Alexis de Tocqueville

by Hugh Gilmore

I cleared my throat, cracked my fingers, and began writing this piece thinking I’d compare myself to Alexis de Tocqueville. After all, we’re both explorers in our own way.

He left France to tour early-1830s America and explain America to the French via “Democracy in America.” I left the Chestnut Hill peninsula to tour Facebook and explain it to my fellow coots via this Local column. There the comparison must end. Unlike Alexis, I have only impressions and no conclusions.

I’ve only been on Facebook since Feb. 8, but my assignment editor is yelling “Copy!” and Oprah’s producers keep Tweeting me, and Stern and Slate and Xfinity are waiting for their exclusives, so I’ll just have to risk seeming superficial and give my second preliminary report.

After the initial thrill on Facebook of seeing photos and links of people I now know, used to know, or would be pleased to know, I began to notice, as the days went by, that some people were simply there, in that space, all the time. Same people. I started getting a “Cheers-the bar” feeling. All the familiars hanging around, glad to see a new face. “Hi there, let me get you a “Like.” It’s nice, kind of cozy.

Another thing happens too. Because everyone on Facebook has “friends” there’s a “Way-less-than-Six Degrees of Separation” quality to the linkage. You get the feeling that if you wanted to, you could “Friend Request” every friend-of-a-friend and go around the world and back.

Another fascinating aspect to Facebook is that most people (it’s one choice) publicly display photos of their lives: their dogs, their children, their houses, friends, anniversaries, birthday parties, vacations. I enjoy browsing through. There’s a peeking-through-the-windows quality of looking into other people’s lives. If you ever needed proof of Tolstoy’s assertion that, “All happy families are the same,” a few weeks on Facebook would provide that for you.

DeTocqueville said that back in Europe, where the ruling classes were decaying, nobody cared about money. The ruling class thought it crass to mention it because they never had to worry about it. Money and privilege were their heritage. And the lower classes didn’t make a big deal about it because they had no hope of acquiring more than their meager, inadequate share.

But in America – ah, America! – the middle classes worked liked hell because in America it was possible to acquire and build wealth. The American dream remains (though it’s been tested in recent years): work hard and get rich. Well, not “rich-rich,” but “comfortable.” A status gauged mostly by the acquisition of material things.

So, for about a week or so I’ve been wondering if Facebook was the public face of the middle class, and the middle-aged, middle class. Because that’s all I’ve seen. But I’m sure I’m wrong. I’ve probably been getting a skewed demographic.

I’m middle class, as are my friends and most of my acquaintances. Most of them are white and college graduates and now in their peak earning years. I can’t help but think, though, that Facebook must harbor many other networks of different ethnic groups, income and educational levels. But, since people tend to form friendships among people who are similar to themselves, I guess it will be a while before I will see glimpses of persons who live different lives from mine.

(The limiting factor here is that one can control how widely his personal information is dispersed. Many people universalize all their information. Others restrict it to close friends. So you can’t immediately go to just anyone’s personal page.)

A few statistics, from the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project (Pew Internet for short): As of Dec. 9, 2012, (1) 67 percent of online adults use Facebook; (2) Most of them, by far, are between 18 and 34 years-old; (3) More women than men; (4) More than 20 percent of Facebook users are from Asia; (5) Brazilians publish the most posts (6) In America, it’s very difficult to get straight answers to the question of which ethnic groups use Facebook, but the trend certainly says that among young people, the percentages are very similar.

Another aspect of Facebook that feels strange to me is that I have several good friends on Facebook, with whom I’ve had occasional, but special, correspondences over the years. Whenever we would contact one another, there was a lot of news to share and the occasion would seem like a reunion. Now, those persons and I are right on Facebook, side-by-side, out on the town square, not necessarily saying hello that day, and it feels odd. These are friendships I would prefer to keep “special,” whatever that means. And the “Messages” format of Facebook makes communications feel like dashed-off notes. I save my heartfelt, sincere writings for other formats. Everything on Facebook seems and feels overheard.

As a final note, I confess that I went on Facebook purely to promote my “Last Night on the Gorilla Tour” book by exposing it to lots of people. Does it work? Yes, a bit, but I’m probably not using it smartly. I average a sale that I’m guessing came from Facebook every other day, for a total of four paperbacks and five Kindle e-books so far. Hardly a landslide, but I have had several enjoyable correspondences with both old and new friends, which I’ve enjoyed.

Note: Hugh Gilmore’s books are available right now on Amazon.com. He blogs at “Enemiesofreading.blogspot.com.”