web of weak social ties."

I have noticed -FOR ME- that just because I get along with people in "real life" doesn't always translate to a good Internet buddy, and vice versa. I sometimes dread the possibility of meeting in "real life" someone I know from the Internet, because sometimes that screws the friendship up. It doesn't always translate, for me anyways.

But really it depends on your definition of "friend." People have different criteria for what they call "a friend." For some, it is somebody they can have a beer with and say "hi" to if you see them on the street. For others, it is a Damon and Pythias level that is required before you apply the term "friend."