It’s a veritable treasure trove. I just found a Outlook database created when I was the head of the Institute of Contemporary Culture in Toronto. It’s large (4000 names) and it’s old (about 16 years old). It was great to see familiar names, and I thought I would plug some of them into Facebook, the new rolodex of the digital age.
Here’s what’s odd. Some of the names that loomed large in the Outlook database were not in Facebook. The Outlook database was created to help the Institute stay in touch with people of influence. It contains lots of (mostly Canadian) heavy hitters: politicians, captains of industry, heads of cultural institutions, celebrities, journalists, and academics. This is a list of people who made their way in the world by working their personal networks. But now they were missing from the new social networks, missing from Facebook (MFFB).
To be sure, some are in Facebook and they are flourishing. A woman we almost hired as a research assistant is now the executive producer of a reality TV program in LA. Others were present and closer than I could have guessed. A family that used to live just down the road from me in Toronto now lives just up the road from me in Connecticut. Happy surprises, both.
And sometimes, it’s just hard to tell. The data are unforthcoming. You know, when we find a name on Facebook, and that’s all we find. There’s no other information. And no friends. And we can guess what happened. Someone heard about Facebook, signed up, couldn’t quite get the hang of it, and gave up. Their Facebook page is now a kind of ghost ship, a tiny advertisement of their failure to make the transition to the digital age. (Let’s hope your name is “Andy Smith.” That name floating in Facebook could belong to anyone of hundreds of people. Not so good if your name is “Grant McCracken.” No where to hide there, really.)
Or maybe they are MFFB (missing from Facebook) on purpose. Maybe, they don’t believe in Facebook. They don’t believe in social networking in the digital age. It is possible for intelligent people to take this position. Recently I heard four people at a big time advertising age try to persuade me that Facebook is really just for kids, that it’s a passing fancy, that not very far from now it will disappear from fashion. Their position: Ignore Facebook. It will go away.
I can’t tell you how embarrassing this is for an anthropologist to listen to. I have done the research, and this much is clear. Facebook is here to stay. It has changed selfhood and the social world permanently. (One example: millennials are hard to manage these days because the social network has replaced the corporation has their primary “safety net.” Now that they have Facebook, a job at a big corporation matters much less.) Facebook has changed the structural properties of our culture. We can ignore it. It will not go away.
Maybe some of these MFFBs are then like Jacques Brel, that French singer who would not come to America till it had vacated Vietnam. They’re making a statement! If so, I have bad news. The statement is “I have retired from the world. I’m done. Talk amongst yourselves.” And this from movers and shakers. How odd.
Is there a generational divide here? And yes, Don Tapscott has been telling us for sometime now that these “digerati” are different from you and me. They have more data. And we have long suspected that Gen Y might even have different neurological wiring, the necessary consequence of monitoring all those data streams at once.
But the group that concerns me is on the other side of the generational divide. Have Boomers so drifted out of orbit that even power players are MFFB? Can someone make him/herself a vivid presence in the social, political and or culture world and go missing here? Can you be a thought leader or a culture creative and not be on Facebook? The answer to these questions is probably “no.” Which is to say, some boomers have pushed themselves into voluntary exile. And, yes, we expect some people in every generation to “age out” of contemporary culture. But power players?
This may be a metric of generational fatigue. It could be the face of generational ennui. Perhaps after all is said and done, Boomers will prove to be a generation that will end not with a, er, boom, but a whimper. Please, I’m begging you. If you don’t have a Facebook account, get one now, and make me your friend. You never know when you can help me run an Institute.